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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Winning on Points

14 hours ago

In the middle of Louise Erdrich’s brilliant and haunting novel, The Night Watchman, her protagonist (if the book can be said to have one), Thomas Wazhashk (whose surname means “muskrat”), tries to explain things to a white guy, a math teacher and boxing coach. He puts matters in simple terms, works through misconceptions, and sums up, “I don’t want to give up our scrap of home. I love my home.”


Don’t ask me my name, an old bachelor I am

And I bet all the same I’ve an elegant plan

You’ll find me out west on the Duck Creek plain

Starving to death on a government claim


I’m back on the trail of that iconic and ironic folksong of the Great Plains, “Starving to Death on a Government Claim,” a.k.a. “The Lane County Bachelor,” a.k.a. “A Homesteader’s Lament,” and now, from the standpoint of southwest North Dakota in 1910, “The Government Claim.”

Homesteader's Lament

Jun 27, 2020


Hurrah for Emmons County, the land of the free

The home of the grasshopper, the bedbug and flea

I sing loud its praises, I sing loud its fame

While starving to death on a government claim


If you are a little nutty about folklore, you might recognize this song, but you’re thinking there’s something wrong about the way I’m singing it. The song, set to the tune of a traditional jig, “The Irish Washerwoman,” is commonly rendered as “The Lane County Bachelor.” Sometimes it’s called “Starving to Death on a Government Claim,” because it details the trials and troubles of a pitiful fellow trying to prove up a homestead claim on the plains. In Lane County, Kansas.


“The business in which I was interested was that of live stock: cattle and sheep, chiefly the latter,” writes Edson C. Dayton in his memoir, Dakota Days. I like the way he writes: understated, meticulous, and yet partaking of the energy and sweep of his place and time.

Dakota Days

Jun 13, 2020


“In the fall of 1897,” recounts Edson Carr Dayton in his memoir, Dakota Days, “an untoward event occurred of far-reaching consequences.” Dayton was no alarmist; his tone was measured; but he was deep into the sheep-raising boom of West River North Dakota, with a flock of 12,000 on grass, and he was up against the scourge of range: an infestation of scab.

The Finger of Blame

Jun 6, 2020


The disease was known and cursed in South Africa in the 1600s. From there we may backtrack to its origins in the Mediterranean region; Cato the Elder wrote about it some two centuries before Christ. The writer of Leviticus enjoined the faithful never to present a sacrifice of “scabbed” sheep. Which reveals to you the disease I am talking about, a global plague for millennia, is the scab of sheep.

Sheep Country

May 30, 2020


There is a curious gap in our historical memory as to the culture of sheep on the northern plains.


We love to tell the story of the range cattle industry. Although we recognize it was a transitory enterprise and generally date its demise sometime around the hard winter of 1887, we like to think there was a ready transition from the open range to modern ranching. We are loath to admit that in fact, the range cattle industry failed and was replaced, for the better part of a generation, by the sheep industry.

Good Shepherds

May 23, 2020


As I compose this essay, it occurs to me that Christian parishes across the land are celebrating the Sunday of the Good Shepherd. Countless sermons are being preached from the Twenty-Third Psalm--the author of which, as I read the Old Testament, had pretty sketchy credentials as a shepherd, but I guess he knew one when he saw one.

The tone was neighborly, but the competition was fierce on Friday night, January 21, 1910, at the Cotton schoolhouse, over at Black Butte, as reported in the Dickinson Press. The box social was so congenial that everyone was asking when the next one would be. The “old fashioned spelling school” after supper was spirited, to the delight of spectators, who held their breath as Mrs. O. C. Belt and J. C. Newkirk went down in the same round, on the same word.


When the ladies of the Methodist Episcopal Church of Bottineau proposed to convene a basket social on the Friday evening of December 28, 1887, in the new schoolhouse, the editor of the Bottineau Pioneer thought it best to explain what was going to happen. The basket social (later known as a box social, or box supper) was a new social custom in Dakota Territory.