Today is North Dakota's 125th birthday. On this day in 1989, at 3:40 EST, President Benjamin Harrison shuffled the statehood papers for North and South Dakota, signed them, and shuffled them again, so that it would be impossible to know whether we were the 39th or 40th state. Today North Dakota is giving itself a fabulous 125th birthday gift. The magnificent $52 million expansion of the North Dakota Heritage Center is celebrating its grand opening today. Our state museum has always been great. Now it is world class.
After a 125-year struggle to forge a viable rural civilization in an exceptionally challenging environment at the heart of North America (Eric Sevareid's "blank rectangle"), about as far from the centers of power, money, culture, and access as it is possible to be, suddenly everything seems possible for North Dakota. Many of the bedeviling historic problems of North Dakota life have suddenly been "solved" or at least addressed in a way we could not have expected back in 1989, when we "celebrated" our state Centennial in a somewhat muted and anxious manner. Those historic challenges--outmigration, rural decline, the slow death of small towns, underfunded public institutions, including K-12 schools and higher education, economic marginality, over-dependence on agriculture and federal aid—all seem less dramatic today.
For most of North Dakota history we have been a quiet agrarian people. As late as 1975 it would not have been inappropriate for us to erected winter-welded signs at the portals leading into North Dakota, saying, "Those who labor in the earth are the chosen people of God, if ever he had a chosen people." That's Thomas Jefferson speaking, the man who bought North Dakota but never visited it, a man who never had to feed calves at 47 below or shovel out the fermented grain at the bottom of the bin.
As long as food matters—and what matters more in life?—North Dakota will be primarily a farm state. Oil may bring in greater revenues, but I agree with the Jeffersonians, including former ND Governor Arthur A. Link, that the highest and best use of our land is family farms. In fact, I believe a new agrarian movement (even revolution) is taking root in America, and that the number of farms in North Dakota will start to grow, though they will not be the industrial giants of the late twentieth century.
We have never been a glamorous people and the great majority of us could never be accused of being fashionable. For most of our history we have found it possible to live here only through hard work, gumption and grim perseverance, frugality, stoicism, thrift, and extremely modest expectations. Almost every one of us has kin who were cash poor all of their lives, conservative in every purchase and every life decision, dressed usually in patched and hand-me-down clothing, humble to the point of self-effacement, but who managed somehow to put one or more of their children through college, and died in genuine prosperity. I remember watching my grandmother Rhoda pay an old hired man at the end of the wheat harvest. She carefully put a few dollars into his gnarled hands, and then pressed a handful of coins into his palm. She paid him to the penny, and there was no possibility that she would round up his wages to the next dollar. Things were that tight.
That set of dynamics made us who we are. There is something magnificent about it.
It was said of Thomas Jefferson that he could "tie an artery, plan an edifice, try a cause, break a horse, and dance the minuet." For that he is regarded as America's Renaissance man. But the farmers and ranchers of North Dakota, and their sons and daughters, can—even now--strip an engine, cultivate a field, judge a rodeo, weld a chassis, build a barn or fence, wire a house, pull a calf, roof a shed, dig a drain field, drive a school bus, milk a cow, eviscerate an antelope, can cucumbers and tomatoes, back a horse trailer into a crowded space, chair a meeting, or lead a capital campaign to build a new church. This massive, marvelous competence and pragmatism has allowed us to survive in the semi-arid, windswept, and sub-arctic place we call North Dakota. We Dakotans are outstanding at the basics, and—in the end—the basics matter most of all. When the national or world collapse comes, where do you want to be, midtown Manhattan or Mott, Los Angeles or Linton?
We have been through some very tough times in the history of North Dakota. In 1933, for example, the average North Dakotan earned $145 per year, compared to the national average, in that terrible time, of $375. More North Dakotans abandoned farms and left the state during the 1930s than at any other time during our history. Steinbeck could more accurately have written The Grapes of Wrath about North Dakota than Oklahoma and Arkansas. Say what you want about FDR and the New Deal, but his rural stabilization programs saved North Dakota, and rural electrification was one of the most significant things that ever happened on the Great Plains. At one point, in 1935, 175,000 North Dakotans were on direct federal assistance. The federal government has played an essential role in North Dakota's survival.
Historically, we have exported wheat and cattle, coal, and oil, but also topsoil, water, and our young people. Things are changing now, thanks mostly to new technologies. The Bakken boom is convincing many of our children to stay in North Dakota, rather than fulfill their early adult dreams elsewhere, and the new amenities that come with economic success make North Dakota more attractive in cuisine and culture than ever before. Genetic modification has brought us drought-resistant strains of wheat and corn that enable us to harvest abundance much more often than in the first 100 years of North Dakota history. North Dakota was one of the pioneers of no-till agriculture. Soil erosion—one of the most significant problems of North Dakota history—is now largely a forgotten issue.
From an economic point of view (jobs, prosperity, lowered taxes, state budget surpluses, opportunity for new businesses, adequate funding of our basic institutions), this is the very best time in our 125-year history. It seems to me that no rational being, surveying the long, sometimes grim, struggle of North Dakota history, can wish the Bakken boom had never happened or would go away. (Managing it wisely, at a sustainable pace, with the fewest growing pains, is another matter altogether). If we had to choose birthday messages for North Dakota on November 2, 2014, we'd want to quote Prime Minister Harold Macmillan, who told the people of Great Britain in 1957, "You've never had it so good."
Life is easier now. There is far less heavy lifting.
My concern is whether the "new North Dakota" will be as successful in shaping human character, resourcefulness, and integrity as the old one that is so undeniably and perhaps inevitably passing into ancient myth. There is no turning back. Most North Dakotans frankly do not wish to go back to or even romanticize that more strenuous, marginal, hardscrabble life. But all of us, I believe, recognize that something that has been essential to our identity as a people is being lost, and that in some important way we will be less even as we are more. That's the paradox of modernity.
I love this place.
Happy birthday North Dakota.