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The Hand on the Plow

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.

I turned up at NDSU Archives to use some papers of the Institute for Regional Studies, the Ole H. Olson Collection, which I knew had some interesting stuff in it, like Mr. Olson’s stallion book from when he was operating a stud service. Well, all right, interesting to me, at least.

Only I didn’t have my spectacles on when I grabbed the box, and I got the Ole A. Olson Collection. Yes, there are a lot of Ole Olsons out there in our historic landscape, and every one has a story. Oles are not interchangeable, except in Norwegian jokes, and even there, Lena can tell them apart.

After I noticed my mistake I was glad I had gotten lost, because Ole A. Olson is a memorable, albeit forgotten, literary character of the northern plains. Right away I flipped through to the last folder in the box, labeled “Poems by Mr. Olson.” Before I take you into the sheaf, I need to tell you a little about this Mr. Olson.

His father, Andreas Olson, came from Tvedestrand, Norway, in 1881 and grabbed himself a homestead in Spink County, Dakota Territory. He threw up a homestead shanty, worked out a while to make some cash, and then sent for his wife, Berthe, and two young sons, the elder of whom was Ole, born in 1878. Andreas had high hopes for his 160 acres and for the future of prairie farming, but Berthe, according to Ole’s recollections, not so much. They stuck it out a few years, then relinquished the claim and moved east to Morris, Minnesota.

There in Morris Ole finished his schooling and took to clerking in a store. Later he worked in a store in Wyndmere, North Dakota, and moved around to other positions, but he nursed an ambition to have a go at homesteading himself. In 1913 he took the Great Northern northwest and found himself a claim south of Havre, Montana.

A single woman named Stella Henderson was holding down a claim two miles south of him. Soon as they proved up, the two of them married and moved back east, Ole pursuing a business career in western Minnesota and eastern North Dakota. Stella had literary interests — she became an associate editor of the notable poetry magazine, Prairie Wings, and it seems that Ole, although I don’t think he ever went to high school, had a literary bent himself.

Because in the back of the box that holds his manuscript collection there is that folder of poems. I spread them out, not expecting much, and was delighted when it turned out, old Ole was a heck of a poet. A folk poet, a balladeer.

He also wrote an autobiography, and an extended essay called “One Day on a Territorial Homestead,” which recounts one winter day on his parents’ homestead in Spink County. It happened to be 12 January 1888, the day of what we have come to call “The Children’s Blizzard.” I’ll tell you about that experience another time.

I am now preoccupied with Ole’s ballads, especially one he entitles, “To Those Who Plowed with a Walking Plow.”

You, whose hand has never held a plow
Have missed the ecstasy of knowing how
Much fragrance is released from upturned earth
To which all plants that clothe and feed us owe their birth

Mr. Olson, I am delighted to make your acquaintance. Let me introduce you to my friends.

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