Thoughts on the Fargo History Project: An NDSU Public History Initiative

As Dr. Angela Smith and a cohort of digital public historians prepares this week for Friday’s grand unveiling of the Fargo History Project at the Plains Art Museum in downtown Fargo, North Dakota, I thought I’d pull a couple titles off the shelf and revisit them to work up some thoughts for opening and/or closing remarks later this week at that event. The class has benefitted from the scholarship of Carroll Engelhardt, Gateway to the Northern Plains: Railroads and the Birth of Fargo and Moorhead (University of Minnesota Press, 2007), from visiting the primary sources within the North Dakota Institute for Regional Studies, and from first-hand visits to the physical places throughout Fargo. Each individual scholar honed in on specific segments of Fargo history between the years of 1871-1893, and they developed short blog-style entries on these topics. In almost every case, digitized historic pictures either compliment the stories or contribute to the analysis, context, and content.

Urban HistoryBringing all of these seemingly disparate and compartmentalized mini-histories under an umbrella of sense requires us to think about cities in the American West as distillations of the resources pulled in from the countryside’s natural, renewable, and non-renewable resources. So what this means is that when we drive by a grain elevator in a rural setting, we should look at the landscape for the linear, abandoned railroad bed. Then we should think about how this was built by a variety of immigrant laborers, and how that provided a route for grain to make its way to larger elevators in urban areas with population concentrations, such as Fargo-Moorhead, Minneapolis-St.Paul, or Chicago. We can then think about how northern Great Plains agriculture is the reason there is a James J. Hill mansion in St. Paul, Minnesota, and how a state Bank of North Dakota, a state elevator in North Dakota, and regional co-ops were historic responses to fat cat Twin Cities bankers and urban industrial areas. Metropolitan bankers in the Twin Cities were not responsive enough to the needs of rural northern Plains farmers and ranchers. Rural farmers and ranchers decided to, in North Dakota, form a state bank.

It is also possible to think about the historic archaeology of dairy cooperatives as responses to large centers of eastern industry. The industrial, assembly-line manufacturing centers (sometimes called Fordism rather than Capitalism) flooded the market with cheap dairy products. They didn’t do this in some cynical or conspiratorial way. But they did it out of their own self-interest. Historical actors in the upper Mid-West and on the northern Great Plains had to figure out ways to make a living, and they in turn responded. They were not going to wait around for industrial assembly lines to become “more ethical.” This is why large local swaths of Scandinavian immigrants in Wisconsin, Minnesota and North Dakota formed rural dairy co-ops. Through these co-ops, they could once again compete with industrial centers. The architecture of the dairy co-ops still occupy our urban and rural landscapes, and in some cases — at least in Fargo — they provide punk rock bands with basement practice space.

That is the interplay, the push and the pull between urban and rural. Again, making sense out of all of this gets a historian thinking about historiography. Here is what William Cronon said in “Kennecott Journey,” Under an Open Sky: Rethinking America’s Western Past (1992):

Mapping out the geography of gender, class, race, and ethnicity remains one of the most important but least studied aspects of environmental history. (Cronon, 1992: 45)

It has been two decades since Cronon said this, and as it pertains to our history of Fargo project, it is important to keep in mind how the individual cultural actors within the history of Fargo perceived the natural and urban world, and also how they acted and reacted to ecology, or nature’s metropolis.

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