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


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.

Into the Cave Hills

Jan 23, 2021


The Cave Hills are a pair of broad buttes standing sandstone-capped and pine-bedecked in Harding County, far northwestern South Dakota. Bull Creek divides the South Cave Hills from the North Cave Hills. Jones Creek traces the south face of the South Cave Hills. There, in 1890, after trailing a herd north from Belle Fourche, W. H. “Virginia Bill” Hamilton established a ranch. And there, in 1998, I came to locate the old ranch headquarters in preparation for a reprint of Hamilton’s book, Dakota: Autobiography of a Cowman. I left off this story in my last essay, following a pair of pronghorn toward the hills.

On a Mission

Jan 16, 2021


One of my regrets about this time of pandemic is the lost opportunity for travel. I miss the international junkets that come with being a scholar, but more, I miss throwing my gear into the F150 and lighting out across Dakota, or Kansas, or Alberta, or Oklahoma. These are journeys that teach me truths that cut across times and borders.


Jan 9, 2021


Songcatcher is the title of a year 2000 film recently viewed at our house on Willow Creek. It stars Janet McTeer as Professor Lily Penleric, a musicologist enamoured of the ballad tradition. She stumbles into a mountain community of singers in North Carolina, becomes entangled with their lives as well as their music, and is transformed. The film received mixed reviews, but it intrigues me because of its historic content. The title character is based on one Olive Dame Campbell, a real-life songcatcher.