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The Regional Project

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.

If you read the notices further, you learned that he hailed from Marble Falls, Burnet County, in the central Texas Hill Country, and then it makes sense, since German immigrants figured prominently in the settlement of the Hill Country. The historian Fred Luebke wrote a wonderful book about them called German Seed on Texas Soil.

The Giesecke family was a learned bunch, and exceedingly German. The immigrant patriarch, Johann Friedrich Ludwig Albert Giesecke Sr., had a white beard that draped to his waist. It was when I found a photo of his son, Walter Christian Giesecke, the father of the future Dean Giesecke, that I commenced making historical connections. Walter is a dashing-looking German rancher with a devilish goatee and a stockman’s brimmed hat — but one blocked in the style of a German country hat.

The connection I grasped was how it happened that Walter’s son Ernst, in 1950, would found, at North Dakota Agricultural College, the oldest regional studies center on the Great Plains of North America: the Institute for Regional Studies. The institute, still a going concern, will celebrate its 75th anniversary in the year 2025, and so I’m looking into its origins.

Because I realize that the formation and persistence of this research center in North Dakota is part of a larger concern sometimes referred to as the “regional project.” By which I mean, the instillment, in the hearts and minds of people on the prairies, of the sense that they live in a distinctive place much larger than local, a continental region that came to be known as the Great Plains.

Molly Rozum has written a fine book called Grasslands Grown that identifies the origins of a sense of place among girls and boys who grew up on the prairies a century or more ago, and tells how as they went into the world, they met other prairie girls and boys and concluded their common experience meant something.

To articulate and refine that experience into a regional identity was the regional project, and it required artists, writers, and scholars to accomplish it. Indeed, the very phrase, “Great Plains,” did not enter common American usage until the Texas historian Walter Prescott Webb published his landmark book, The Great Plains, in 1931.

The regional project, like the range cattle industry, arose in central Texas and percolated northward. Webb and, perhaps even more so, the folklorist J. Frank Dobie anchored the project at the University of Texas. The statesmanlike editors of the University of Oklahoma Press, Joseph Brandt and Savoie Lottinville, gave the Great Plains voice on the other side of the Red River of the south.

A generation later Ernst Giesecke brought the regional project to the Red River of the north. This was after he had taken his degrees (culminating in an extremely esoteric dissertation in German linguistics) at Stanford, completed a fellowship in Germany, served a wartime stint in the US Navy, and held some previous academic appointments. To my knowledge Giesecke — unlike Elwyn Robinson at the University of North Dakota, who did — Giesecke never wore a broadbrim hat to the NDAC campus. But I do.

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