Plains Folk

Earth People


Just home from the annual NDSU field school on historic earth buildings, I’ve come to reconsider the nature of the enterprise. It’s supposed to be about, well, historic earth buildings, which happen to be situated in the magnificent western North Dakota landscape. More and more, though, it’s getting to be about the people associated with the buildings and the landscape, people who partake of the character of the earth.

There are, of course, the historic personages, the homesteaders who cut or mixed the earth into dwellings and, literally, made themselves at home. There are, too, the beautiful students who make the journey with us, and give us hope that the pioneer spirit lives on. Most of all, though, I’m talking about the people in place on the land today, each one typical, each one individual, each one a joy to get to know.

When Lois Fink welcomes us into the Grassy Butte post office, a log-and-sod building constructed by a Ukrainian immigrant, it is as though we are meeting Mrs. McKenzie, the original postmistress.

Down the road (Highway 85) at St. Demetrius Ukrainian Catholic Church, Father Taras Miles dispenses knowledge, wisdom, and charity seasoned with wit as he explains the iconography of the St. Demetrius sanctuary and the history of the parish. His able and dedicated deacon, Leonard Kordonowy, free of the regalia by which we know him during mass, this time attired in jeans and manly footwear, leads us out to Ukrainian homestead and village sites. Ukrainian homestead houses are spectacular buildings constructed in unmistakable style, but the experience is all the more rich when Deacon Leonard scans the horizon and sketches in the landscape of memory, pausing now and then to instruct the young folks with the wisdom of experience. (And allow me now to join with all the others congratulating the deacon on his twenty-five years of service at St. Demetrius. I hope the presence of two bishops along with your friends and family, Deacon Leonard, was enough to make you feel how much you are appreciated.)

Lucinda Martin, at the Dunn County Historical Museum, and Shirley Halvorson, at the Mott Gallery of History and Art, are so absorbed in their collections that you feel like if someone didn’t make them go home, they would take up residence and sleep over with the artifacts. Over east of Mott, Jim Stern is always willing to take a little time after work to show off his grandparents’ homestead house-barn, with its masterly stonework.

(A little question in the sidebar: What two types of people on the northern plains built homes that brought livestock under the same roof as the people? That would be the native builders of earthlodges, the Mandan, Hidatsa, and Arikara, and the Germans from Russia, as illustrated by the Stern homestead house.)

Landowners like Jim Odermann, of Belfield, and Lynn Braun, of Scranton, come out to the field to talk with the students and exchange observations about their historic earth buildings, because they simply are curious about how people built and lived in houses of earth.

I must not fail to mention the Benedictine hospitality that makes it possible for a company of scholars to study and work in western North Dakota during its current economic boom. Brother Michael and the monks of Assumption Abbey welcome us in the spirit of their order. Attendance at mass with the brothers is an excellent way to center the students for the field school experience. And when Brother Placid Gross strolls over for a chat after vespers, I could listen to him all night, just for the cadence of his speech, which is just as much a product of the earth as the buildings we study.

I haven’t gotten around to the pleasures of a visit with Gail and Allen Lynch, at the Knife River Flint Quarries, but I’ll do that next week.

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