Monthly Archives: February 2014

Langdon Locker

Langdon Locker, 324 6th St., Langdon, Cavalier County, North Dakota, on the morning of February 27, 2014.

Langdon Locker, 324 6th St., Langdon, Cavalier County, North Dakota, on the morning of February 27, 2014.

This morning just after the sunrise, the car thermometer registered something like -18° F in Langdon, northeastern North Dakota. I’m on detail up here for a couple days, dissertating (a verb in grad school) and so on. But before getting started on that, I decided to track down the famous Langdon Locker, home of the famous Langdon Locker Sausage (caps is warranted).

This, says Tom Isern, is the greatest sausage in all of North Dakota. I once pressed Isern to explain why it was the best, and he (paraphrased) chalked it up to preparation and texture. I think the texture reminded him a bit of sausage production around and near his historic family farm in western Kansas. It is no surprise that certain smells and foods activate otherwise hibernating memory files within our brains.

Langdon Locker.

Langdon Locker.

In any case, I tracked down the Langdon Locker. Then I tracked down an ATM. Then I returned to Langdon Locker and purchased one of their regular staples, the smoked garlic pork sausage. It is locally made, and goes for just over $4 for one-and-a-half pounds. There are rumors that this sausage is available through distributors in Fargo. But there is something fun about getting the stuff at the source too.

White Chicken Chili

Molly's white chicken chili.

Molly’s white chicken chili.

There’s something like a 3rd or 7th polar vortex bearing down on the northern Great Plains and Great Lakes region on this sunny, cold Saturday lunch hour. Yesterday Molly suggested that we make white chicken chili. I set the navy beans to soaking yesterday afternoon, and she put soup together just before lunch today. Lots of coriander, cumin, Tochi’s taco seasoning, green and red chilies, etc. This is what she was telling me after I asked, “Why is this so delicious?” We also added cilantro just before serving. Note: what you can’t see in this photo are the two chihuahuas at my feet. Seriously. They are named Willow and Honey. This soup is heating us up for sure. Polar vortex, your serve.

Fargo Trolls and Ragnarok Weekend

One of the many wood troll carvings at the Sons of Norway in Fargo, North Dakota.

One of the many wood troll carvings at the Sons of Norway in Fargo, North Dakota.

Since it has been reported by The Daily Mail that the Viking apocalypse — Ragnarok for those of us in the know — will happen this Saturday, February 22, I figured it doesn’t matter that the History Channel’s Vikings Season II premiers on February 27. I also figured that it would be appropriate to post three photos I took on Thorsdag evening at the Sons of Norway in downtown Fargo, North Dakota (pie day is every Thursday at lunch, too). Within the Sons of Norway is the Troll Bar which, in turn, is decorated with several wood Norsk troll carvings that run the perimeter of the tavern.

Trolls have increasingly interested me as of late. In genealogical e-mail conversations with Valerie Larson-Wolfe, a distant Swedish-American cousin of mine (who lives in Chico, California), she mentioned that our great-great-Swedish uncle August used to remark on how, as a young boy, he used to see trolls in and around his family’s farm near Ïvo in southern Sweden.

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAAs a historian, I am interested in this not necessarily to prove or disprove the existence of trolls. Rather, I’m interested in it in from the standpoint of a social historian or folklorist: if people say they are seeing trolls, they are doing this for social reasons that might not be clear to outsiders. I’m interested in unpacking those reasons. If you’re in Iceland, though, you get the privilege of having your Supreme Court decide on whether or not to protect known elf sites (links on that here, here and here).

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAThis, in turn, has gotten me thinking a bit more about sightings of small people in world history. On the northern Great Plains, it isn’t uncommon to hear stories from Mandan-Hidatsa or the Oceti Sakowin oyate of small people sightings. These sightings are amazingly important to particular cultures — much in the same way that the notions of a man walking on water or rising from the dead three days after the Roman Empire executed him are amazingly important to particular cultures too (yes, I just went there). Happy ragnarok weekend everyone. See you all on the other side (or on Monday).

Some Thursday Teaching Notes

I rounded out another lecture for tomorrow, this on the particulars, complexities, triumphs and problems of the Progressive Era at the turn of the 19th century. After that I dropped into Bill Caraher’s blog and read a bit on his latest pedagogy, including the ideas of a slow archaeology part I and part II (which is great, and good to think about in our hyper-drive digital 21st century world). This, in turn, induced me to reflect just a bit on teaching this week at North Dakota State University.

The lectures I deliver, at least this semester at NDSU, are American History 1877-present. The class text is The American Promise: A History of the United States, by Roark, et al., (New York: St. Martin’s Press, Fifth Edition, Value Edition, 2012). The text itself is accessible, both in its prose and price ( has the value edition listed at $48.38 with free shipping). Considering what I paid for required course materials during my 1999-2002 undergraduate training in history at the University of Minnesota-Twin Cities, this ranks up there with sensibly priced text books, even over a decade later in 2014 (presumably text books would cost more today than in 1999 — presumably).

I co-lecture (or lecture every 2nd or 3rd week) with Dr. Angela Smith, the powerhouse Public and Digital Historian within NDSU’s Department of History, Philosophy and Religious Studies (some of Angela and her student’s work linked to here). On Tuesday evening I led a non-mandatory review session with the students to prep them for their exam yesterday, Wednesday. The key to successful reviews are manifold: presenting the material in a repetitious but non-open-mouth-breathing kind of way.

Perhaps the most damaging thing a history lecturer can do is deliver history the way the stereotypical high school coach was charged with teaching history; that is, reading for 50 minutes directly from the textbook (which, in turn, reflects just how important American public school systems think of the teaching of history — sigh). Impressing the historical record into the minds of freshmen and sophomores requires the lecturer to revisit the knowledge, and rehash it in several ways. I’m also interested in what students are thinking, yet this can be difficult to extract from a reticent demographic. Of course, the more students become familiar with the lecturer, the more (in theory) they’ll feel comfortable in speaking up and out about their thoughts.

In the mean time, it is always interesting to figure out ways of gauging success. To do this I had the students who attended the review session sign in on, well, a sign in sheet, and at the semester’s end this will be compared with students who did not attend the review session. In theory, students who attended the review session will do better than non-attendees (in theory, right?).

Notes for Friday

A photo of Tumbleweed from yesterday. Tumbleweed is Harley's faithful friend.

A photo of Tumbleweed from yesterday. I thought I’d include a photo of this sweet nice dog, since almost everyone likes looking at photos of cats and dogs on the internet. Tumbleweed is Harley’s faithful friend.

Several things have been happening in the last week, so I thought I’d jot them down here.

1) Our dear friend Harley passed away, and funeral services will be held tomorrow (02/15/2014), Saturday at the Congregational United Church of Christ in Valley City, Barnes County, North Dakota. If you’re in the area we hope to see you there. Also, we know Harley cared deeply about farming. He also received an English degree back in the day from Jamestown University. It got me thinking about how we need more farmers with English or Humanities degrees in this country, and on this planet. I can elaborate later.

2) Minot State University invited me to give a talk on February 24, a Monday, on institutional memory and how that has shaped why and how we know what we know today about the US-Dakota Wars in North Dakota, with allusions of course to Minnesota and South Dakota. The talk will be held in the Aleshire Theatre starting at 7:00PM. I’ll speak at length for a while, showing slides of my established and latest research and such. There will also be a give-and-take session, since the idea behind being informed is to always allow oneself to be informed.

3) Dickinson State University also invited me to give a talk, and that will take place on March 7th, Friday afternoon. Specifics on that are still being decided on. So more on that later.

4) The sun is coming up on another cold winter day on the northern Great Plains. And that feels good.

Harley McLain

In 1979-1980, JB and Harley McLain (brothers) cut this wrote, played and cut this album in Hollywood. It appropriated the "NPL" acronym, but replaced the Non-Partisan League with the Natural People's League. Note the earthworms that make up the "NPL."

In 1979-1980, JB and Harley McLain (brothers) wrote, played and cut this album in Hollywood. It appropriated the “NPL” acronym, but replaced the Non-Partisan League with the Natural People’s League. Note the earthworms that make up the “NPL.” Photo by Darren King.

If you haven’t yet caught the passing of Harley McLain, here are some links on stories that The Bismarck Tribune, The Fargo Forum, and News Dakota have put together. Please take the time to read them. They are beautifully written. While I have only known Harley since 2012, it appears that the entire northern Great Plains has known him since at least the 1960s. This is testament to his beautiful soul.

I was thinking the other day about a photo of a younger Harley with his wife, Julie. In the photo Harley’s shirt read, “Question Authority.” He did that, of course. It made me think about how in Harley’s questioning of authority, he himself became his own author. In that, he believed in the state of North Dakota, and therefore the country and world (I’m convinced that he still does from the other side). He believed in it so much that he decided to speak up about a variety of issues, and with his particular charm and wit.

Tracy Potter, after hearing about Harley’s passing, remembered his good friend on Facebook. Tracy said,

Sad news today from Molly McLain. Her father, my friend, Harley McLain rejoined his beautiful wife Julie yesterday. Harley was a remarkable man, who had more influence on North Dakota with his guerrilla theatre approach to politics than many much more serious reformers. Out of his campaigns and legal action, North Dakota’s corrupt ballot structure (which Harley argued offended his “poetic sensibilities”) was ruled unconstitutional by Federal courts, giving us the modern, rotating ballot. Always fun, always interesting, and always the kindest, gentle heart. I’ll miss him.

Harley McLain, circa 2007.

Harley McLain, circa 2007. Photo by Logan Hanson.

Today and tomorrow and forever, we will continue recounting Harley stories and memories. They bring simultaneous tears and laughs. Harley impressed himself upon anyone who was within his range. Darren King, a slaying upright bassist and family friend of the McLain’s, said:

A couple of days ago North Dakota lost one of its great dreamers, political activists, songwriters, fathers, and forward thinkers. I look forward to jamming again someday Harley. Thanks for helping to raise me.

In conversations around the McLain family table last night, between JB McLain, Chris McLain, Molly McLain, Mira McLain, Matthew McLain, and Ben Simonson, we figured out that Harley, during his life, hung out with Allen Ginsberg, Hunter Thompson, potentially Keith Richards (happening into one another on some boat in the Mediterranean), and for a short time he lived down the street from one if not all of the Ramones. And these were just the individuals we pegged around the table last night. The list by no means is exhaustive.

The most important thing about Harley is that he would treat these individuals the same way he would treat anyone else: without pretension, with respect, and ready for insight and humor and give-and-take conversation. Harley loved people. He loved individuals. If you look at someone who knew Harley, you’re looking a bit at the man himself.

Bless you, Harley McLain. Thank you for the wonderful family you and Julie gave to North Dakota. And to use a bit of Scandinavian subtlety, I’m particularly fond of Molly.

From a sunny Valley City, North Dakota, Aaron L. Barth.

Bakken Oil Train Photo

A photo from a couple weeks ago of a BNSF train facing west with Bakken oil cars in tow. This was taken just east of Moorhead, Minnesota. If the train cars are going east, they are carrying oil. If they are going west, they are returning to pick more oil up.


Historian Frank Vyzralek

So I’m sitting here at my desk this Saturday morning looking up some more details of the crop lien system of farming from the 1860s to 1890, and reading academic articles on the origins of agribusiness. I’m doing this in preparation for this coming week’s lectures that deal with a period of American history from 1890-1900. I’m engaged in my usual over-preparation, which I’m fine with. In fact, I find that as my over-preparation intensifies, the glorious edgy feeling one gets before lectures and presentations begins to ebb.

But even earlier this morning I caught an article in The Bismarck Tribune on the passing of Frank Vyzralek. Sometimes it’s okay to stop reading articles on the crop lien system of farming so as to direct that energy toward thinking about the passing of a friend and colleague. So I thought I’d type out just a couple immediate thoughts that came to me after reading about Frank this morning.

  • In doing my own research at the State Historical Society of North Dakota over the years, it was common to see Frank — long white hair and long white beard — at the microfiche reader, with laptop, typing out notes for one area of research or another.
  • On occasion, I would bump into Frank at a local watering hole in north Bismarck. I think the last conversation I had with Frank happened years ago, this about Joseph Henry Taylor. I remember Frank sipped a glass of red wine as we traded Joe Taylor points back and forth.

Thanks for all the history, Frank. Thanks for reminding us how unique a place North Dakota was, and is.

Three Dakota Words

Every Tuesday and Thursday afternoon I sit in on and learn a bit more of the Dakota language with Dr. Clifford Canku (pronounced “chan-ku”), Dakota elder and professor of Dakota language at North Dakota State University (NDSU). The classroom setting is both structured and informal, and it has been incredible thus far. By this I mean eye-opening, as in language is the epitome of culture. It is the way we perceive of and describe our world. To understand a culture and its history requires us to understand the language. It’s a basic rule but it bears repeating.

On Tuesday Canku instructed our small student squad to select 10 Dakota words in which non-Dakota/Lakota/Nakota speakers have difficulty enunciating. Here are three from my selection, all of which begin with the letter č. This is a hard c, making a kind of “ch” noise. Also, you can always consult and listen to Canku going through the Dakota alphabet at this link here, too.

čáǧa (v.n.), to freeze, or become ice.

čantiŋ’za (v.n.), to be of good courage. — side note: this might be required to endure the season of čáǧa.

čanza’ni (v.n), to be well in heart; to be tranquil; or of good cheer. — again, see side note above.

The Barton Benes Collection in North Dakota

Barton's recreated apartment at the ND Museum of Art in Grand Forks, North Dakota.

Barton’s recreated apartment at the ND Museum of Art in Grand Forks, North Dakota.

On June 18, 2012, Paul Vitello of The New York Times ran a story on the passing of Barton Lidice Benes (11/16/1942-05/30/2012), a New York sculptor who appropriated antiquarian methods of museum display into his finished works of art. Indeed, a source of inspiration for any historian, art historian, archaeologist, or punk archaeologist, this last Saturday I had the chance to visit his collection at the North Dakota Museum of Art, University of North Dakota, Grand Forks. In June 2012, Vitello said in his New York Times piece,

The North Dakota Museum of Art in Grand Forks, which in the early 1990s showed controversial artworks of his [Barton’s] that no other galleries would, plans to build a replica of his apartment and furnish it exactly as Mr. Benes left it.

So that’s what I did, along with Molly, J. Earl Miller, and Rick Gion. We had a chance to sit next to and chat with J.D. Jorgenson and Jimmy. J.D. is a Bismarck native who studied art at North Dakota State University in Fargo, and who now has a straw bale pottery barn in St. Joseph, Minnesota. Some day I will build a straw bale shop. That is what I decided after chatting with Jorgenson. Artists are excellent sources of inspiration, or firing up that spirit within humanity.

Barton appropriated antiquarian museum display methods into his works of art.

Barton appropriated antiquarian museum display methods into his works of art.

Here are a couple snap shots of Barton’s collection at the North Dakota Museum of Art, including an opium bed which, in turn, is a reflection of the 19th century imperial struggle between Great Britain and China. Note the other items, though, and how they are displayed. In a short documentary of Barton, he said that as a child he was mesmerized by museums, the artifacts, and how they were displayed. You can see that in his art as well. Another memorable moment from the documentary was when Barton pointed to a piece of furniture in his apartment, that of which he salvaged from a dumpster. Paraphrasing, he said something to the effect of, “You can’t find stuff like this in dumpsters anymore.”

An opium bed Barton purchased and had in his flat. This is now on display at the ND Museum of Art in Grand Forks, North Dakota.

An opium bed Barton purchased and had in his flat. This is now on display at the ND Museum of Art in Grand Forks, North Dakota.

Art is meant to provoke, to incite, and to get people talking. As an artist, Barton accomplished that.

One of Barton's filing systems.

One of Barton’s filing systems. Take a close look at the subject titles.