Plains Folk

Knife River Flint


When we take our field school students out to the Knife River Flint Quarries, the visit always begins with a madcap episode that makes them laugh out loud. I try to run ahead to get the pasture gate, sometimes successfully, and then Gail Lynch opens the throttle on her golf cart to lead the expedition up a mowed path into the quarries.

This time the hilarity was prolonged, for as we gathered round the golf cart for our orientation to the site, Gail was primed, and she launched into a monologue berating a certain state official who had failed to show up for the dedication of the Knife River Flint Quarries as a national landmark. This included not only a recounting of the episode but also a reenactment.

Gail is the sort of woman who, if you show up at her door, is likely to say, “What the hell are you doing here?”, and then after that, “Well, I suppose you ought to have something to eat.” I don’t think I have to explain further.

The dedication of the flint quarries as a national landmark took place in June of this year and was organized substantially by National Park Service staff at Knife River Indian Villages, working with Gail on arrangements. It attracted a fine crowd of neighbors and luminaries, and the spirit of the occasion was good. The designation as a national landmark had come through a year ago, the culmination of a fairly long and deliberative process, the result of which is most pleasing to Gail and Allen Lynch.

Now Allen, he’s a little different sort of character, and I’ll get back to that, after I fill people in on the facts about the Knife River Flint Quarries. The Lynch Ranch lies alongside Spring Creek, a tributary of the Knife River, just east of Dunn Center. The Lynch family acquired this property more than a half-century ago, not realizing what they had, just knowing that the land was so covered with big holes in the ground it could never be farmed. Active coal mines underneath it, too, had caused sinkholes, which attracted the attention of an archeologist, who quickly got more interested in the flint quarries than the sinkholes. Subsequently Stan Ahler, then of the University of North Dakota, conducted significant excavations at nearby Lake Ilo, resulting in pretty good knowledge of the flint quarries, their significance, and their antiquity.

At least 11,000 years ago natives commenced expeditions to this place to extract blocks of brown flint, which lay in the earth as glacial till. They excavated chunks of the stuff, carried them to nearby anvil stones, and fashioned them into rough blanks for transportation home, wherever home might be—for Knife River flint was prized throughout the middle of North America. I carry a shard of it myself in my pocket as a talisman, and now and then pull it out to cut a beefsteak.

I do not mean to speak lightly of this, for the Lynch flint quarries constitute an archeological and historic site of the most profound significance that will be the source of pride and prestige to North Dakota for centuries to come. The Lynches, to their credit, are fully cognizant of this, and treasure the resource that history has placed into their hands.

Our visit always eventuates into the Artifact Room, which phrase, “Artifact Room,” I encourage you to read in at least two ways and perhaps more. This is Allen’s space in the house, where he gathers, broods upon, and grows mystic in the presence of his collections. Gail, you see, is not a brooder. She is an organizer, and she values the importance of the flint quarries to the community. Allen, he is transported by the artifacts and feels communion with their makers.


These are two different, and both wonderful, responses to the presence of antiquities at our feet. Antiquities need keepers, mystics need antiquities, and we are fortunate to have them all.


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