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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Christmas Fools

Jan 2, 2021


I do not think we will see them this year--the Julebukkers, I mean--not only because of the current pandemic conditions but also because the custom of Julebukking has pretty well died out.


Time was, though, when on winter nights around Christmas and New Years, the Julebuks, or Christmas fools as they often were called, roamed the countryside in search of food and fun. Jolly gangs comprising mainly young folks masked and disguised themselves in ridiculous get-ups--often in gender-bending fashion--and presented themselves in the doorways of their neighbors, singing and cracking jokes. This was a custom common in Nordic settlements.

Lost Years

Dec 30, 2020


Since I’ve given in to my folkie roots and returned to active public performance, focusing on the folksong of the Great Plains, of course, I’ve been considering the question what constitutes the quintessential folksong of the Great Plains.

Wheat at Any Price

Dec 12, 2020

"Wheat will win the war!" / "Plant wheat . . ." / "Plant the cattle ranges ... " / Plant your vacant lots ... plant wheat!" / "Wheat for the boys over there!" / "Wheat for the Allies!" / "Wheat for the British!" / "Wheat for the Belgians!" / "Wheat for the French!" / "Wheat at any price!” / "Wheat will win the war!" Cue the patriotic music, woven into a masterly score by Virgil Thompson.

I’m channeling the classic 1936 documentary film by Pare Lorentz, The Plow That Broke the Plains, quoting from its beautifully poetic script. The gist of it is, wheat, the cash crop of the plains, has a lot to answer for. Namely, the Dust Bowl - the story being that the people of the plains were caught up in a speculative frenzy, mobilized by two-dollar wheat during the Great War, then joining in the general capitalistic excess of the 1920s. Wheat farmers, we are made to believe, were suckers, who because of their credulous cupidity, brought on the Dust Bowl. It’s a double entendre, you see: farmers “broke” the plains for wheat.

The Empire Of Wheat

Dec 5, 2020

The pantry in our place on Willow Creek has an eight-foot shelf devoted to nothing but flours: bread flour, whole wheat, soft white biscuit flour, semolina for pasta, you name it. My capable wife has a wonderful way with dough, and I myself can turn out a pretty good stack of sourdough pancakes.

Wheat holds pride of place in our culinary life, as on our family farm, and it seems not just bountiful but also wholly beneficent. Or so I thought, until I worked up the chapter on wheat for the Oxford Handbook of Agricultural History. As I said in a previous essay, wheat, as a cultivar, has agency in history, and it turns out not all of that history is benign.

Those Vetter Boys

Nov 28, 2020

If you’ve been listening to my rambling remarks over the years, you know that I am a lover of calendars--agricultural, academic, religious, recreational, you name it--and in fact, I consider calendars, the demarcation of life in cycles, and the overlapping of calendars in reinforcement or tension, to be fundamental to a rich life on the prairies.

The Agency of Wheat

Nov 21, 2020

Take a couple of good breaths, because we’re about to take a deep dive into the philosophy of history. Maybe not that deep, because I’m still a farm boy, and my subject today is wheat, but this little essay has to do with how we think about an everyday, material subject like wheat.

Shadow Socials

Nov 14, 2020


“At the shadow social Saturday evening a young fellow was bidding at his lady friend’s shadow,” so says the press report from Bottineau in December 1912. “Three guys chipped in and bid over him, giving the ‘shadow’ to another friend.”


“The question, Money vs. Fame, was decided for the affirmative,” reported the Golden Valley Chronicle on the debate featured in the first meeting of the Belfield Literary Society in February 1908. But wait a minute, which was the affirmative, money, or fame? No matter, the society moved on with an announcement that its next meeting would debate the question, “Resolved that the United States should own and control the railways.” Never let it be said that our forebears a century ago were out of touch with the progressive issues of the day.

Proper Amusements

Oct 31, 2020


There was some talk about it in 1885, but it was November 1886 before folks in Williamsport, Emmons County, organized a meeting to consider forming a literary society. Literary societies--often just referred to as “the literary,” as in, I picked up my sweetheart and took her to the literary last night--were common across the country, but tough to get going in the hardscrabble earliest days of prairie settlement. Before long, though, every community came to the point when people decided, we should have a literary.

Farmer's Son

Oct 17, 2020


“I may not know who I am, but I know where I came from.” So writes Wallace Stegner, Pulitzer Prize winner and prairie boy, in an essay I assign every fall to my students in the history of the Great Plains. Stegner here addresses what he calls “the question mark in the circle,” the identity question: Who am I, and what am I doing here?