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Erling Rolfsrud, the Author


The restless boy stopped his horses and gazed toward the Blue Buttes of McKenzie County. Beyond them, he pictured majestic mountains, mighty rivers, and wide oceans. Years later, Erlings Rolfsrud would look back at that boy and write, “If only he could get away from this land where folks did nothing more exciting than stretch blankets of wheatfields to cover the prairie hills–then he could find Characters and Places worth writing about.”

Years later, after graduating from Watford City High School, and then Concordia College, Erling, now a grown man, did get away. His absence from North Dakota did help him find characters worth writing about, though he did not find them where he had expected. As a freelance writer living in Deerwood, Minnesota, Erling found himself turning back to his home state for characters and stories. Erling said, “Here is where I really began writing North Dakota material in earnest...I believe that living in Minnesota has given me a more overall perspective on North Dakota.” As for the boy who could see no heroes on the plains of North Dakota, Erling wrote, “The scales have fallen from his eyes, he has learned to appreciate the people of his native state, and he gives you this book of prairieland adventure, romance and drama.”

That book was Lanterns Over the Prairies, and the Fargo Forum reported today in 1949 that it was to be released within the next two weeks. This book told the stories of the lesser-known, though nonetheless colorful characters of North Dakota, who, as Erling said, “have overcome obstacles through their own efforts, who have made the world better because they have been in it, who have left behind them a lantern throwing the light of their spirit over the prairie land.” These were the people who added “grist” not only to the state’s history, but to his books, including Lanterns Over the Prairies, Lanterns Over the Prairies Part Two, and Extraordinary North Dakotans.

But being away from North Dakota not only helped him find the characters and heroes he yearned for as a child, but also helped him find a hero in himself. Born on September 3, 1912, Erling was always a small boy. His father died when Erling was still young, and though he tried to help his mother and five siblings around the farm, he always found himself struggling with the more difficult work. While doing the smaller, more boring chores, Erling daydreamed about the day he might become a man like the tough settlers of McKenzie County, or a hero like the characters in his school books.

Erling would get his wish many years later, though perhaps not how he had imagined. Erling became a hero not for his strength, but his contribution to the state as a writer and teacher. For North Dakota’s 75th Anniversary, Erling was voted one of the 75 heroes of North Dakota. This was just one honor bestowed upon Erling throughout his career. He was also awarded the Red River Valley Historical Society’s Pioneer Historian Award, the Concordia College Alumni Achievement Award, and was inducted into the Scandinavian-American Hall of Fame in 1989. Before his death in 1994, Erling had written 31 books, published over 500 stories, articles and poems, and had contributed many columns to the Dakota Teacher and the Alexandria, Minnesota, and Washburn, North Dakota newspapers.

By Tessa Sandstrom


Erling Rolfsrud General Reference File, State Historical Society of North Dakota Archives.

Rolfsrud, Erling. The Tiger-Lily Years. Alexandria, MN (1975).

Rolfsrud, Erling. Lanterns over the Prairies. Brainerd, MN (1949).

Fargo Forum. Sept. 4, 1949: 14.