Tom Isern

Modern Sagas

Sep 29, 2018

Attending the Deuce of August celebration in Mountain, whereat Prime Minister Katrín Jakobsdóttir charmed the North Dakota crowd, stirred my interest in our Icelandic immigrant heritage. I have written about Her Excellency’s joyous appearance in Mountain and about the courageous service of the Icelandic midwife, Aldis Laxdal, whose monument stands in the Vikur Lutheran Cemetery.

Weasel Punchers

Sep 22, 2018

When was the last time you saw a weasel? No, not one of the fur-bearing species; we do see them occasionally, furtively. I’m talking about a machine called the Weasel, a rugged vehicle that played a historic role here on the northern prairies.

I learned about the Weasel from a fine book written by David W. Mills and published by North Dakota State University Press - Operation Snowbound: Life Behind the Blizzards of 1949. Mills tells the story of the military mobilizations that helped the people of the northern plains get through one of the hardest winters they ever experienced.

The nature of things on the northern plains is that September brings a quickening - a frantic race to get things done and into order before that night train of autumn comes smoking through the land. I am a great keeper, and lover, of calendars - calendars agricultural, ornithological, academic, recreational, liturgical, culinary. The congruence of quickenings during a prairie September is challenging.

The past couple of months I have spent a great deal of time book touring, promoting my new book, Pacing Dakota, with North Dakota State University Press. Most of the book is about life on the northern plains, but it is grounded in my own history in Kansas--specifically my own roots in Barton County.

The prologue to the work gets personal about those roots, and so I decided to share it here. I think the sentiments expressed are common to the whole region of the Great Plains. (Sharing this excerpt also will answer the question I get everywhere I go, as to the meaning of the title, Pacing Dakota.)

Young Man's Butte

Aug 28, 2018

Driving to Medora a few days ago, we paused just east of Richardton to examine, from various vantages, a significant but little-known historical landmark--Young Man’s Butte. Viewed with a foreground of ripening wheat, and with a striking golden tone due to the filtering of light by smoke in the air, the sight was memorable.

One of the nice things about North Dakota is that you can drive three hours across the state to see a parade in a town of less than 100 population, and when you get there, you find people you know everywhere.

I’m talking about Mountain, North Dakota, site of the annual August the Deuce festival. We had just settled in alongside some old friends in one of the grandstands when here came Ashley Thornberg of Prairie Public radio, recounting her plot - eventually successful - to score an interview with the prime minister of Iceland, Katrín Jakobsdóttir. Her Excellency the prime minister, I confess, was the chief reason we had come to Mountain, but as usual with such expeditions, so many interesting things turned up.

Five Hundred Babies

Aug 8, 2018

After enjoying a church-basement luncheon at Vikur Lutheran Church, during the August the Deuce celebration in Mountain, and before heading over to the community hall to hear Prime Minister Katrín Jakobsdóttir, we had a wander through the Vikur Lutheran Cemetery. The most prominent grave marker there, topped with a cross, contains the following inscription:

Aldis Laxdal

Born Aug. 10, 1837, Died Oct. 30, 1899

Aged 62 Yrs. 2 Mos. 20 Dys.

Ladies, whom she nursed raised this monument to her memory.

Over the years I have devoted quite a bit of attention to the idea of a Great Plains cuisine, toward defining and extending the foodways of our region. Often this has involved introducing more spice into regional life--Asian and Hispanic influences.

Thinking today about my Sunday dinner of meatloaf at the Wild Rose Cafe in Ashley, and savoring a plate of snowpeas and shallots from the prairie garden, with a pinch of summer savory--I recognize that the heart of the culinary identity does not lie on the fiery edge. It resides in our comfort foods, enriched by subtleties.

Game of Football

Jul 27, 2018

In May 1887 the Griggs Courier, of Cooperstown, reported that Mrs. Beebe was “a good deal annoyed” with the gang of boys creating a nuisance in her neighborhood. Confronting them in the street, “She had tried entreaties and threats to no purpose,” it was reported, “until the other day, when she had her innings.”

“Innings”--the editor’s metaphor is mixed up, because the game the boys were playing in the street, and incidentally trespassing on Mrs. Beebe’s residential property, was not cricket, but this new game, “foot-ball,” they called it.

Prairie Life

Jul 25, 2018

Midway through a weekend in the middle landscape of North Dakota, we swung through the little town of Forbes, tucked into the east face of the Coteau, down on the South Dakota border. I wanted to check out the installation of the Prairie Life Monument, which is unfinished, but was dedicated on the 4th of July.

Am I a sucker for monuments? I suppose so. Particularly for monuments that rise from the grassroots, expressing the impulses of plains folk. This one in Forbes did not disappoint. I will circle back to it.