Plains Folk

Prairie Earth


Following a late-night return from the field school on historic earth buildings, I’m thinking, this is the way people should see North Dakota, and particularly western North Dakota.

So often tourism is a packaged experience of so-called attractions and engineered hospitality. Even if you plan your own itinerary and travel on your own, it’s hard to break free of the usual patterns. When you do, the rewards are great.

The past few years Suzzanne and I have been teaching a summer field school called “Prairie Earth, Prairie Homes.” Its focus is historic buildings made of earth. Right away you think of sod, meaning cut sod laid up into walls, but there are many ways of building with earth, representing many traditions and styles. Because the earliest earth building traditions are native, we start at the

Knife River Indian Villages. This is a National Park Service site, but you know, you won’t find yourself fighting crowds there. Up the road near Dunn Center, to make the point that resource extraction has a long history in these parts–as in about 11 or 12,000 years–we stop in to see Gail and Allan Lynch at the Knife River flint quarries. This is a private site, just this summer designated a national historic landmark by the secretary of the interior. At both these places your imagination runs free, and you get a sense of the antiquity of life in these parts.

We spend several days working on the historic Hutmacher farm, a German-Russian farmstead of earth-roofed buildings in Dunn County. Here antiquity and modernity mix and sometimes collide, as petroleum development writes a new chapter in the history of regional resource extraction.

Our other travels during the field school make a backlash snarl on the map of western North Dakota. Billings County offers the houses of Ukrainian homesteaders, who built walls of earth in an old-country style unlike any other building tradition on the prairies. German-Russian buildings are everywhere, many of them well-preserved and making adept use of native stone, gumbo clay, and, pardon me for saying so, cow manure as materials of construction.

North Dakota has its sod houses, too, commonly built by Anglo-Americans or by Norwegians. One of them stands in the ghost town of Haley, down on Grand River, a place where the past is so present you cannot fail to sense it.

The richness of the region is not confined to historical features, however, and travel across it is all the more flavorful if you take your chances on local cafes, drive-ins, and bar & grills. A modest but well-run establishment like the Poolside Drive-In of Mott is a place not only to stoke up on sloppy burgers but also to observe humanity coming and going. The Eats N Treats Drive-In of Bowman is a regular entrepot, and the soups, especially the creamy ones like the knoephle or the potato-bacon, areĀ  terrific.

The Buckskin of Killdeer pretty much sets the standard for a western bar & grill. And do not disdain an eating establishment just because it is in a bowling alley! You are well served in a place such as the Western Edge Cafe & Lanes, in New England.

And now, the piece de resistance–rhubarb custard pie at the Four Comers Cafe, Fairfield. None better. So, how do you find out about all these heritage sites and watering holes across North Dakota? Well, stay tuned right here.

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