Monthly Archives: September 2013

Historic Industry in Western North Dakota

Railroad workers in 1910, this one mile west of Regent, North Dakota.

Railroad workers in 1910 one mile west of Regent, North Dakota.

I just finished a lunch of homemade chicken soup (with lots of fresh lemon juice and cilantro), and before I grab a coffee and get back to the busywork, I thought I would upload a photo of historic railroad industry in western North Dakota circa 1910. The photo was taken about a mile west of Regent, as track was being laid to connect the rural agrarian areas of the American interior with the city centers and rail hubs of Dickinson, Bismarck-Mandan, Fargo, Minneapolis-St. Paul, and so on.

Looked at from an agrarian context, railroad construction was big throughout the world at this time, as nation-states increasingly relied on agricultural production to feed an ever growing populace, and this led to increased competitions over global resources. I suppose a modern public historical treatment of pumping Euro-Americans into colonizing the continent’s interior might come by way of AMC’s “Hell On Wheels” or HBO’s “Deadwood,” a kind of post-Civil War historical days of our lives with amplified skull-duggery, dodgy behavior, and shenanigans. But don’t simply rely on Hollywood to shape the way the past is understood. It’s best to get into those archives and see the documents for yourself.

Traditional Native Food Systems

Sahnish AgricultureIt has been a couple years now that I have served on the board of the North Dakota Humanities Council. It is incredible in the sense that a board member is brought within range of all that this NEH-funded council does. While great ideas abound, sometimes we are only logistically able to make it to a sampling of the events around the state. If it was somehow possible for the council to be funded where board members could quit their day-jobs, we indeed would be present at each and every event. But unfortunately my landlord, cell phone provider, and the bill issuers in general refuse to accept my historical articles, papers and daily blogs as payment for their services. Thus, I have to keep at my day job to keep the lights on around here which in turn keeps me from some of the great NDHC programs.

A couple days ago, I received a thank you from Dr. Wanda Agnew of United Tribes Technical College (an institution that has one of the most renowned global pow-wows every year). Dr. Agnew said the “funds provided by the North Dakota Humanities Council gave us the opportunity to make the Key Ingredient American By Food Exhibit and Special event OUTSTANDING!” The goal of this event was to connect the UTTC campus populace, Tribal Sovereign Nations, and folks in the Bismarck-Mandan area with ideas about traditional Native food systems, deepening the understanding of how pre-Industrial agriculture, farming and gardening worked. It has only been in the last 125 years or so (out of at least 6,000) that homo sapiens have increasingly industrialized what we shovel into our mouths. I have thought about and acted on this in recent years.

Lakota AgricultureIn any case, within this blog are the three hand-bill diagrams Dr. Agnew sent along with the thank-you that point to how food, culture and humanity intersect with three different tribal systems (oyate) on the northern Great Plains. They are the Anishinaabe, Lakota, and Sahnish. We are leaving September and heading into October, so note how the traditional calendars describe the seasons: for the Lakota, September-October is the time when trading with other tribes occurs, when buffalo berries are gathered, and when the earth experienced its hard frost and went into hibernation. For the Anishinaabe, chokecherries and wild potatoes and cranberries would be gathered, and deer would be hunted (which also coincides with our modern deer hunting season). For the Sahnish, this time of year marked the corn and harvest ceremonies. Okay, off to start the charcoal grill. Happy weekend to you.

Anishinaabe Agriculture

A Great Plains Airport

On the morning of August 31, 2013, Molly and I took an early morning flight from Fargo to Buffalo, New York, with a connecting flight in Chicago. That morning in Fargo’s Hector airport, while we waited to board our flight, I typed out a description of my surroundings. The trinity takeaway from Buffalo: it is the birthplace of Richard Hofstadter and the Buffalo chicken wing, and it is also the city where Teddy Roosevelt was inaugurated after McKinley died from an assassin’s bullet.

Okay, enough of that. Here is the late-August 2013 Fargo airport description in unadulterated form:

It’s 5:12AM at the Fargo Airport, Gate 5, and Molly and I are waiting for the United Chicago flight to board around 5:30. I thought I’d give some descriptions of my surroundings, as this airport has a different social atmosphere than the Chicago hub we’re flying into.

The view: there are about 15 of us so far, waiting to board. A slow trickle of passengers continues advancing toward their respective gates in the terminal. A lot of us are wearing sandals or easily removable shoes. This is for utility, as they are easier to slide off and on when entering and exiting the security checkpoints.

The terminal itself has strip-mall aesthetics (in fact, it is unusual today to be in new construction that is non-strip mall-like). The color scheme is grey, blue, peach, and terracotta. Molly thinks elementary schools used to have this color scheme in the late-80s, at least around these parts, and at least if they were new back then. “New” is an elusive word, like “modern.” The floor and ceiling are carpet, and the walls smooth either with paint or wallpaper. Lighting here is recessed halogen fluorescent, or whatever they are called.

It is dark in the early morning outside too. It is pitch black out there, the “United Express” logo on the plane illuminated by exterior lighting. Within the windows, we can only see the reflection of our Gate. There are three plants at Gate 5 too. They look real. The U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service has static signage near this gate, too, an information booth on local species.

The sounds: a steady gentle hum persists from the black rectangular vending machine. It rattles occasionally, as the refrigeration compressor keeps the beverages cool. A couple of the families have young children, and they are a bit chatty. Other conversation, at least amongst the adults, is muffled. There is a silent kind of still, folks a bit groggy from getting up at 3:30 or 4:00AM, and others wanting to respect the quiet associated with this morning hour. A hum outside, toward the plane, is also audible. The conversations increase as we draw nearer to the boarding time, and as more and more folks arrive.

The sensation: some folks feel like they want to sleep, but can’t. But they so would like to. Everyone knows that in 10 or 17 or 23 minutes or so, we will be asked to board the plane. For myself, there is slight warmth in my forehead, a kind that a person sometimes feels when without enough sleep.

The smells: it smells similar to a hospital waiting room with occasional whiffs of coffee.

Humanities Un-Conference: November 2-3, 2013, Fargo, North Dakota

Ideas are just that: ideas. They often start out with the thought of the results first, and this often bypasses the entire processes that went together to get an idea to that result, to give it actual traction. So the idea of getting ideas together in an informal setting is, well, a good idea. And bringing a confluence of idea-driven individuals across the state together and talking is also a good idea. Who knows where a conversation may lead?

Within North Dakota, the Plains Ethics Institute, North Dakota State University, and the North Dakota Humanities Council have come together to give rise to an idea un-conference. Below is the full poster, with just a couple modifications here: the date for registration has been extended to October 1st, and a proposal is not required. Reimbursement is also available for those individuals thinking about coming from non-Fargo, North Dakota, but wondering how they are going to fund the mileage and lodging (Williston to Fargo, for example, is a 422 mile, 6-cups-of-coffee, 1-way drive). The official handbill is below.

Hum Un-Conf


The History of Ancient History at NDSU

I just got off the phone with my Uncle Jim (known to others as Jim Barth), as I was curious about an old North Dakota State University (NDSU) syllabus of his.  I’m interested in the history of syllabi, primarily because it’s always fascinating to track the history of education: information that was pumped into yesteryear’s generation in contrast to what we’re pumping into tomorrow’s leaders, today.

Jim chatted briefly about this course he took back in the late-1950s at North Dakota Agricultural College (today’s NDSU). He said the course location was at the Neuman Center (he was pretty sure), in a 1-story building across the street from University Street. I figured that so others can access a syllabi from the late-1950s, and perhaps compare it with today’s courses in Ancient Mediterranean History, I’d upload photos of it. They are below. The textbook used for the course was Vincent M. Seramuzza & Paul L. MacKendrick, The Ancient World (Holt, Rinehart & Winston, Inc., 1958). A sticker on the inside cover says it cost $8.95 at Varsity Mart (inflation is also a reality of the world).

Note how informal the syllabus looks from the late-1950s, this in contrast to the corporate-university legalese we see in syllabi today. Much has changed, yes. But that’s the way with the world, and life.

Ancient History I

Ancient History 2

Ancient History 3



Philip Deloria and Dakota Goodhouse

Yesterday Philip Deloria visited one of my alma maters, the campus of University of North Dakota (Grand Forks). I had a chance to ride up from Fargo with good friend Dakota Goodhouse (he was on his way up from Bismarck), and we met with Phil for a short while that morning.

Dakota Goodhouse and Philip Deloria catch up a bit in Grand Forks, North Dakota.

Dakota Goodhouse and Philip Deloria catch up a bit in Grand Forks, North Dakota.

One of Phil’s ongoing projects has to do with the artwork of Mary Sully (1896-1963). Mary was from the Standing Rock Nation in the Dakotas, and Phil is analyzing a large body of artwork she produced throughout the course of her life. Mary did not leave behind any narratives of her art, so Phil is piecing together what he can, and contextualizing a lot of her work with the periods in which it was produced. This reminded me a bit of that general rule of history, that all historical figures influence and are influenced by the times and places they occupy (context, context, context!).

Prior to his talk at noon, Dakota and I chatted with Phil over coffee. In every sense of the classic phrase, he is both a gentleman and a scholar. It was quite interesting to hear about how the grandfathers of Dakota and Phil kept up a correspondence throughout the course of their lifetimes, too. Today, Dakota and Philip continue that correspondence.

And another note: Phil is a great, great, great, great grandson of General Alfred Sully (I may have one too many or few “greats” in their). One year, Sully took a Native Dakota wife while on the northern Great Plains. Children resulted from that, and so did grandchildren. History has an infinite number of connections with the present, as it should: the reason we are here is because of yesteryear. Cool stuff. Also, check out Philip’s scholarship here and here and here. And definitely check out his late father’s scholarship, too, Vine Deloria, Jr., here, here, and here (this is just a cursory sampling of Vine’s body of work).

Phil Deloria and myself, after asking Dakota to snap this photo. Taken on September 18, 2013.

Phil Deloria and myself, after asking Dakota to snap this photo. Taken on September 18, 2013.

Great Plains East vs. West

In the last couple weeks, or in the last week, I’ve noticed how the national and international news have ran stories on Sioux Falls, South Dakota and Fargo, North Dakota. Sioux Falls and Fargo fall along the north-south Interstate 29 corridor in far eastern Dakotas, and they originally served as railroad gateways to the northern portion of the Great Plains and American West. They share some similarities because of this. As well, they got one of the earliest urban foot-holds, and they also attracted colleges (back when the distinction between college and university was still quite distinct — a college could be a part of a larger university).

In the first pieces — here, and here — on the “Fringe City” of Sioux Falls, The Atlantic Monthly’s James Fallows compared and contrasted this South Dakota city with Burlington, Vermont. The problem with this, of course, is realized when one looks at the history of both cities. Burlington, Vermont is a place with a dense population, and dense populations surrounding it. Sioux Falls and Fargo, in contrast, are places with comparatively dense populations, and they serve a rural surround that is much more sparsely populated. If you’re from Bismarck, ND (like I am), you will have in your collective memory stories about certain economically privileged friends in grade school and junior high and high school regularly getting to go to Fargo for the weekend so their parents could purchase them designer clothes. These friends could then return and inform the rest of us what was hip and cool. This, I have found, is one of the personal historical memories that I use to argue why I would be totally cool with a return to the school uniform (something Angus Young appropriated and continues to own on stage quite well). But that is another topic for another blog.

The main point is that it reflects the reliance and tension, at least from the 80s and 90s, that Fargo and Sioux Falls and the rural surrounding areas generated: individuals living in these cities both loved them, and they loved to have contempt toward them as well. This, in turn, is a larger theme of the Great Plains, as you’ll hear similar stories from what central and western Nebraskans and Kansans have to say about their eastern cities.

In the second piece, Fallows opines on the architectural history of Sioux Falls, and this reflects the larger theme of architectural history in the American West. Go to any town in the Dakotas, and a large chunk of the monumental architecture dates from before and just after the turn of the 19th century. This is often the period when the wood structures either succumbed to city-wide fires, or were torn down to make way for superstructures with sturdy granite and brick foundations (Fallows mentions the Richardsonian Romanesque architecture of Sioux Falls, and a comparable building in Fargo would be North Dakota State University’s Putnam Hall). This is also a period of history that had some of the greatest economic and un-ashamed monopolistic magnates, individuals with operations based out of the Twin Cities (for example, one of the prime reasons North Dakota has a state bank and a state elevator has to do with big Twin Cities bankers knowingly or unknowingly fleecing North Dakota farmers — eventually, North Dakota farmers said we’ll just create our own bank and mill if we can’t get decent rates and grain prices from Minneapolis and St. Paul).

The iconic Fargo theater signage in downtown Fargo, North Dakota. ESPN's College Game Day is looking to use this as a backdrop for their coverage of Saturday's game.

The iconic Fargo theater signage in downtown Fargo, North Dakota. ESPN’s College Game Day is looking to use this as a backdrop for their coverage of Saturday’s game. Photo by Aaron Barth, from October 2012.

In the realm of Fargo, ran a short piece on a proposed skyscraper to be built in downtown, Fargo (about 6 blocks from where I live). Skyscrapers (and grain elevators for that matter) on the prairie, I argue, look all the more cool because they are set against the horizontal backdrop of the Great Plains. Fargo, and North Dakota, are indeed booming, and not just because of petroleum. This Saturday, ESPN’s College Game Day is coming to downtown Fargo, to broadcast the football game between North Dakota State University and Delaware State University. While NDSU and the University of North Dakota (Grand Forks) no longer play one another in the historic regional football rivalry, I think both universities are getting more mileage for the state by playing non-North Dakota audiences. Even if a North Dakotan has absolutely no affiliation with NDSU or UND (which, considering the state is about 700,000, would be almost impossible), all of non-North Dakota watching this ESPN game may at some point attach said game to future encounters with North Dakotans. It’ll be up to us to figure out how we want to respond to that. I’m all for it.


Historic Preservation in Medora, North Dakota

Badlands SaloonThis morning I read a story in the Fargo Forum on how numerous business owners in the historic heritage tourism town of Medora, southwestern North Dakota, said no, they will not be razing a couple historic buildings from the 19th century to make way for shiny new construction. The story reminded me of Jonathan Twingley’s The Badlands Saloon: A Novel (Scribner, 2009), at least how Jon lays out the “fictional” town of Maryville (which is based off the reality of Medora).

In the Fargo Forum story, Loren and Jennifer Morlock were present at the Medora Planning and Zoning Board meeting (held at the Badlands Pizza Parlor), and their Dakota Cyclery bicycle shop has been a long-standing fixture in one of the historic buildings. In the article, Loren said, “In our building, people come in with video cameras just to look at the structure and the building… People think it’s one of the coolest places for a bike shop that there is — we get that once per week. It works so well. I think there needs to be more research done before we just knock this stuff over.” Loren is spot-on here.

Now contrast this with one of the opening chapters in Jonathan’s novel, The Badlands Saloon. The main character finished his first year of art school in New York City, and returned to take a summer job in “Marysville,” aka Medora. He called his long time friend, Tank Wilson, who he knew from Bismarck, to see if he could fix flat bicycle tires for a summer at his bike shop in Medora — I mean “Marysville.” Jonathan further describes Marysville as follows (compare this with the Fargo Forum story as well):

In town there was the Old West Shooting Gallery and bumper cars, everything done up in an Old Western style. The sidewalk that ran past the Badlands Saloon and the old-timey pizza parlor was a wooden boardwalk like the ones in the John Wayne movies. The town had become a strange version of itself, the old and the new functioning in some sort of syncopation, a generic vision of what towns once looked like when there were cowboys and Indians and wagon wheels and campfires. But there was an authenticity to it all, too. Marysville had been around for so long that it embodied several pasts at the same time, each one elbowing out some room for itself among the newer versions of the Old Town(Twingley, 2009: 15)

These are the fixtures in a nationally-published novel by a local Bismarck artist and writer who lives in New York City (Twingley’s blogspot is linked in the Blogroll sidebar to the right) and Loren Morlock and others are spot-on when they oppose the razing of historic structures. I just thought I’d share some of what came to me when I read about their efforts this morning. Medora has a soul, and it is best not to gut it, lest we raze and smother the deep culture intrinsic to historic buildings, and historic preservation. Development is good, but there are an infinite number of ways to go about it without having to crush the material culture of yesteryear.

Official and Un-Official (authentic) Remembrance

The memorial tree at the Bear River Massacre site in southeastern Idaho. Photo from July 2013.

The memorial tree at the Bear River Massacre site in southeastern Idaho. Photo from July 2013.

This last July, Molly (an accomplished artist who is also my girlfriend) and I had a chance to tour the northern inner-mountain American West. One of the stops on this road tripped concerned a massacre site from 150 years ago, this at Bear River in southeastern Idaho. It seems appropriate to talk about and consider memorials and remembrance, especially today (09/11/2013).

While at Bear River, I documented the site, and this morning I thought I’d finally get around to posting an audio-video short to help others who aren’t immediately able to visit get a slice of the sense of place. In the video there are three official memorials, but what I was really pulled toward the day we visited was the un-official memorial tree. This in my mind was all the more authentic because of its un-official-ness: often times, official memorials get politicized (or they can), and this officialdom and politicization undermines the sacredness intrinsic to reflection and mourning that can be emotionally spontaneous. Infrastructure can also undermine that reflection, something Muir went on about at length in the 19th century, and something we’re contending with in the Bakken today.

Back to the July 2013 audio clip, though. Toward the end of the clip, I started closing in on the un-official memorial tree at the Bear River Massacre site. For a glimpse of some of the memorials and remembrances, click on the link referenced above (or the Bear River Massacre tag below). Or best of all, visit the site directly.

Book Shelves and Nails: Quick Fix

In the last couple weeks I relocated a number of book shelves, and in the process a couple of those small but important shelf pegs disappeared. So this morning I sat and stared at one of the pegs to think about how to replace them. The gauge looked close to that of a 16 penny nail, so I hit up the local hardware store that sells loose nails. I grabbed two 16 penny double-headed nails and snipped them with the bolt cutters. The photo below shows the original book shelf peg in between the two DIY home-made book shelf pegs. Worked like a charm. Books will continue going back on the shelves this weekend.

Non-galvanized nails cut to book-shelf peg length in front of Michele Butts, "Galvanized Yankees on the Upper Missouri: The Face of Loyalty" (University Press of Colorado, 2003).

Non-galvanized nails cut to book-shelf peg length in front of Michele Butts, “Galvanized Yankees on the Upper Missouri: The Face of Loyalty” (University Press of Colorado, 2003).