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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The Jamestown Weekly Alert declared it the social event of the week--the basket social hosted by the ladies of the Methodist Episcopal Church, using a vacant business space as venue, in late September 1884.


The hosts made the room ready and attractive and, before the arrival of guests, it was graced by “an abundance of handsomely constructed baskets well filled with the delicacies of the season from all parts of the continent,” as the Alert described them, “each basket containing supper for two which the gallant gentlemen present purchased at good prices and divided the contents with some lady of the assemblage, leaving her with the basket as a souvenir of the feast.”

There is the granite memorial, there is the song by Chuck Suchy, and there are countless commemorations of the sacrificial death of Hazel Miner, the Oliver County farm girl who died saving her brother and sister from the killer blizzard of 15-16 March 1920. There were others who died in that storm, however.

Up in Oliver County

Mar 21, 2020


Of all the wonderful songs written by Chuck Suchy, none is more compelling than “The Story of Hazel Miner.” It begins in lyric style, gauzy and ethereal, and suddenly, just in time, transitions into solid 4/4 and into the rhetoric of traditional balladry:

Up in Oliver County


On the North Dakota plains

Lived a farmer’s daughter

Hazel Miner was her name

The past few weeks I’ve been telling you stories about lightning rods and lightning rod men, who had a shady reputation in the late 1800s and early 1900s. At the same time, there was the emergence of respectable science affirming the protective merit of lightning rods and advising people how best to deploy them. Eventually farmers bought in, and most every farm exhibited spikes and cables. How did that happen?

The lightning rod man drove up to a farmhouse and, espying a boy outside, said to the lad, “Is that your father lying there in the shade, sonny?”

“No, sir; pa’s away, an’ me and ma is the only ones to home; that’s a dead book agent. D’ye want to sell ma anything?”

“Thunder, no!”, and the lightning rod man beat his retreat.

That was the joke circulating in our papers in 1880, a time when farm folk were fed up with the drummers who fanned out from the liveries in town to hawk their dubious wares to consumers in the country.

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.