Football, Flax, and the Far Frontier | Prairie Public Broadcasting

Football, Flax, and the Far Frontier

Dec 28, 2019

Reviewing the career of someone like Henry Luke Bolley, a stalwart scientist of the North Dakota Agricultural College, it is easy to conclude that in those days, there were giants in the earth. This is why we have archives. You rip open the boxes like Christmas packages and rummage through the papers--oh wait, there may be archivists listening, let me rephrase that--you gingerly open the boxes and reverently peruse the documents--OK now, what was I saying? You go to the archives, and you find that people like Bolley the botanist were not giants, but they were exceedingly nimble scholars and public servants.

The founding scholars of NDAC, and other such pioneering educational institutions of the West in the late nineteenth century, probably did not lose track of their train of thought the way I just did. One reason they were nimble is that they were young guys. They were growing up with the country. Bolley came here in 1890 with an MS degree from Purdue, where he was part of the university’s first football team. When he got to NDAC he promptly organized a football squad, which in 1893 played two games against an institution downriver that I shall not name, and in addition to coaching, Bolley played on the team himself!

Bolley played other sports and also revelled in the hunting and fishing opportunities of the new state that was his home. I feel an affinity for Bolley, but also feel a competitive urge stirring, as I wonder whether I could keep up with him. From my vantage of nearly three-score-and-ten, I have to disregard the creaky pangs emanating from my joints to remember that, yes, when I was Bolley’s age and rank, I, too, could have mixed it up with the students on the field, and maybe taught them a few dirty tricks that would come in handy during the fourth quarter.

I, too, with my inclination to cast down my bucket where I am, would have thrown in with the burgeoning state and its college, found myself a fine young lady like Bolley did--Francis Barnett Sheldon, a scholar of the classics--and set to work with the world before me.

The challenge for Bolley was that there was so much to do, along so many lines, and the laborers were few. He immediately pitched into the problem of flax wilt. I should point out that flax was a vitally important crop for pioneering farmers, who sowed it as their first crop on broken ground. Thereafter, however, their yields declined, and they concluded the land had become, as they said, “flax-sick.”

Bolley identified the issue as a fungal infection and organized experiments to solve the problem. He isolated specimens of flax that were fungus-resistant and increased their seed to establish resistant varieties for farmers.

Next Bolley secured federal funding for an expedition to northern Europe and Russia. In Russia he secured seed from flax plants in areas of ancient cultivation--surely fungus-resistant specimens--and, increasing this seed, raised banner crops of flax on what had been adjudged flax-sick land in North Dakota.

This flax work shows the practical, applied aspect of Bolley as a public servant, but it also reveals another aspect of the man. He jumped at the opportunity for strenuous travel in Russia--not a traveler’s paradise in 1903--and delighted in the experience.

I remember how my mother, a German-American farm woman, used to ask me why I had to go to far-distant places like Otago and the Northern Territory for my work, until I finally gave her an answer she understood: “Mom, because I can! Wouldn’t you?”

I would say, I’d like to travel with Bolley the botanist to some far frontier of service and science, but I still have nagging doubts that I could keep up.

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