Even Americans who travel a lot often manage to miss one or two U.S. states. Perhaps distant but unforgettable Alaska or Hawaii, but not usually both. Quite often one of the last states on our wish list is North Dakota, our uppermost Plains state, hard by two equally obscure Canadian prairie provinces. It could be the encyclopedia entry under “Off the Beaten Path.”
There are no world-renowned North Dakota theme parks or gambling resorts. No majestic range or single respectable mountain. No major-league team in any sport. Not even a city of 100,000 people or more.
There certainly are no alluring beaches, palm trees, or snorkeling coves — not just because there’s no ocean within 2,400 km (1,500 miles) in any direction, but also because North Dakotans endure some of the most brutal winters this side of Yatutsk. The state’s record low temperature, set in 1936, was -51° Celsius (-60° Farenheit), and it was no fluke. A few hardy folks still alive tell of that cold spell in which the temperature dropped below freezing on Nov. 27, 1935 and never reached the freezing mark again until March 1 of the following year. During a 37-day period of that span, the thermometer reached zero degrees Farenheit — a deep-freeze benchmark —- only once.
No wonder that, save for a short growth spurt or two, North Dakota has been losing people, either to the warm and inviting Sun Belt or to states with big cities and promising jobs. From a scant population of 3,000 in 1870, when the place and what is now South Dakota were part of a single “Dakota Territory” — though I doubt the census counted the sizable Indian population back then — North Dakota rode waves of European immigration to a high mark of 685,000 in 1930.
With the state’s immigration boom, a history of North Dakota published for the U.S. bicentennial in 1976 points out, “came the construction of towns, each one promising to be the Chicago of the Western Plains. Many of them were ephemeral, achieving a population of several hundred persons, then disappearing from the map as their economic promise came to nothing.”
From 2000 to 2009 alone, according to an Iowa State University study, rural North Dakota counties — and there aren’t many other kinds — lost a greater share of their people (10.5 percent) than any other rural section of the 12-state Midwest.
Many young North Dakotans leave home and never return. School enrollments decline to the point that the towns lose their schools, which prompts even more families to leave. Communities age and almost literally die.
But most older farmers and their spouses have hung on. They treasure the neighborliness of rural life, the clean air, low crime, and measured pace. As the USA Today newspaper wrote in 2007, “The hands passing the pitchers of melted butter [at the breakfast table] are weathered; the heads bobbing in animated conversation are mostly silver-haired.”
And a few communities such as Crosby, population holding at about 1,000, are taking a bold step to attract new residents. They’re reviving the old idea of giving away free land, inspired by the Homestead Act of 1862 that changed the course of U.S. history. The law allowed Americans and immigrants of many ethnic backgrounds to claim land. “Land for the landless,” as the saying went, for people who had no other means to acquire it.
It was, of course, “free” in a monetary sense only. The pioneers paid dearly for it in blood, sweat, and tears.
Most of the immigrants who snapped up the fertile lands in eastern North Dakota, especially, were Norwegians. They had been lured by U.S. railroad companies’ posters back home that promised, if not streets paved with gold then golden fields of wheat that did come to pass. According to the bicentennial book, only Ireland lost a larger percentage of its population to emigration than did Norway in the 1800s.
Today about 193,000 North Dakotans — one-third of the state’s white population — claim Norwegian ancestry, and you may still hear a Tak for sidst greetings on the street. It’s Norwegian, meaning, “Thanks for the last time I met you,” which may take some translation itself.
The Norwegian flavor of the state leads to friendly jousting with neighboring Minnesota, where a whole lot of Norwegians’ Scandinavian rivals, the Swedes, settled and farmed.
In what passes for hilarious humor in these parts, the two groups exchange “Sven and Ole” jokes. Sven and Ole, or Sven and Leena if the “little woman” is involved, are Swedes, of course, in the Norwegian versions. Over in Minnesota, they’re Norwegians, and “Sven” becomes a “Lars.”
Want to read a rib-tickling example from the Norwegian point of view? Try to contain the laughter:
Sven lay dying in his bedroom. But he began to revive as he caught a whiff of fresh-baked drommar wafting through the house. He gathered his strength and crawled out to the kitchen. Just as he reached up to grab one of the delicious Swedish “dream cookies,” Leena appeared and slapped his hand. “No, no, Sven,” she barked. “That’s for the funeral.”
What do you expect in a place where milk is the state beverage?
On our recent cross-country trip, Carol and I breezed 580 km (360 miles) across North Dakota on one of its two Interstate highways. Save for Fargo and West Fargo on the Minnesota line, and the capital city of Bismarck three-fifths of the way across, there wasn’t a town over 16,200 people to be seen.
Fargo, as you might have guessed, was named for William Fargo, of the famous Wells Fargo Bank. He’d been mayor of Buffalo, New York, had helped start Wells Fargo in New York City, and ran the Great Northern Railroad. But he never lived in North Dakota and perhaps never set foot there. People got so excited when the line reached them that they named the new railroad town after him.
Poor Fargo. The witty, yet violent, Academy Award-nominated Coen Brothers movie of that name in 1996 depicted memorable characters who lived, committed misdeeds, and patrolled the highways of . . . Minnesota. Fargo, North Dakota, made only a cameo appearance as the hangout of two woodchipper murderers. Admittedly, “Fargo” has a catchier ring than “Brainerd” — the Minnesota city featured in the flick.
Even in our brief visit to the Flickertail State this year — flickertails aren’t birds; they’re burrowing ground squirrels known locally as “gophers” — Carol and I agreed that it’s worth making the effort to see.
Ponder these descriptions by some notable visitors:
• “Land of supersized farms, of spring wheat and winter rye rippling in the wind, of gigantic flower gardens of paradise-blue flax — this is North Dakota, one of the greatest agricultural States of the nation.”
• “Elbow room, superb sunsets, high winds and tumbleweed, farms and plows and sweeping fields. Gophers flashing across the road. . . . Sudden blinding, isolating blizzards, and soft, fragrant spring days with tiny sprouts of grain peering greenly through the topsoil. . . . The sad, slow wail of a coyote on the still prairie.”
• “Freely admitted is the rural character of the State, and there is seldom an attempt to cover native crudities with a veneer of eastern culture.”
These are not contemporary portraits. They were penned 72 years ago by struggling writers — including the likes of John Steinbeck and Ralph Ellison — who survived the Great Depression on federal stipends, producing meticulous guidebooks to several U.S. states.
Hardly a word of the homage to North Dakota requires changing today. But some updates would be in order to describe:
• Bonanza wheatfields, often as flat as an iPad, and sunflower fields swaying in vivid color. (OK, Steinbeck would say it better.)
• Colorful Indian social occasions called pow-wows, marked by authentic dancing and open not just to public viewing, but even to participation by those who dare. These ceremonies are vestiges of Indians’ rich heritage in the Dakotas that long predates the coming of whites. The first tribes — Mandan, Hidatsa, Cheyenne, and Arikara — farmed along the Missouri River. To their later regret, they generally welcomed whites, beginning with French Canadians who were searching not just for animals to hunt and trap, but, fruitlessly, for a land route to India. Far less accommodating were fierce nomadic tribes such as the Assiniboin and Sioux, who relentlessly fought settlers and the U.S. Army.
• Century-old ruts in the prairie, left from the days of westward migrations, and an interpretive center in the town of Washburn that describes the North Dakota portion of a great expedition in 1804. In it, Meriwether Lewis and William Clark were dispatched by President Thomas Jefferson to explore and map the northwest territory just purchased from France.
• The International Peace Garden, a gigantic botanical plot in an unusual and, I would venture, inhospitable place, given the blizzards — way, way up at the Canadian line. Some 150,000 flowers, including some arranged in a huge floral clock, manage to spring to life during the short growing season. The park grew around a single memorial, erected in 1932 and dedicated “To God and His Glory.”
• Theodore Roosevelt National Park, straddling the Little Missouri River, where flat, monotonous farmland turns to rugged badlands. The park is named for the vigorous outdoorsman and future U.S. president who hunted bison in the Dakota hills in the 1880s, bought a cattle ranch there, and returned to what he called his “perfect freedom” of the West to mourn the death of his wife and mother.
• Rugby, North Dakota, to which you’ll want to bring your compass or global positioning device. The town of 3,000 is the geographical center of all of North America.
• The “Enchanted Highway,” a 51-km (32-mile) stretch of a county road near Dickinson, where artist Gary Greff has erected giant sculptures made of scrap metal — of deer, pheasants, grasshoppers, geese in flight, and huge women, kids, and men, including President Roosevelt.
You see, North Dakotans aren’t so boring. They are creative in really big ways. Farmers pull mammoth rocks out of the ground and paint them with historic scenes. The state boasts the world’s biggest bison — made of cement — and a gigantic cone constructed from thousands of used oil cans. “Salem Sue,” too. She’s the earth’s largest — and maybe only — painted, fiberglass Holstein cow.
Why do North Dakotans do such things? Some say they inherited their Scandanavian ancestors’ love of imagery. Others ascribe it to what might be called “sculpture envy” of South Dakota, whose massive Mount Rushmore monument to four U.S. presidents is a tourist magnet.
Or perhaps you can chalk it up to the time on their hands once the snow flies. North Dakotans themselves joke that they have just two seasons: winter, and the short time in between to fix the roads. Come the long, cold winter, as one North Dakota Internet blogger recounted, people calmly fire up their wood stoves, melt snow for water, throw on the ol’ boots and an extra layer of clothes, and send out caravans to pluck people out of snowdrifts.
Or they just stay in, keep warm, bake Julecake Christmas bread, sip some aquavit liqueur, and swap knee-slapping Sven-and-Ole jokes.
Ted's Wild Words
These are a few words from this posting that you may not know. Each time, I'll tell you a little about them and also place them into a cumulative archive of "Ted's Wild Words" in the right-hand column of the home page. Just click on it there, and if there's another word that you'd like me to explain, just ask!
Fluke. Something unexpected: usually a stroke of good luck.
Jousting. Taken from the medieval sport involving lance-carrying knights on horseback, jousting is now mostly spirited verbal competition.
Ponder. To reflect long and seriously about something.