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Plains Folk

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."

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  • In March of 1916 the Valley City Record reported a battle having taken place in Hobart Township — but the paper called it a “sham battle.” A battle against whitetail jackrabbits, which had come to be regarded as an agricultural pest, particularly for their consumption of alfalfa. And the Great War was on, providing rhetorical inspiration for the event.
  • A couple of weeks ago I suggested that one way to approach our environmental history on the Great Plains is to look at our human relationship with another species. I suggested the whitetail jackrabbit as a case study.
  • Beginning here with a confession: I have never dined on whitetail jackrabbit. When I write about culinary topics, I generally do so from considerable personal experience, but here I am, reading an essay under the title, “Jackrabbit Pie,” and I may not know what I am talking about.
  • An item from the Fargo Forum of 27 November 1908: The jackrabbits turned white before the snow came--and made themselves targets for hunters.
  • Western cities on railroad lines emulated whatever was au courant in cities back east. So in 1876 the editor of the Bismarck Tribune inquired, “Why can’t the ladies of Bismarck organize a Leap Year ball? In style, you know: ladies come after the dear young fellows; escort them to the hall, fetch ices, etc.” In the east such balls were society affairs, with well-heeled ladies forming committees to see to the elegant details, then on the appointed night, showing up for their beaus with coaches.
  • The ringneck pheasant, like most of the people living on the plains, is a second-stage immigrant. Its successful introduction on the Great Plains is commonly dated from private efforts in Spink County, South Dakota in 1908-09. The state commenced releasing pairs in 1911, then went big in 1913, releasing 5,000 birds. Although Chinese in ancestry, they came from a game farm near Chicago.
  • If I were to tell this story in the style of its subject, I would start out something like this: “Twas in the spring of 2020.”
  • There's a Christmas ballad I like to sing this time of year that comes from the High Line country of Montana in 1929 — “A Christmas Pageant with a Practical Result,” it’s called, and it was written by a character named Henry Everett (he went by H. E.) Prall. I call him a “character” because I have discovered that prairie balladeers — the writers of storytelling poems and songs during the settlement era and for a generation after — were, well, characters. They were folk artists with a performative impulse.
  • When the songcatcher from Grand Forks, Franz Rickaby, died in California in 1925, he was much mourned, both for his scholarly work and for his charismatic persona. One obituary characterized him as “a young man of an unusually pleasing personality.” Of all the great songcatchers, I find Rickaby most appealing.
  • By all accounts, Franz Rickaby, the young instructor of English and theater at the University of North Dakota, was lovingly devoted to his wife, Lillian, and she to him. They were fully engaged together with the students in Grand Forks, teaching, directing plays, even leading singing of the university fight song, which Rickaby wrote.