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The Beast in the Barberries

Henry Luke Bolley is the pioneering botanist I have introduced over the past couple of weeks--a nimble scholar of North Dakota Agricultural College who was the founder of the football team at NDAC and the father of the flax industry in North Dakota. I call him “nimble” because he did so many other things, too--developing the treatments for potato scab, oat smut, and wheat smut; discovering rust-resistant strains of hard spring wheat and durum in Russia; writing the pure seed law passed by the legislature; and in general, forming the intellectual character of the college.

It is an expression of my winter obsession with college basketball that I say Bolley was the power forward of the agricultural college--always hanging around the rim, grabbing every ball that caromed his way, scoring when it was needed, anchoring the team that was the faculty. This is why there is an honorific bust of him in Stevens Hall, dating from commencement day 1944.

Listening to the catalog of accomplishments by Bolley I just cited, you may be thinking, man, that sounds like a cow college for sure. To which I say, right back at you, and proud of it. Remember when a couple of years ago, during the Little I, the annual student stock show, an Angus heifer got loose from Shepperd Arena, and the animal science students chased her all over campus? I still think that was an intentional deal. And I think we should do it every year, mindful of the symbolism of the escapade: the untamed cow college still at large in the multifarious research university.

I started out two weeks ago, though, to tell the story of how Bolley, this  mild-mannered botanist turned plant pathologist, found himself going onto properties across the state and digging up gardeners’ ornamental hedges. This was a campaign to eradicate the barberry bush, which Bolley, faithful mycologist that he was, had identified as the alternate host to the black stem rust, an immensely destructive infection of spring wheat. The way to stop the disease was to eradicate the barberry, a horticultural favorite.

Private favor had to give way to the public good. Bolley was the first public advocate for the eradication of the barberry, to which cause he enlisted some hard-hitting propagandists. In the archives, I’m studying Bolley’s 1923 poster with the legend, “Help! / Destroy an Enemy of the Wheat Crop! / Dig Out Every Barberry Bush!” At the top is a remarkable graphic depicting a dusky, demonic beast with horns and fangs, labeled “Black Rust,” emergent from a hedge labeled “Barberry Bushes,” ripping up a fine crop of wheat while a distraught farmer in overalls raises his hands in surrender. The influence of recent wartime experiences with anti-German propaganda posters is evident.

The poster cites Senate Bill 139, “An Act to Provide for the Eradication of Certain Bushes and Hedges Commonly Known as Barberry Bushes in Order to Provide for the Control and Lessening of Damage by Rust to Wheat.” This was the law that sent Bolley into the field to survey barberry plantings across the state, after which he mobilized citizens and dispatched crews of college students to grub out the hedges.

The legislature herein declares, “An emergency exists, and this Act is hereby declared to be necessary to the immediate preservation of the public peace, health and safety.”

From which I conclude two things. First, a scientist like Bolley did not hesitate to leap into a public fray in pursuance of the public good. Second--and now I certainly speak, perhaps nostalgically, from the standpoint of 2019 going on 2020--there was a time when farm interests were indeed considered to be public goods, and state policy responded.

-Tom Isern


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