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Tom Isern

Host of Plains Folk
  • In 1918 a farm boy from McLean County, Clell Gannon, entered the Art Institute of Chicago, full of hope. Two or three years later, disillusioned and debilitated by diphtheria and influenza, he was back in Bismarck. In 1924 he published (with a pay-to-play publisher, Gotham Press of Boston) his book of poems, Songs of the Bunch Grass Acres. Wherein he declares,
  • This new work from North Dakota State University Press, Lynched — it’s not a feel-good book. “The fact that we were a nation where lynching was a common occurrence should never be forgotten or excused,” say the authors, Doreen Chaky and Adrienne Stepanek, of Williston.
  • The book is about justice, and it is justice. It has a long title: In Order that Justice May Be Done: The Legal Struggle of the Turtle Mountain Band of Pembina Chippewa, 1795-1905. The editorial team who worked on it at North Dakota State University Press, among themselves, called it “the justice book.”
  • Coming home from the Midwestern History Conference, changing trains in Chicago, laying over a few hours at a fourth-floor table in the downtown Harold Washington Library, writing this essay. I am quite certain I am in the midwest. Dawn tomorrow morning I’ll ride the Empire Builder into the Red River Valley and alight in Fargo. At that point I will be equally certain I am in the Great Plains. If I were to ask the first citizen I met whether we were in the midwest, however, the person probably would say yes, and I would not say this is mistaken.
  • When in 1950 Dean Ernst Giesecke proposed an Institute for Regional Studies at North Dakota Agricultural College, not many people had a clear idea what he was talking about. President Hultz went along, though, and on 8 March 1950, the state board concurred, establishing the institute as a program of the School of Applied Arts & Sciences.
  • In 1949 a new dean arrived to head up the School of Applied Arts & Sciences at North Dakota Agricultural College, one not from the customary midwestern lineage for NDAC appointments. The press said he was “a native Texan,” but his name didn’t sound like it: Gustav Ernst Giesecke.
  • I’ve been talking lately about rest rooms — no-no, not about the odd preoccupation we seem to have nowadays as to who might be using what facility, but rather about the reform movement, in the early 1900s, which aimed to provide comfortable lounges for farm women who came to town with their husbands, transacted their business, and then were left in the lurch by husbands not yet ready to go home, and had to sit waiting in a livery or some such place.
  • The phrase “rest room” meant something different a century ago than what it does today. It was a new phrase in the 1890s, which came into general usage a decade later, during what is known as the Progressive Era — a time of political and societal reform across the country, from Congress right down to the local community.
  • One day in 1905 a stranger named Harvey Severn showed up in the town of Litchville, asking where he might find a drink — the state had been dry, by constitutional provision, since 1889. Severn got more than he reckoned for: some toughs from the town waylaid him and beat the tar out of him. They suspected he was a spotter for the Law Enforcement League gathering information to give to legal authorities. Which he was.
  • Prohibition as a historical subject is easy to caricature: shifty bootleggers, dauntless G-men, assumptions of futility. We like the broad strokes of how prohibition, established constitutionally in 1889, went down here in North Dakota. We love to tell the romantic stories of rumrunners along the Canadian border and booze wagons crossing Red River. On the ground, though, the action was fraught with contradiction and complexity.