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Tom Isern

  • In 1949 a new dean arrived to head up the School of Applied Arts & Sciences at North Dakota Agricultural College, one not from the customary midwestern lineage for NDAC appointments. The press said he was “a native Texan,” but his name didn’t sound like it: Gustav Ernst Giesecke.
  • I’ve been talking lately about rest rooms — no-no, not about the odd preoccupation we seem to have nowadays as to who might be using what facility, but rather about the reform movement, in the early 1900s, which aimed to provide comfortable lounges for farm women who came to town with their husbands, transacted their business, and then were left in the lurch by husbands not yet ready to go home, and had to sit waiting in a livery or some such place.
  • The phrase “rest room” meant something different a century ago than what it does today. It was a new phrase in the 1890s, which came into general usage a decade later, during what is known as the Progressive Era — a time of political and societal reform across the country, from Congress right down to the local community.
  • One day in 1905 a stranger named Harvey Severn showed up in the town of Litchville, asking where he might find a drink — the state had been dry, by constitutional provision, since 1889. Severn got more than he reckoned for: some toughs from the town waylaid him and beat the tar out of him. They suspected he was a spotter for the Law Enforcement League gathering information to give to legal authorities. Which he was.
  • Prohibition as a historical subject is easy to caricature: shifty bootleggers, dauntless G-men, assumptions of futility. We like the broad strokes of how prohibition, established constitutionally in 1889, went down here in North Dakota. We love to tell the romantic stories of rumrunners along the Canadian border and booze wagons crossing Red River. On the ground, though, the action was fraught with contradiction and complexity.
  • When club women across North Dakota learned by newspaper exchange that their peers across the country were seeding their public libraries by means of book showers — celebratory gatherings where citizens brought in donated books to stock the shelves — they quickly made book showers a recognized community development. This emergence, generated by second-generation club women, took place in the early years of the twentieth century.
  • By the action of a local donor, the town of Canton, South Dakota, had a new public library in 1913. They had the building, but unfortunately, no books. The night of its opening, however, they turned on the lights, and as reported in the local press, “the public came in throngs all bearing books,” books “of every description.”
  • Cain and Abel were only the beginning, it seems, from the point of view of the American plains. It was possible, as they sang in the old musical Oklahoma, for the farmer and the cowman to be friends. Up and down the Great Plains, however, the growing pains of the country included conflicts between agriculturalists and pastoralists, or between rival groups of stockmen.
  • In her charming book about McIntosh County, Along the Trail of Yesterday, right under Seth McNeal’s 1886 Independence Day ballad singing the praises of pioneers, appears a photograph of the stone monument to the same: a squarish obelisk alongside which stands a bullet-pocked tin sign saying, “Old Settlers Monument Original Site of Hoskins First Settlement McIntosh County Established 1884 / Monument Constructed Out of Local Rocks and Names Chiseled by Herb Larimer Ashley Pioneer.”
  • The ten speculators who laid out the anticipation town of Hoskins beside the lake in McIntosh County in the mid-1880s were aspiring capitalists; every action bespoke their acquisitive visions. Such restless souls always saw themselves as something more, something praiseworthy and eminently American, worth remembering when their physical works were gone. Perhaps to be celebrated in song and story, or songs that were stories.