Plains Folk

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Gopher Tales and Football Stories

 

One of the great resources for grassroots folklife on the northern plains is the local history collection of the Institute for Regional Studies, at North Dakota State University. I love it that the shelves are open to users in the reading room, so you can pull down a dozen different centennial histories of this or that county and immerse yourself. The effect can be transporting. You begin to realize how profoundly different was the mentalité of prairie life a century ago.

About this time in 1914, for instance, citizens petitioned the Emmons County commissioners to place a bounty on gopher tails: 2¢ per tail in April or 1¢ per tail May through June 15. The commission agreed that gopher tails would be received by the county auditor, who would pay on lots of fifty only, after which he gave them to the building janitor to burn.

Only kids would watch for the janitor to put the bags of tails into the incinerator, rake them out, and turn them in again. And again.

Stores in the county’s towns took gopher tails in trade for penny candy. Storekeepers took turns taking the tails over to the courthouse in Linton. County employees hated this whole business. A photo in the Emmons County centennial history shows Judge Carley, court clerk Fogle, treasurer Irwin, and sheriff Kyes—all of them nearly hidden behind stacks of gopher tails, thousands of them.

And that’s just the beginning of the story, because a lot more happened off-camera, so to speak. I’m sitting in the reading room trying not to disturb others by laughing out loud, thinking about all those Emmons County kids snaring gophers with twine, drowning them out with tank wagons from the threshing outfit, madly competing for pocket money, and then stealing their own tales back, or better yet someone else’s, while the janitor isn’t looking, or maybe when he is looking, why should he care?

And while we’re laughing about old times, let’s talk about the first football game ever played by the boys from Ashley, in 1921. They borrowed uniforms from the state normal school and took the train over to play Mandan, despite the fact that only one of them had ever even seen a football game played.

Local historian Adam Walker writes that after Mandan had scored a few touchdowns, one of the referees advised the Ashley boys they really ought to tackle somebody. Walker recalls specifically—because it was a rare and notable event—that Art Meidinger was the first to tackle one of the Mandan players, and he was quite pleased with himself.

Evidently the Ashley boys had a good time and were not discouraged by the final score of their first contest: Mandan 146, Ashley 0. In fact they went on to win their next game against Eureka Lutheran College, playing this game in blue overalls, with no pads. By this time, though, having learned from the Mandan boys that cleats were helpful, they had gotten a local shoemaker to retrofit their shoes with cleats. They beat Kulm, too, 60 to nothing.

It only cost about three dollars to get the team kitted out with cleats. Which means, in those days, you could field a football team for the price of 150 gopher tails.

 

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