Gopher Tails in the Collection Plate | Prairie Public Broadcasting

Gopher Tails in the Collection Plate

Aug 17, 2019

A couple of weeks ago I detailed that scandalous episode in the history of the Flickertail State, the great gopher-tail fraud case of Ransom County, 1900, which had to be settled by the state supreme court. The court’s opinion hinged on the funding provisions of state law authorizing counties to pay bounties for gopher tails.

Lest anyone think this was frivolous business, consider the activities of our first legislative session after the division of Dakota Territory and the creation of North Dakota, in 1889. Surely the elected legislators of the new state had much business to attend to, but high on the agenda was action to curtail the ravages of that perennial pest, the flickertail gopher.

In December 1889 Representative Roney of Griggs County, as well as others, introduced a bill for the payments of county bounties on gopher tails. Eventually it would pass, requiring participating counties to establish dedicated levies and funds for such work. This despite warnings from Representative McCullough of Walsh County that local scamps would cut the tails off of captured gophers and release them, and the rodents would grow new tails, like lizards.

Meanwhile Representative Thompson of Cass County brought in the bill to designate North Dakota the Flickertail State, and the editor of the Emmons County Record encouraged people to get control of the pests by eating them. He claimed to know several settlers who had dined on gopher meat and “assert that they never tasted better flesh; that it is tender and sweet, and superior to the squirrel of the woods.” I cannot speak to these assertions from my own experience, but I suspect the informants were hungry bachelor homesteaders.

I have, however, like many thousands of North Dakotans, read our local literary classic, Gopher Tails for Papa, 1951, by Erling Nicolai Rolfsrud. Historical columnist Curt Eriksmoen recently has rendered an excellent and appreciative sketch of the prolific writer, Rolfsrud, whom he declares to have been “the person most responsible for creating an interest in young North Dakotans to know about their state.” Then the kids got to college and had to read Elwyn Robinson’s History of North Dakota, and that knocked it out of them. Whoops, I probably shouldn’t have said that, but now it’s out there.

Rolfsrud, born in 1912 in McKenzie County, was the son of immigrant Norwegian farmers, so he knew something about gophers. His debut juvenile novel deals with the situation in a country parish that has too many gophers but no organ to play for church services. Sven, the preacher’s son, tries to help out by filling the collection plate--which was his father’s black hat--with gopher tails, which could be turned in for bounty. This is much to the chagrin of his mother, but his father takes to the idea. A parish-wide gopher tail contest ensues, and the church gets its organ.

There are some interesting tropes in the book. School boys debate the need to learn English and talk like Americans, while a mysteriously stoic Indian character walks into the plot and walks away with the accordion of a bachelor farmer. Sven’s preacher papa teaches him to appreciate the prairie landscape.

What everyone remembers about the book is that opening scene with the gopher tails in the collection plate. Now and then you read historical sketches asserting that it was common practice for people to do this. I can find no primary evidence that such was the case. I believe all such assertions derive from the fictional scene in Gopher Tails for Papa. Show me evidence to the contrary, and then we’ll move on to that idea that gophers could grow back their tails.

~Tom Isern