Plains Folk

Heritage Trails


Where a tire track curves into an open pasture, we call that a prairie trail. Where the section line is graded only occasionally, and the traffic is mostly just farm machinery, that’s a minimum maintenance road. Other section roads are graveled, and a step up from that, some county roads get the asphalt treatment. Then you have the red-line highways, and for the smoothest ride, your green lines, your four-lane, limited access highways.


Where will you find the good stuff, the relics of local culture, the outcroppings of heritage, the tastes of country cuisine, the real things in real places? Well, it could be along any of these roads, although I confess a partiality for the ones less traveled. If you’d like to ride along, or pick up tips for destinations of your own, or share your own explorations, there is a place online for that. It’s called Heritage Trails.


For more than a decade now I have directed a little research office at NDSU called the Center for Heritage Renewal. Its business is to identify heritage resources in the North Dakota countryside; help to preserve them for posterity and for use; and point out their value, both cultural and economic. We have a particular penchant to discover and talk about points of interest that are under the radar – things that have been lost, neglected, or just never before considered to be historic.


Heritage Trails, a group operating on the social media platform Facebook, takes the work of heritage renewal into the realm of crowdsourcing. Here we of the center, and our friends who explore the northern plains in search of intriguing stuff, talk about such things, sometimes brag about them. Go ahead, search for the group in Facebook, and join in the discussion.


Some of what figures here is keyed to calendar. Right now, for instance, there is a lot of county fair activity, along with centennial and jubilee celebrations, the regular stuff of summer. We are easing into the season for threshing shows, and after that will come fall suppers, and so on through the yearly round. Every such event featured in Heritage Trails is an invitation to enter into a heritage community somewhere in our territory.


The rest of the material discussed in the group is stuff to be found fixed on the ground – heritage buildings, monuments, weird roadside monstrosities, forgotten works of art, purveyors of traditional craft and cuisine – stuff that people go exploring for.


Once a week in Heritage Trails we have a feature called Where-Are-We-Wednesday. I just posted this week’s photo, depicting a particular badlands formation west of Marmarth called the Woman in Stone. I don’t think anybody will guess this one, because I had a heck of a time finding it myself. There are some regular group participants, though, who like to turn the tables and post images that stump us, too.


About 500 people are in the group. So, what’s the point? First, there is solid value in this stuff. It books motel rooms in Wishek and brings diners to Dickinson. Second, it enriches our lives here on the northern plains. It gives us the sense we live in a storied land, a place that matters.


And third, there is a feedback effect in communities across the region. We all need occasional bits of validation, positive feedback. When travelers come to town and ask about this or that attraction, it makes us feel better about our own particular places. We have stuff, things in our everyday lives, that other people find fascinating.


So come online for the discussion. But more important, get offline and explore. I always like to say, there’s a story up every section road.

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