“My own people were pioneers,” declares Bertha Rachael Palmer in her book, Beauty Spots in North Dakota. “North Dakota is my home state, the more I know about her the keener is my appreciation for her.”
The book, published in 1928, is a work of patriotism on the part of Palmer. A member of the Daughters of the American Revolution, she dated her family roots back to the Mayflower and her personal story to a farm near Minnewaukan. She graduated from Devils Lake High School and, in 1903, from Mayville Teachers College.
Palmer never married, as she was fully occupied with her professional and personal interests. She taught school for twenty years, served as deputy to State Superintendent of Public Instruction Minnie Nielson, and won election to that post herself in 1926. She served in that office until 1933, when she went to work as an educational officer of the Women’s Christian Temperance Union. She wrote bulletins for the WCTU and traveled the country lecturing.
This makes it sound like Palmer might have been a stodgy spoilsport, but examining her WCTU bulletins, I find them gracefully written and lucidly argued. Palmer served the WCTU until 1959, the year of her death.
Her papers are held by the State Historical Society of North Dakota, where Gregory Camp has provided a fine biographical sketch of her.
So Palmer published Beauty Spots of North Dakota when she was State Superintendent of Public Instruction. She likely regarded it as an educational work. She was reacting against a popular attitude in North Dakota, where people seemed to adhere to a certain creed, which goes like this, she writes.
“We, the people of North Dakota, in order to see silvery streams and sparkling lakes, wooded slopes and shady dales, rolling hills, precipitous buttes and rocky canyons, shall at every opportunity hie ourselves to the broad expanses of Canada, the northern counties of Minnesota or the Black Hills of South Dakota, to insure to ourselves and our children, as we fly by in auto or railway train, brief glimpses of SCENERY for the enrichment of intellect and the broadening of experience.”
“Popular opinion to the contrary notwithstanding,” insists Palmer, “North Dakota contains wonderful and beautiful scenery, as majestic, as colorful, as fantastic and grotesque, as restful and peaceful, as glorious and inspiring as is found anywhere.”
Patriotism is good, and appreciation of your home state is good, but come on now, beauty spots in North Dakota, and scenery the equal of any to be found anywhere? Is this woman serious?
She is, and her argument makes sense, when you consider what she is reacting against. The problem was what came to be known during the 18th and 19th centuries as the doctrine of the sublime, which sought edification in features of nature that were beyond beautiful, were spectacular to the point of extremity, even bizarre. Palmer is telling us, there is plenty of beauty near at hand, and more is just overload.
I think of it this way. If you have an eye for beauty, then there is an infinite amount of it at any point of creation. If you lack beauty in your place, well, whose fault is that? So I’m with Bertha Rachael Palmer on this, and I’m looking for a good used copy of her book to grace my shelf.
Besides which, it’s obvious from her writing that she really got around North Dakota, and she asked people a lot of fool questions. I’d carry her bags for a while.