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." 

Ways to Connect

If I use the word “pastoralism,” it’s usually misunderstood. People think I’m talking about clergymen, possibly of the Lutheran variety--when really I’m speaking of what we in the United States generally call “ranching.” In the rest of the English-speaking world that’s pastoralism, and if practiced on the open range, that’s “extensive pastoralism.” And the open range is referred to as “waste lands.”


A week ago I confessed to being an unabashed academic, and I’ll tell you what’s more: I work in the academic area known sometimes as “the liberal arts” (a term so difficult to explain in the current social climate that I’m going to skip it for the moment) and otherwise known as “the humanities” (also a term fraught with misunderstanding, but one I will go with for now).

Farming the Plains

Mar 27, 2021


If you’re a regular listener to Plains Folk, then you know you’re dealing with a farm boy. I’m the guy who buys out other heirs and nurtures hopes of seeing the family farm (dating from 1874) into its seventh generation. I will need more than my biblical three-score-and-ten to do that, so wish me luck.


All over the Great Plains the figure of the “old settler” emerged as an object of celebration. Old settler’s picnics were a regular event in hundreds of places and served to cement a community identity based on common experience. The picnic was a day, too, when old settlers could tell their stories and be respected.


One evening in April 1933, in Crosby, in the northwest corner pocket of North Dakota, a seventeen-year-old farm boy named Raymond Semingson, the son of Norwegian immigrants, got up and sang “Home on the Range.” 


Being a professional historian, an inveterate traveler, and an ardent exponent of life on the plains, I have a longstanding interest in heritage tourism — especially heritage tourism of a particular kind. In the twentieth century a distinctive profile emerged for that wily tourist known as the “independent traveler.” Lately a new acronym has emerged in the trade literature — FIT, which means Free Independent Traveler. I like it.

Caisson Disease

Feb 27, 2021

The self-taught engineering genius behind the construction of the Northern Pacific Railroad Bridge (completed 1882) spanning the Missouri River at Bismarck was George Shattuck Morison. “At the time of his death on July 1, 1903, at the age of sixty-one,” the geologist and historian Edward C. Murphy writes, “Morison was regarded by many to be the leading bridge engineer in America, if not the entire world.”

The Northern Passage

Feb 20, 2021


The life and works of Theodore Roosevelt, which North Dakotans are determined to memorialize in Medora, are not without their ironies. Although generally remembered as a man of action, the vigorous life and all that, Roosevelt was indubitably a man of letters, the author of monumental works including the multi-volume Winning of the West.


Everyone says they are zoomed out on videoconferencing, but there can be good experiences with it. Recently it was my pleasure to spend a virtual afternoon with a cadre of bright architecture students who are working on projects related to the proposed Theodore Roosevelt library in Medora. My job was to familiarize them with the historic context of the area--the Battle of the Badlands, the open-range cattle industry, and of course, Theodore Roosevelt’s Badlands experience, including his resulting penchant for conservation.


In recent writings I’ve been reminiscing about my quest, in 1997, for the historic ranch site of Virginia Bill Hamilton, in the Cave Hills of South Dakota. This is, I suppose, a matter of nostalgia for me--a longing for that pre-pandemic time when I would load my gear and my Labrador retriever into an F150 and roar off in search of the wonders of history and folklife across open country.