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The Vanishing Homesteader

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.”

And there, right underneath it, was another striking musical score: sheet music for the anthem of the plains, “Little Old Sod Shanty on the Plains”—of which I am sure you are tired of hearing me talk by now, but wait, this part is fresh. The song’s chorus is scored for a male quartet, with the lead to be song by the second tenor, and the verses are scored with just the melodic line with piano accompaniment. Copyright 1916 to Mr. I. J. Moe—local politician, publisher, Barnes County historian, and later state commissioner of highways.

Now look at the cover art: a striking photograph of a sturdy homesteader, cast in bronze, with his right hand on the handle of a walking plow. We read that the music is “sold by Barnes Co Pioneer Club / Price 100 / Funds to be used for the Erection of the Proposed Monument to be Erected in Honor of the Pioneers of Dakota Territory at Valley City, N. Dak.”

Only there is no such monument in Valley City. This is the case of the Vanishing Homesteader. Les Anderson, of the Barnes County Museum, is looking for it, and now I’m on the case, too, searching historical documentation.

The Barnes County Pioneer Club was your typical organization of old settlers in a prairie town, only more active than most. It held annual summer picnics—the one in 1915 was billed as “a real old-time picnic. Let everyone bring their basket of good things to eat; everybody sit down on the grass and make yourself at home.” Such organizations commonly had lengthy programs of speeches, and sometimes song, and everyone in this Barnes County group seemed to know the words to “Little Old Sod Shanty on the Claim.”

The excitement for the next year’s picnic, 1916, came with the appearance of the homesteader in bronze, about half-size, the demonstration model for a larger proposed monument. It was the creation of Valley City’s own Paul Fjelde, a sculptor just beginning his rise to national prominence. Although the son of a celebrated sculptor, Paul had been living a starving-artist life in Valley with his mother and sisters. While taking some art classes at the normal, however, he somehow came to the notice of America’s favorite maker of monumental likelesses, Laredo Taft, who brought him to his studio in Chicago.

Meanwhile, Paul Fjelde fashioned, among other promising works, the bust of Abraham Lincoln that still stands in Frogner Park, Oslo, Norway (with a duplicate alongside the Trail County courthouse in Hillsboro). He was an artist of promise.

The scheme was that the Barnes County Pioneer Club and people of Valley City would raise funds to commission Fjelde to replicate his plowman in monumental proportions for emplacement in Valley City. It never happened, despite high enthusiasm. Why not? Well, Paul was busy with other commissions, and then in 1916 he was drafted, and sometime after that, the model went missing.

I feel in my bones it is still out there somewhere. If you have a diminutive bronze plowman stashed in your hayloft, or you have any idea where he might have gone—get in touch with Les or me, OK?

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