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While the oil boom in the western part of the state is getting most of the attention these days, North Dakota's cultural and economic roots are planted firmly in agriculture. Millions of acres are covered by crops or livestock, and it was the prospect of working the land that attracted European settlers in the 1800s.
Many of today's farms are major operations that rely on expensive machinery. In the early 1900s, though, farmers relied on a different kind of horsepower -- the original kind, with four legs, a mane and a tail.
You can get a taste of what old-time farming was like at Sodbuster Days, a weekend tribute to turn-of-the-century pioneer life in Fort Ransom State Park in southeastern North Dakota.
The cornstalks, with their golden crowns, seemed to bow as a warm prairie wind blew through them. Acres of shimmering green soybean leaves and stout, blond wheat stretched out on either side of the lonely two-lane road. Only telephone poles, distant farm buildings and rolled hay bales provided any vertical contrast to the rambling farm fields that seemed to melt into the horizon.
Yes, this is the North Dakota most people picture.
But north of Hwy. 27, past the Fort Ransom historic marker, the landscape changes. The road descends into a valley where lush green foothills, covered in leafy trees, provide a topography unlike the miles and miles of surrounding farmland. The winding, muddy Sheyenne River snakes through the area.
At the bottom of the hill is Fort Ransom, a hamlet tucked into the Sheyenne River Valley, about 80 miles southwest of Fargo. With a population of 77, the town has a small lodge, a museum, a few shops, a central park with playground and, of course, a bar. Once you turn the corner of the main strip and pull out of the town, Fort Ransom State Park lies a couple of miles down the road. Off in the distance is Bear's Den Mountain Ski Resort and a rodeo grounds. Look up to the right and check out the towering statue of a Viking atop a hill. Upon entering the state park, past the campgrounds, picnic tables and play areas, lies the Sunne Farm.
The property has several buildings and is sliced up into different areas, each featuring a different aspect of old-time farm life. During Sodbuster Days, there are nonstop demonstrations, from cooking to plowing to blacksmithing. Clanks, snorts, squeaks and chatter filled the air. On this particularly breezy day, the aroma was wood fire mixed with earth, hay and, occasionally, manure (there were horses all over, after all).
After watching the parade of old plows, antique vehicles and miniature ponies pulling kids, we set about seeing how farming used to be.
Say you're a farmer around 1900, and you need to put a new iron rim on a wagon wheel. First, you get a group of guys who know what they're doing. Then you nestle an iron rim among chopped wood and set it on fire. Let it burn good and hot. Someone will use a metal rod to tap the iron rim. At first, the taps will ring out, kind of like a bell. But as the fire gets hotter and the rim expands, the taps will sound like tinks. It's at this point when you know the rim is stretched to the max.
You and some of the guys will use long-handled forks to lift the rim out of the fire and then place it over the wooden, spoked wheel that's sitting nearby. A few coffee cans of water poured on will keep the wheel from catching fire, and some pounding with a hammer will ensure a tight fit. Easy peasy, right?
Well, that was one demonstration we were fine watching from a distance.
But there were plenty of other things to get close to.
A quick tour of a one-room log cabin turned into a lesson on making sauerkraut. A man in overalls sat on the porch and sliced heads of cabbage on a board with blades -- think primitive mandoline -- over a cistern. He'd sprinkle in salt and then pound the heck out of it with a wooden tool. Let it sit for a few weeks, and you get sauerkraut. A sample from a skillet on the wood-fired stove was tangy and delicious.
The idea of a summer kitchen might be new to you, but it makes sense. A small shack several yards from the farmhouse contained an old stove and lots of cooking utensils. These buildings were generally used for cooking, canning, clothes-washing, soapmaking and butter churning. Plates of fried dough filled with apple butter were out for sampling, and the morsels were sweet and simple. Down the hill from the summer kitchen, women in old-style dresses cooked soup in an outdoor camp kitchen.
How did they separate the grain in the early 1900s? With a thresher. These machines would be taken out into the field and used to fill wagons with oats and wheat. A miniature version on display chortled to a start and spat out oats from a chute after a conveyor sucked up the fresh-cut grain and sent it through a series of moving parts. A nearby barn held a collection of contraptions that showed the progression of farming machinery in the early 1900s.
Two well-muscled horses yanked a man on a riding plow through rows of potatoes, pulling them up to the surface. It looked like a bumpy ride. Visitors went out into the field afterward and picked bags full of the red tubers.
After several hours of wandering and watching, we caught a horse-drawn wagon back to the parking lot. Time to get back in the minivan, up out of the tree-filled valley and among the acres and acres of crops, most likely tended by a modern machine.
There will be another Sodbuster Days celebration on Sept. 8 and 9, harvest time. See the park website for details: www.parkrec.nd.gov/parks/frsp/frsp.html.
About 15 miles southeast of Fort Ransom lies the Prairiewood Winery, run by husband-and-wife team John and Cindy Steffes. They have a few acres of grapevines and offer a half-dozen wines. Call ahead, 1-701-683-5866, to schedule a quick tour and tasting. Try the dry red.
Outdoor activities -- from camping, hiking, biking and horseback riding -- abound in Ransom County. What's billed as North Dakota's only natural waterfall is located within the 500-acre Sheyenne State Forest. Check out animals and prairie vegetation in the 70,000-acre Sheyenne National Grasslands.
For more information go to www.ransomcountynd.com.
Chris Havens • 612-673-4148