Carl F. Kraenzel, “The Great Plains in Transition” (1955)

Writing from Tehran, Iran, circa 1955, Carl Frederick Kraenzel produced a work that recovered a component of regionalist memory for the inhabitants of the Great Plains. It is a, and not thee, component, because the work is consciously or subconsciously written from the Euro-Ameri-centric position. Regionalism, however, was and is a universal concept. Kraenzel defined it as a unique and “democratic ordering and programming of the economic, social, and living activities of the residents of a common area, through political and all other avenues.” Regionalism enabled the greatest possible advantages to the local residents and, with a bit of idealism, Kraenzel also said it best benefitted nation-states and, ultimately, the globe. (Kraenzel, 1955: 8) In other words, it was a system by and for local inhabitants. The Great Plains had experienced bursts of regionalism in the first half of the nineteenth century. In the beginning of the second half of the twentieth century, Kraenzel said that unless industry was developed by and for regions throughout the Great Plains, it would simply result in “antidemocracy.” (Kraenzel, 1955: 384)

Within The Great Plains in Transition, Kraenzel’s initial chapters outline the physiography of the Great Plains, and some early explorers from the Spanish, British and French empires. This includes Villazur’s (1720) and Coronado’s (1540-42) incursions onto the central and southern Great Plains, as well as the Mallet Brothers (1739-40). The first European to record their journeys at length on the northern Great Plains took place in 1742-43 with La Vérendrye and company, and five decades later with the Mackay and Evans expedition. After the founding of the American nation, though, and in the first half of the nineteenth century, mountain plainsmen had established themselves, and they started cultivating a set way of doing things — or a regionalism — throughout the Great Plains and Rocky Mountains. Individuals such as Jim Bridger, John Colter, Jebediah Smith and Kit Carson brought about a common Euro-American culture between 1803 and 1846. Mountain plainsmen would hunt, kill and harvest furs and pelts throughout the Rockies and Rocky Mountain basin, and then bring the items into the fur trading forts established along the river networks (such as this one linked to here).

Nineteenth century routes across the Great Plains.

Nineteenth century routes across the Great Plains.

In the second half of the nineteenth century, pioneers and settlers also charted disparate routes across the plains in an effort to reach Texas, California, and Oregon. The routes included the overland Santa Fe and Oregon trails through the southern and central plains, and the Missouri River on the northern Great Plains. Eventually Anglo-American cattlemen appropriated some aspects of Gaúcho culture and brought it on to the Great Plains, but this culture was short-lived and within a couple decades devastated by industry and outside interests. In all, these individuals were perpetually in transition, and the Great Plains was a place to cross rather than a destination.

In all of this, it is worth remembering that Kraenzel wrote more from a perspective of a social scientist than from a historian of the humanities and liberal arts, and certainly from the vantage of a labor historian. Throughout this work, Kraenzel deepened the readers understanding of the otherwise scattered and complex European and Euro-American past of Great Plains culture. In 1955, this could easily have grounded inhabitants of the Great Plains who experienced some waves of post-WWII out-migration — would, they thought, the depopulation of the North American steppe ultimately end up as a return to a kind of buffalo commons? It did not, of course. And this largely had to do with co-operatives that Great Plains-men and –women organized in an effort to compete with outside Corporate interests and Federal programs. In some closing words, Kraenzel says

The co-operative movement… is that middle road between state or corporate capitalism on the one hand, which in its extreme instances can manifest itself as a kind of Fascism or Nazism, and socialism on the other hand, which in its extreme forms becomes a kind of militant communism. (Kraenzel, 1955: 385)

A summer 2012 photo of the elevator co-operative in Fessenden, Wells County, North Dakota.

A summer 2012 photo of an elevator co-operative in North Dakota.

This statement exemplifies why Kraenzel called for a heightened regionalism throughout the Great Plains in 1955, and it is universal gravity for ideologues aloof with a superficial understanding of the history of co-operatives. If one is from the central and northern Great Plains, one will have directly and indirectly benefitted from these co-operatives. Thus, co-operatives and regionalisms are an essence of Great Plains memory and identity, both in 1955 and in 2013.


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