Plains Folk

Once a week during Main Street, weekdays at 3 pm CT with a repeat at 7 pm CT.
  • Hosted by Prairie Public

Plains Folk is a commentary devoted to life on the great plains of North Dakota. Written by Tom Isern of West Fargo, North Dakota, and read in newspapers across the region for years, Plains Folk venerates fall suppers and barn dances and reminds us that "more important to our thoughts than lines on a map are the essential characteristics of the region — the things that tell what the plains are, not just where they are." Find Plains Folk archives here.

Ways to Connect

One of the nice things about North Dakota is that you can drive three hours across the state to see a parade in a town of less than 100 population, and when you get there, you find people you know everywhere.

I’m talking about Mountain, North Dakota, site of the annual August the Deuce festival. We had just settled in alongside some old friends in one of the grandstands when here came Ashley Thornberg of Prairie Public radio, recounting her plot - eventually successful - to score an interview with the prime minister of Iceland, Katrín Jakobsdóttir. Her Excellency the prime minister, I confess, was the chief reason we had come to Mountain, but as usual with such expeditions, so many interesting things turned up.

Five Hundred Babies

Aug 8, 2018

After enjoying a church-basement luncheon at Vikur Lutheran Church, during the August the Deuce celebration in Mountain, and before heading over to the community hall to hear Prime Minister Katrín Jakobsdóttir, we had a wander through the Vikur Lutheran Cemetery. The most prominent grave marker there, topped with a cross, contains the following inscription:

Aldis Laxdal

Born Aug. 10, 1837, Died Oct. 30, 1899

Aged 62 Yrs. 2 Mos. 20 Dys.

Ladies, whom she nursed raised this monument to her memory.

Over the years I have devoted quite a bit of attention to the idea of a Great Plains cuisine, toward defining and extending the foodways of our region. Often this has involved introducing more spice into regional life--Asian and Hispanic influences.

Thinking today about my Sunday dinner of meatloaf at the Wild Rose Cafe in Ashley, and savoring a plate of snowpeas and shallots from the prairie garden, with a pinch of summer savory--I recognize that the heart of the culinary identity does not lie on the fiery edge. It resides in our comfort foods, enriched by subtleties.

Game of Football

Jul 27, 2018

In May 1887 the Griggs Courier, of Cooperstown, reported that Mrs. Beebe was “a good deal annoyed” with the gang of boys creating a nuisance in her neighborhood. Confronting them in the street, “She had tried entreaties and threats to no purpose,” it was reported, “until the other day, when she had her innings.”

“Innings”--the editor’s metaphor is mixed up, because the game the boys were playing in the street, and incidentally trespassing on Mrs. Beebe’s residential property, was not cricket, but this new game, “foot-ball,” they called it.

Prairie Life

Jul 25, 2018

Midway through a weekend in the middle landscape of North Dakota, we swung through the little town of Forbes, tucked into the east face of the Coteau, down on the South Dakota border. I wanted to check out the installation of the Prairie Life Monument, which is unfinished, but was dedicated on the 4th of July.

Am I a sucker for monuments? I suppose so. Particularly for monuments that rise from the grassroots, expressing the impulses of plains folk. This one in Forbes did not disappoint. I will circle back to it.

Great Plains Bison

May 30, 2018

Dan O’Brien speaks for the American bison. He has observed the resurgence of bison numbers on the plains over the past generation. The species is no longer endangered per se. Genetically, the union of previously inbred lines in the burgeoning herds of the twenty-first century has improved and restored the animal. Still, O’Brien is not impressed.

Summer Reading

May 30, 2018

Where to begin? At the beginning, with the great novel of the Great Plains: My Ántonia, by Willa Cather. Within a few days I will be attending a symposium devoted to the centennial of the work in Cather’s old home town, Red Cloud. You’ll be hearing about it here. Prepare to fall in love again with a book that is so perfect, it kind of bothers me sometimes as a Lutheran, but I cannot help myself. So now, having begun with the obvious, let me count through a list of titles I recommend for your summer reading on the Great Plains in 2018.

“This is a great land--one filled with resources not yet exploited and opportunities still ungrasped. Its prosperity is dependent on agriculture--upon the soil.” So speaks Professor Alfred G. Arvold, of North Dakota Agricultural College, in a talk probably delivered in about 1915. This country “is certainly a Land Where the Farmer is King. East of the Montana copper mines and west of the Minnesota iron ranges is the agricultural Mecca of the continent,” declares Professor Arvold, thus situating his own Flickertail State in the middle of things.

Rhubarb Days

May 17, 2018

You can talk about your daffodils and your cherry blossoms, but this is the springtime emergence that counts: rhubarb. As the bulbs grow rank into stalks and leaves, there are two things I crave. I’ll tell you about one of them now, and the other in the end.

Operation Snowbound

May 4, 2018

This essay originated during the Good Friday Blizzard of 2018 on the northern plains, when the only person who still liked snow was my Labrador retriever. She has a coat like a bear, about two inches of body fat, and a serious case of cabin fever. (And yes, I realize I just referred to my dog as a “person,” what of it?)

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