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Prairie Life

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.

To begin with, though, we drove into Logan County and checked into a cabin at Beaver Lake State Park as our staging point for the next couple of days. It was a busy and happy place, but quiet at dusk.

Our first mission: Kuchen. My Suzzanne and I had volunteered to be judges for the World’s Greatest Kuchen Contest sponsored by BEK Communications and organized by the Tri-County Tourism Alliance. It took place at the Tri-County Fair, its fairgrounds just west of Wishek.

Someone was looking after me, I guess. While my wife, and my friend Joyce, were teamed up with a political operative for the judging, my judging partner was Hope Ebel, Miss Rodeo North Dakota, a gracious and articulate lady from down Zeeland way.

This was fun, and the Kuchen cooks distinguished themselves, but I tell you, after tasting thirty-some offerings, I don’t need any more Kuchen for a while. I also will offer the observation that if you put chocolate chips in it, it isn’t Kuchen, it’s just chocolate.

After the contest we set up an exhibit table for North Dakota State University Press to push my new book, Pacing Dakota, which originated substantially from scripts written for delivery here. The other day in studio when Ashley recorded an essay for me, she observed that it was No. 700 in the Plains Folk series.

We didn’t sell a lot of books at the fair, because, well, it’s a fair, but we got to chat with a lot of people. From there, after a night’s rest at Beaver Lake, it was on to Ellendale for a more focused book launch event.

En route we called in at the Wild Rose Cafe, in Ashley, which I am happy to report is flourishing under the management of Khristal and Roy Stoppleworth. Meat loaf for Sunday dinner pretty much sums up what the renaissance of the cafe in Ashley means to the community: that solid thing in the middle that holds everything else together.

Up the street we also called at the Ashley Lodge, the town’s most prominent landmark--a towering hulk of a building constructed for a flour mill, used as a creamery, and now repurposed as a lodge that has achieved regional fame. We found Jill and Dan Ranfrans chasing-their-tails busy as usual, but full of optimism and plans for the lodge.

Our gathering that evening with friends at the Opera House in Ellendale was grand. I gave a reading and signed books, but really, the night was about the fifty or so people there gathered for literature and fellowship.

Now, circling back to Forbes. I will report later the details of the Prairie Life Monument, but here is why I think it speaks to me. It comprises a lot of imprinted bricks, each bearing the name and some details of some family, institution, or enterprise. It is an index to prairie life as lived in the locality of Forbes. Examining it, I thought back to Ashley’s casual comment about my seven-hundredth essay for Prairie Public, and I realized--people of Forbes, we are doing pretty much the same thing, you and I. Adding piece after piece, hoping to make some sort of mark on the land. Plus there is meat loaf. And once I have recovered, maybe Kuchen again.

~Tom Isern

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