Plains Folk | Prairie Public Broadcasting

Plains Folk

Once a week during Main Street, weekdays at 3 pm CT with a repeat at 7 pm CT.
  • Hosted by Prairie Public

Plains Folk is a commentary devoted to life on the great plains of North Dakota. Written by Tom Isern of West Fargo, North Dakota, and read in newspapers across the region for years, Plains Folk venerates fall suppers and barn dances and reminds us that "more important to our thoughts than lines on a map are the essential characteristics of the region — the things that tell what the plains are, not just where they are." 

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On June 5, 1886, lightning struck the Washington Monument, with alarming effect. The strike induced a crack in the stone of the north face of the pyramidal structure, near the top. Site managers did two things in response.

In April 1909 the Jamestown Alert issued the following public service announcement: “George E. Bates of Grand Forks, a lightning rod man, registered at the Capital Hotel today.”

This notice may seem innocuous, but it was intended as a warning, and also a jest. Nowadays it requires some explanation. In 1909, everyone knew what the joke was. Come spring traveling salesmen would show up at the farm gate again, and the most notorious among them was the lightning rod man. Indeed, the very phrase, “lightning rod man,” was a joke unto itself, guaranteed to provoke guffaws--if not profanity.

Four for the League

Feb 8, 2020

“At heart, the story of the Nonpartisan League is about leadership,” writes Terry L. Shoptaugh, author of Sons of the Wild Jackass: The Nonpartisan League in North Dakota. His focus on the NPL elite is old-fashioned political history, but it makes significant contributions to understanding our political heritage on the northern plains.

At dawn of the twenty-first century, prairie folk read in their weekly and daily newspapers that their communities were under siege by an invasion of tramps, hobos, who, when they were not engaging in outright crime, were a bad moral influence on boys and a terror to women. Newspaper editors routinely alerted people to the hobo menace. Officers of the law monitored the situation and, when provoked or pressured, acted with force.

William Law was not a sterling citizen, but he had friends. A butcher by trade, and having fallen in with bad--meaning, hard-drinking--company in Fargo, he moved down to Mayville and took work in a slaughterhouse outside town. He kept a rifle to shoot animals for slaughter.

Some Gang of Hobos

Jan 18, 2020

One night in August, 1897, a wooden railroad bridge over a dry coulee near St. Thomas, North Dakota, was consumed by fire. “There is no clue to the origin of the fire,” said press reports, which appeared in papers across the state, “but it is likely that some gang of hobos camping under the bridge fired it either intentionally or through error.”


Afoot and light-hearted I take to the open road,


Healthy, free, the world before me,

The long brown path before me leading wherever I choose.

So begins the much-quoted, essentially American poem, “Song of the Open Road,” by the essentially American poet, Walt Whitman--Leaves of Grass, 1856. It all sounds so beckoning as Whitman calls,

Let the paper remain on the desk unwritten, and the book on the shelf unopen’d!


Let the tools remain in the workshop! let the money remain unearn’d!

Let the school stand! mind not the cry of the teacher!

Let the preacher preach in his pulpit! let the lawyer plead in the court, and the judge expound the law.

Henry Luke Bolley is the pioneering botanist I have introduced over the past couple of weeks--a nimble scholar of North Dakota Agricultural College who was the founder of the football team at NDAC and the father of the flax industry in North Dakota. I call him “nimble” because he did so many other things, too--developing the treatments for potato scab, oat smut, and wheat smut; discovering rust-resistant strains of hard spring wheat and durum in Russia; writing the pure seed law passed by the legislature; and in general, forming the intellectual character of the college.

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.

Black Stem Rust

Dec 21, 2019

The Jeffersonian vision of an ordered landscape--private property bounded according to section-range-township--breaks down when stressed by competing visions and unruly ecology. One farmer’s drainage for private property improvement spills water onto the neighbors. My failure to control noxious weeds prompts a visit from the township man packing a sprayer, and a follow-up tax notice.