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Reflections on the Great Plains: Dr. Tom Isern publishes 'Pacing Dakota'

Dr. Thomas D. Isern, a history professor and radio personality, has compiled his essays into a newly published book titled “Pacing Dakota.”

His most recent book tour took him to Williston, Minot, and Western Edge Books at Medora where he was guest of an autograph party.

“Pacing Dakota” is described as a collection of stories reflecting on the history and culture of the Great Plains of North America.  The author has collected stories from Williston to Wahpeton. His observations cover everything from windmills and prairie churches to sod houses and cast-iron grave markers.

Speaking  from Fargo, Isern said he grew up on a Kansas wheat farm and  currently is a Distinguished Professor of History at North Dakota State University.

“I started writing when I lived in Kansas,” Isern said. “I was at  Emporia State University in Kansas for 10 years before I came here.”

People of the region recognize Isern’s voice from “Plains Folk,” his weekly feature on Prairie Public Radio. Some of the radio script  is included in the book.

“A lot of what I write about, I call ‘road kill.’ I may be speaking at a local museum. I may be visiting at a school or college in the region, or I may be chasing sharptail grouse. I stop and talk to people -- that leads to lots of topics.”

Some of his library archival research he calls ‘fireplace subjects.’

“It’s a long winter and I will sit around and get to wondering about the history of the Great Plains,” he said.

As Isern  accumulates stories, they began to reveal the identity of the people living on the Great Plains.

“There’s a diversity of people, but their stories ought to be told,” he said. “I spent a lot of time working with the Germans from Russia. German-Russian  stories tend toward the tragic -- the whole family wiped out by diphtheria or the mother and children killed by a prairie fire.”

He drives the roads less traveled -- Highway 200 through Dunn Center, Dodge, Halliday and Zap. He has visited the Hutmacher homestead built of sod and the Knife River flint quarries.

By the time the book nears the end, he’s reached a conclusion.

“We think we’re in decline -- most of our towns have been losing population, mostly since the 1970s. But obviously, the petroleum boom has changed that line of thought -- that the country isn’t going to empty out. If we are staying around here, then we must think about our future in a way we didn’t otherwise.”

“We’re really not rural -- everything connects in town,” he continued. “We have to figure out how to have quality communities on the Great Plains when the countryside is largely vacant --we really haven’t done that.”

To summarize the premise of his book, Isern added, “The book is two things -- one it is honoring our storytelling tradition, but it goes on from that as a guide for life in this part of the country... We’re not temporary renters anymore.”

“Pacing Dakota” is available from NDSUpress.com or bookstores across the state, including Western Edge Books at Medora, the Pioneer Trails Regional Museum at Bowman or the Dickinson Museum Center.

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