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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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  • When New England-born Ninette Maine Lowater moved to North Dakota in 1916, her journey was not joyous. As a teenager she had moved with her family from Connecticut to Wisconsin in 1859. After the Civil War she had married a returning soldier, Harrison Lowater. With him she raised three children and lived in comfortable, although not luxurious, circumstances. Mrs. Lowater became a poet of some note, publishing her work in both local and the national press.
  • Is there still musical performance in the legislature since Representative Carolyn Nelson retired? Is there a legislative choir? If not, then Senator Erbele, how about it? Somebody needs to make a place for harmony.
  • The legislature has gone home, prompting sighs of relief across the state, not least among the legislators themselves. Yes, I have been among those taking shots at them during the recent session, or rather, I would make the distinction, taking shots at some of their actions.
  • Oh how we boys — folkies of the 1970s — loved to sing the ballad of Jesse James.
  • In a frame shanty on a homestead claim in Spink County, Dakota Territory, a Norwegian mother imprisoned by a blizzard gave vent to her hopelessness. “We are as if we were living on an island in the middle of an ocean,” she lamented, “with nobody to care if we blow away or if we freeze to death. There is not a person with whom we can talk and who understands our language.
  • Sometimes when you travel you plan your itinerary carefully, but you get lost anyway, and then it turns out what you stumbled into while lost is better than what you had planned. The same goes for doing archival research in prairie history.
  • Rummaging around in a manuscript collection of the Institute for Regional Studies at the NDSU Archives the other day, I was surprised by the contents of a folder of correspondence labeled “Jury Duty Requests, 1893-97.” This was in the papers of Sheriff Oscar G. Barnes, of Cass County.
  • It wasn’t what I was looking for, but that's how things go when you rummage around in archival collections. I came to the North Dakota State University Archives to search the Institute for Regional Studies collections for information about Lilac Days, that lovely college custom—of which I will write soon—that sought to promote the planting of a lilac hedge along the highway from Fargo all the way to Grand Forks. Indeed I did find the sheet music for the ritual song, “Lilac Days.”
  • "Come all you jolly fellows and listen to my tale / And I’ll tell you about the trouble which landed me in jail." So begins a remarkable and rare ballad of the northern plains — the confessional composition of one Archie L. Baker, a bootlegger languishing in jail in Fargo in 1929.
  • During the 1890s, the so-called Gay Nineties, two developments transformed popular culture and folklore across the country, including the Great Plains. The first of these was the proliferation of urban music halls, entertainment venues that were masculine, sometimes a little bawdy, and, surprisingly to us today, exceedingly sentimental.