Plains Folk

Encyclopedia of the Great Plains

So what do you want to know about life in this part of the country? There’s a good chance you’ll find it in the Encyclopedia of the Great Plains, new this year from the University of Nebraska Press.

Don’t drop it on your toe. This is a landmark work of 919 8.5×11” pages. The contents are arranged according to broad subject: Agriculture, Film, Religion, or Water, for instance. Each such topical section begins with a general essay by a distinguished scholar, after which appear numerous more specialized entries following up on the general subject. It’s a reader-friendly approach, because if you’re interested in Agriculture or Religion specifically, you can go to that section and read it straight through.

The authors recruited to write articles are logical and authoritative. My erstwhile coauthor Jim Hoy, for instance, contributes articles on (in order of appearance) “Texas Fever,” “Center for Great Plains Studies at Emporia State University,” “Cattle Guards,” “Mythical Animals,” “Cowboy Poetry,” and “Rodeo.” I did the articles on custom combining and on Hardy Webster Campbell (the developer and promoter of dry farming).

Most of the articles read like, well, encyclopedia articles. Whether the subject is George McGovern or Bob Dole, the authors provide evenhanded coverage. Occasionally it’s evident that a writer is a little too close to the subject. For instance, the author of the entry entitled, “Roswell Aliens,” states rather definitely that space aliens crashed at Roswell, New Mexico, in July 1947. (The author works for the International UFO Museum in Roswell.) I’m not convinced, although I’m pretty sure I saw some space aliens once at a Jerry Jeff Walker concert.

A work such as the Encyclopedia of the Great Plains is not meant to advance the frontiers of knowledge. It is meant to consolidate knowledge, most would say—to set down what is known in authoritative fashion. To consider the book merely a compendium of information, though, is to miss the main point.

The book is a statement. It says, the Great Plains are not a Great American Desert, not a Buffalo Commons, not just Flyover Country (although there are entries under all those headings). It says the Great Plains are a place, a place where people live and live well, but they have suffered, too. A place with authors and inventions, activists and thinkers, legends and heroes. A place that offers a lot to the rest of the country, but is worth considering, too, just for its own sake.

And besides, you can harvest from the book some nifty trivia to amaze or exasperate your friends. Were you aware, for instance, that the headbolt heater—the device that made it possible to start cars on the northern plains before we had fuel injection—was invented by Andrew Freeman, an engineer for Minnkota Power Cooperative, in Grand Forks, North Dakota, in 1947? Now you know. But do you know where Buddy Holly recorded his first hit song, “That’ll Be the Day”? I’ll bet you do, but if not, I can tell you where to look it up.


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