This little essay has been building up in me ever since I went to Elroy Lindaas’s barn dance, over east of Mayville. I’ll tell you about it later, but for now, I’ll just recall the buttery light that shafted down from the loft doors, and the gentle laughter that slid down the light to the grassy lot outside, and the palpable sense that something important, though humble, was going on in that loft.
The sentiments built as I attended the St. Mary’s Church Fall Supper, over east of Sibley, grabbed a second piece of home-made pumpkin (actually I think the second piece was butternut squash) pie, and gathered the tales of kraut-cutting by the Ladies Aid. In the words of the hymnal, this was “mystic sweet communion” with a tradition that binds community. I say this in grandiloquent fashion, I know, and the participants would tell me I am over the top, but there is more going on here than the feeding of a multitude.
Then I drove my grandkids over to the prairie town of Chesterfield (don’t look for it on a map, I’ve changed the name), where every Halloween the volunteer fire brigade opens the fire hall to kids from anywhere, organizes games and treats, and gives the kids rides on the fire truck. The fire hall isn’t much, just a metal building with a concrete floor, but on this evening it teems.
Firemen at tables dispense hot dogs, cookies, and drinks. Others man booths and games—you know, like the old fishing game, and balloons and darts, where everybody wins. Outside there’s a small brigade tossing kids in and out of the truck for their ritual ride around town, which doesn’t take long.
What I try to do in Plains Folk, you see, is my part in the renewal of community and the sense of place in this part of the country. My way of doing that is through narrative. I tell stories. A place isn’t a place, and people don’t build community, unless there are stories about it. The very best sort of stories, of course, are those like Senator Lindaas’s barn dance, the St. Mary’s Church Fall Supper, and the Chesterfield Volunteer Fire Department Halloween party. These are stories about community intended to make community.
I’ll tell you something else about community and place on the plains. At the grass roots, a viable community is an open community, where newcomers can enter in and have a piece of the place.
I stood with my grandson waiting to throw darts at balloons, and in front of us was a little guy named Xavier. His mama was Norwegian, but his daddy was a beet-blocker. He got in there and claimed his prize, and was hefted high on a fireman’s shoulder, too, and jammed in with the other kids for his ride.
Around me I saw some young women, with kids, but no men. People that Republicans like me often pick on. Welfare mothers. People down and out, come to this prairie town because they can live cheap and find a local support network. Single mothers, often down and out—you find them in every such prairie town. Look around this fire hall, though, and if you don’t envision these gals marrying volunteer firemen, and after a few years running the PTA, and over time repaying the town in social capital with extra interest, then you do not have a prairie imagination, and you need to live somewhere else.
Xavier, little friend, I’d love to see you in about twelve years as a freshman History major at my university. You’ll find me braiding a catch-rope of many strands. Give me your own strand; that will be the story of your own people in the Red River Valley of the North. Help me braid it in tight, because your young fingers are better than mine. Then when I’m too old and stiff to climb into the saddle, I’m going to give you that catch-rope.