Plains Folk

A Fresh Approach

 

One of the best descriptions of the character of the people of North Dakota comes from the historian Catherine McNicol Stock, in her book, Main Street in Crisis: The Great Depression and the Old Middle Class on the Northern Plains. Catherine describes us as a “producerist” people, inclined to practicality, industrious in habits, not cordial to flights of idealism.

I’m not sure that G. Ernst Giesecke grasped that character when he arrived in Fargo in 1949 to become dean of the School of Applied Arts & Sciences at North Dakota Agricultural College (which would not become North Dakota State University until 1960). NDAC was a land grant college, founded under the Morrill Act of 1862, but it was one of those often referred to as the “baby land grants”–meaning that, unlike most institutions across the country, it interpreted the “liberal” part of the Morrill Act, which charged the colleges to deliver “liberal and practical” education, as not much liberal and mostly practical.

The baby land-grant colleges included North Dakota, South Dakota, and Montana. The reason generally given for their prescribed status was lack of resources in the prairie states. The producerist character of the people also figured in this situation, however. Which was why Giesecke was hired as dean of Applied Arts & Sciences, not just Arts & Sciences, the term used at other colleges across the country. NDAC didn’t want anyone to think it was doing art or science just for its own sake. Everything had to be applied, practical. Nor would there be any advanced degrees in the arts, liberal arts, or sciences.

So, Giesecke found his faculty, as he said, had begun to “chafe” under the “stigma” of being in an “impractical” school–and therefore, always on the short end of the stick in struggles for respect or resources. The artists, the historians, the sociologists, even the biologists felt like second-class citizens at best.

This was a key reason that Dean Giesecke, along with the library director and five faculty members, founded what they called the Institute for Regional Studies. Giesecke figured that the way to get respect at North Dakota Agricultural College was to cast his lot with the land and people of North Dakota–the way they did in the college of agriculture, the experiment station, and the extension service. He would turn around his liberal arts faculty and point them toward the practical consideration of the problems and possibilities of life on the plains.

Giesecke and his gang resolved to generate new research about life on the prairies; create a research center, or archive; encourage artistic expression; and publish scholarly works that would bolster the understanding of regional life. His founding of the Institute for Regional Studies was intended to elevate his school, and its region, out of colonial status.

It was important that Giesecke came here from Texas. He was a German from the Texas Hill Country. He was familiar with what I have been calling here “the regional project,” the recognition of the Great Plains as a place worth studying in their own right, and a good place, too. Scholars in Texas and Oklahoma got the regional project going during the 1920s. Trumping their lead, Giesecke proceeded to found what is now recognized as the oldest regional studies center on the Great Plains of North America–the Institute for Regional Studies, at North Dakota State University.

You know, I’m on the Carson Wentz Wagon as much as anyone else these days, but when it comes to putting North Dakota on the map, Ernst Giesecke is the name to remember.

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