William L. Guy

North Dakota: A Child of Yesterday, Child of Promise

Even by American standards, North Dakota is a child of yesterday. The Declaration of Independence was written 238 years ago, and the Constitution 227 years ago. I spent some time last week with Grace Link, the former First Lady of North Dakota. She is 96. That means she has been alive for 76% of North Dakota history. She is strong and healthy and eager to talk the issues. "Well," she says, pushing a plate of homemade cookies across the table, "I guess I am slowing down a little." And all I could think was, when I'm 96, I will have been dead for 15 years. It's ok to slow down a little. There are many North Dakotans older than Grace. We have been a state for not much more than one long lifetime. Art Link's parents were immigrants who came to northwestern North Dakota from the Sudetenland. We are that recent on the world's stage.

In England I lived for a time in a house that was built 300 years before President Harrison signed North Dakota's statehood papers in 1889. We are just getting started here.

It always makes me a little uneasy, however, to conflate North Dakota statehood with North Dakota history. Native Americans had been in this place for thousands of years, perhaps tens of thousands of years, before white people stumbled in. They had developed an integrated and sustainable lifeway in a very harsh environment that left a light, almost imperceptible footprint on the land. We should have listened more and conquered less; we still should. The earthlodge villages clustered around the Heart and Knife Rivers were the epicenter of a continental trade network before Columbus first held a mariner's compass in his hands. Even the white history of North Dakota is much longer than the story of our statehood suggests. The French explorer Verendrye was here in 1738, and Lewis and Clark lingered among the Mandan and Hidatsa in 1804-05. It's easy to slip into Eurocentrism in talking about the history of North Dakota.

The first person to file a homestead claim in North Dakota was a man named Joseph Rolette. The date was June 10, 1868. I have never been to the site, Section 4, Township 163-57, Pembina County, but I mean to make a pilgrimage. Actually, he never proved up his claim. By 1925, 39% of North Dakota's total acreage had been homesteaded, 17,417,466 acres, 118,472 total claims. Only Nebraska had a higher percentage of land taken up by homesteaders. The number of farms has steadily declined in the course of North Dakota history. Today, there are approximately 31,000 farms in the state. It goes down by 200 or so per year, though I am predicting that that number will begin to rise as the "new agrarian movement" takes root on the northern plains and young couples create smaller non-traditional farms like islands in an agribusiness sea. Meanwhile, after the Civil War, a huge swath of North Dakota was given to the railroads as an incentive to thrust their rails across so unlikely a landscape. The total runs to more than 10 million acres.

The first hundred years of North Dakota history represent our agrarian phase. We all know this story: family farmers struggling to eke out a living against seemingly impossible odds: a fierce climate with a short growing season, periodic drought, a weak credit and transportation infrastructure, and—frequently enough—exploitation by out-of-state railroads, milling companies, and banks. That first century was punctuated with periodic attempts by the farmers to take control of their destiny: the Grange, the Populist Party, the Farmers Alliance, the Socialist Party, the Nonpartisan League, the Farmers' Holiday Association, the cooperative movement, etc. In the end, it was the New Deal and the postwar federal Farm Program, coupled with reasonable consolidation, that brought economic stability to the North Dakota family farm.

What we needed most of all was economic diversity. Great leaders like William L. Guy (1960-72) worked to make sure that some of the value-added remained in North Dakota by way of mine-mouth coal generating plants, and sugar beet processing within our boundaries; and Governor Ed Schafer (1992-2000) carefully crafted a business-friendly climate by way of our tax and regulatory protocols.

Since the ND Centennial (1989), and certainly since the Millennium, North Dakota has been beginning to pass out of its agrarian phase into something else. Agriculture was still the number one industry in North Dakota, but fewer young people wanted to stay on the land, and the rural population of North Dakota had begun a dramatic mass exodus to our cities. Then came the Bakken Oil Boom. If ever there was a fundamental "game changer" in North Dakota history, it was the confluence of a limitless volume of oil bearing shale and breathtaking new extraction technologies. Agriculture will, of course, continue, but, west of the Missouri River, we are rapidly becoming an industrialized landscape that produces more wealth from carbon than from wheat, cattle, and corn. It's going to be wild ride in the next 50 years.

Still, to understand what it is (or at least what it has been) to be a North Dakotan, you have to drive on blacktop roads for five or six hours on a gray wintry day with some ground drifting of snow flurries. It may be mid-morning or mid-afternoon, but the clouds are dark and looming and close to the earth, and the sun, if it appears at all, is nothing but a pale silhouetted disk you can sometimes make out where the cloud cover is thin. It's day, but it feels as if God forgot to turn all the banks of lights on. The earth is inert and everything seems to be in hibernation. The trees of the shelter belts are bare. From inside your car you can almost hear the rattle of the bleached out corn stalks in the wind. A tumbleweed rolls over the gray asphalt on its way to Texas. You drive past one abandoned farmstead after the next. You know the ones that are still occupied, because there are six or eight vehicles parked in the circular drive. You can drive all day through that countryside and it looks essentially the same all day. It's not quite flat. Here and there you cross a coulee where the road dips down to accommodate, or you climb up over a rill, and always you feel the swell of the Great Plains. It is a vast brooding landscape in every direction seemingly to the end of the earth. Every twenty minutes you pass through a town or what used to be a town, with a silver water tower with some painted out graffiti on it, a hapless main street where you find a Rexall Drug store and think, "Wow, there are still Rexall Drug stores!" A café with eight big pickups parked haphazardly around its corner lot. Three bars. A post office in a Quonset. The library/senior citizens center in the old J.C. Penny building. And then suddenly you have drifted past the King Kone Drive In at the end of town, "closed for the winter Go Bobcats!!" and you are back out in the big open again, and the ground drifts are getting a little more frequent and ominous.

You feel free. And you feel little. At the same time.

This is North Dakota. The land matters at least as much as the civilization we have plopped on it. At least for now.