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Earth and Mystery in Billings County

 

In the course of our travels with the NDSU field school on historic earth buildings, we have become more and more fond of Billings County and its Ukrainian culture region.

The features and contours of this region are not well known. People stream through it via Highway 85, often shuttling between the north and south units of Theodore Roosevelt National Park, and remain unaware of its cultural distinctiveness. Nowadays, too, you better keep moving right along, because with the petroleum boom, and with the northern reaches of Highway 22 closed by mudslides, Highway 85 is like an urban freeway compressed into two lanes.

Because we’re looking for historic buildings, though, we pull off and find things not to be seen anywhere else across the state. Ukrainian immigrants arrived here and took homesteads during the first decade of the twentieth century. As they commenced their improvements, including both residences and outbuildings, they built in old country style, using a mix of earth and timber.

A Ukrainian home builder first trekked over west to the badlands and cut some cedar posts. These posts then were set vertical into the ground to outline a building. Horizontal lath, or in some cases sticks of brush, perhaps split in half, were nailed up and down the posts. Then the cavity between the lath was filled from above with a mix of gumbo clay and manure and straw, producing a wall supported by the posts and insulated by the earth.

The classic Ukrainian house had two rooms, which could be quite commodious. If built in true old-country style, it had a distinctively belled hip roof.

Many of these Ukrainian homestead buildings still stand, most of them in some state of decay, a few still inhabited. Land patent files reveal there used to be many more of them, including barns as long as sixty feet, constructed of posts and clay.

Our interest in this Ukrainian culture region is heightened by our acquaintance with Father Taras Miles, the priest of the Ukrainian Catholic churches in Belfield and Fairfield. The latter is a country church, St. Demetrius, where we had the pleasure of attending mass this summer.

This was an experience to be savored (although I am sure my Missouri Synod Lutheran grandmother was rolling in her grave). Arriving early, we heard women in the choir loft repeating the rosary, a comforting drone over the sanctuary that centered attendees for the service to follow. Father Miles explained to us that the Ukrainian Catholic mass is a “sensate experience,” and we should just “let it happen.” He was right, as our attempts to follow the liturgy soon were stymied by our lack of Ukrainian language skills and by the mysteries of the faith. Of course, mystery is a fine thing, and faith is a mystery not only to outsiders but also, perhaps especially, to adherents.

The choir, mostly male, was wonderful. How just five guys can produce such sound is another mystery of the faith. Four-part harmony, parallel thirds, unison singing, octaves, they filled the church.

After mass it was up the road to the Four Corners Cafe for dinner with Father Miles and with Deacon Leonard Kordonowy, his wife Laverne, and their great-granddaughter Stephanie. I will not talk again about the rhubarb custard pie served by Stephanie Klym at Four Corners. Oh the heck I won’t, that pie is terrific!

And it is just one thing that will bring us back to Billings County again and again.

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