As of late, or at least since 2012, or even earlier, I have been thinking about the history of industrialization on the northern Great Plains. I have been encouraged this evening by reading Bill’s comments here, and also just by thinking about how steamboats were the first vestiges of 19th century industrialization, both locally, as noted in serious scholarship on the upper Missouri River, and globally, as expounded on by Maya Jasanoff at Harvard. Humanity has always needed and searched for energy sources. This has taken the form of wood and coal, which powered the early steam engines. This was all before petroleum was embraced and really took hold as thee major fuel source.
So when I look at, say, the September 8, 2014 front page issue of The New Rockford Transcript, and I see the “Central North Dakota Steam Threshers Reunion – September 19-21″ 2014, I think of the transition by which humanity went from wood to coal. And how we used that coal to increase agricultural efficiency. And also how events like the central North Dakota Steam Threshers Reunion, or the Crosby Threshing Show, or the Braddock Threshing Bee, is and continues to remain central to our history and heritage. The New Rockford Transcript continues to be delivered to the house of my parents, a subscription my late grandmother Barth always enjoyed receiving (between this and the Emmons County Record). Here is that front page, at least the graphic. And if you want to order your own hard copy of The New Rockford Transcript or The Emmons County Record, just click on the previous two links to be directed to the specific contact.
Just this evening I chatted a bit with Paul, or who I call dad. We found ourselves reflecting a bit, at least why his grandfather (my great grandpa Barth) left railroad work in Cleveland, Ohio to take up a homestead claim just outside of Braddock, North Dakota. This is how one line of our family history goes, at least one of the general narratives.
After a bit of chatting my dad, knowing I am a bit of a bibliophile, produced two books from his late mother’s (my late grandmother’s) library. One of these books was The Joy of Words, published in 1960 by the J.G. Ferguson Publishing Company of Chicago, Illinois. I started flipping through the table of contents and pages, and I arrived at the section called “Historic.” Here, in the opening, on page one hundred eleven, it begins with a quote that seemed to capture the evening conversation I had with my dad:
“The heritage of the past is the seed that brings forth the harvest of the future.”
I thought I’d float that quote our there, at least since it resonated with me. Perhaps someone else might be able to grab hold of it and use it too.
A couple weeks ago Molly and I, along with my parents, took a Sunday trip to the homestead of Lawrence Welk. To be more specific, this was the homestead of Welk’s parents in rural Emmons County, south-central North Dakota. The homestead is just south of Braddock, North Dakota, the place where my great grandpa Barth established his homestead and family. The Barth’s were Ohio-Germans imbedded within this larger German-Russian migration group.
Earlier this afternoon I stopped by North Dakota State University’s German-Russian Heritage Collection to pick up a Gary P. Miller reproduction print from 1930. It is what today we might call a mash-up: Miller painted Welk and his Hollywood roadster into the Emmons County homestead setting. In an effort to unfurl this print, I placed four of books at the edges. It seemed fitting to deliberately use Plains Folk: North Dakota’s Ethnic History; Prairie Mosaic: An Ethnic Atlas of Rural North Dakota; Prairie Peddlers: The Syrian-Lebanese in North Dakota; and The Quartzite Border: Surveying and Marking the North Dakota-South Dakota Boundary, 1891-1892.
The Welk homestead today is undergoing continued rehabilitation. One can get a guided tour of the original sod homestead, and a couple outbuildings and the summer kitchen. This latter building, the summer kitchen, still speaks to the utilitarian sensibilities often inherent in North Dakotans: the summer kitchen kept the heat out of the otherwise cool sod home in the June, July and August months. It was straight-forward practicality that German-Russians brought with them when they migrated to North America from Odessa, Russia. Within Miller’s 1930 print, the summer kitchen is center-right in the reproduction, and the sod house is just to the left.
Left to right, Molly, Matthew, and Mira McLain. The frog is in the middle.
This last weekend, the McLain family (Molly, her sister and brother) and the rest of us near and within the region of Valley City, North Dakota, laid the ashes of Harley McLain to rest next to his wife, Julie. It got me thinking in a number of directions, about history, or why I got into the profession in the first place. This includes how studying memory and remembrance is monumentally important to us as individuals, and as a civilization, and as the broader human continuum. Historians are trained to see the world through the eyes of others (or to see the world from our eyes through the eyes of others, which is two lenses before we arrive at the event). So while at the funeral, I thought about what others might have been thinking, and how their relationship with Harley was much different than mine (Harley and I only had the chance to know one another for less than 2 years). So I guess I’ll leave it open-ended at that, for now. Except for one more point.
Molly McLain, my fiancee and Harley’s oldest daughter, noted this on her social media page, with picture, shortly after the funeral:
We buried our dad’s ashes next to our mom today, and as we all placed him in the ground, we found there was a frog in the hole looking up at us. It seems our dad is still playing little tricks on us. RIP and long live your memory Harley McLain.
Memory is the historian’s business. We capture and archive memories and experience so that they can be revisited and explored in infinite ways.
On July 20, 2014, Molly and I went to the Crosby Threshing Bee in Crosby, Divide County, northwestern North Dakota. Years before my Grandpa Barth passed away, he had always asked me to attend the threshing bee in Braddock, Emmons County, south-central North Dakota. For whatever reason, I never made it to the Braddock threshing bee (and I wish I had). I did go to my Grandpa’s farm with him on numerous occasions, though, sometimes stopping at the small-town local bank in Hazelton, and always stopping for lunch at the local deli/cafe.
So yesterday, while walking around the threshing bee in Crosby, I was continuously reminded of my grandpa. And of the advent of industrial agricultural practices, at least as it looked at the turn of the 19th century. I also thought of the novel history, Big Wheat by Richard Thompson. A year or more ago, Larry Schwartz, librarian at Minnesota State University Moorhead, recommended me this book. It’s good, and it gives the reader an idea of what it was like to be a migratory laborer employed by one of these outfits. In North Dakota, large bonanza farming took place in Cass County at the Dalrymple bonanza farm, and the Chaffee bonanza farm, amongst others. I was catching my historical bearings and thinking of all this while wandering through the Crosby threshing bee with Molly.
Below is a short clip of the tractors, complete with coal-burning stoves, whirring gears, and popping pistons.
I’ve been asked (and privileged) to give a brief, short talk tomorrow in northwestern North Dakota on how to identify stone circles (often called tipi rings) and stone cairns. I will open by chatting about what meaning stone circles and cairns have to my friends, and I’ll probably mention a great friend Dakota Goodhouse, and one of his great-great uncles, Rain-in-the-Face (this is a magnificent attention getter by the way). Unsolicited universal observation: one doesn’t have to be within the halls of the academy or in a college or university to learn and teach. I kind of think of the world as a conversational classroom and lectern. It is only formalized when we’re in said classroom. Okay. That’s all. Carry on.
A simple post to enjoy the beauty of blooming prairie lilies on the northern Great Plains. This photo was taken on June 29, 2014. Enjoy.