Environmental History at the Northern Great Plains History Conference

Last week, I had the pleasure of attending a couple sessions at the Northern Great Plains History Conference in Fargo. Each year that I end up attending this conference, I invariably return home with a head swimming with new ideas and perspectives. 

This year, I managed to only make it to two sessions: one where I presented with the other editors of state journals, and the other on environmental history. This latter panel got me thinking about two long simmering projects on my overloaded academic hot stove.

First, I was completely fascinated by Kathleen Brokke’s paper on the environmental history of the Red River Valley. It was poetic and sweeping and managed to draw me into the complexities of the tall grass prairie, the wooded river and stream banks, and even the more recent shelter belts, ditches, and fields of the Red River Valley.

I have to admit that didn’t quite grasp relevance of her work until it intersected in my head with David Vail’s paper on the Great Plains Agricultural Council’s work in the 1950s. Vail demonstrated that the administrative logic and pubic presentation of the GPAC aligned with the same national security priorities present in such programs as Civil Defense. In the 1950s, fear of another dust-bowl type drought and the potential for both short term and long-term damage to agricultural outputs (and food security) motivated large scale research and policy making from the executive branch of the US government. The most visible example of this was the personal involvement of both President Eisenhower, who toured the most vulnerable agricultural areas of the Great Plains in the 1950s, and former President Truman who was active on GPAC as an advisor. 

This helped me realize that the efforts to tame the flow of the Red River of the North through the city of Grand Forks in the 1950s was part of a larger program associated with the post-war and Cold War restructuring of American society and its landscape. It was interesting to hear about the series of dams built in the 1950s to control the flow of the Missouri and Sheyenne Rivers for irrigation and power. At the same time, the city of Grand Forks, which had started to expand to the south following emerging trends in suburbanization remained susceptible to flooding from the Red River. The devastating Red River flood of 1950 prompted a new set of flood walls constructed by the Army Corp of Engineers to protect the downtown of the growing city. At around the same time, the US Air Force started construction on the Strategic Air Command base at Grand Forks. 

The development of shopping centers, malls, housing developments with large lots, modern churches, schools, and recreation facilities contributed to the creation of the post-war city that manifested the privileges of convenience, consumer culture, and the steady growth of the “butter economy”. Of course, this growth also included features like bomb shelters and new forms of architecture inspired by military installations (e.g. not only brutalism, but also more broadly modernist forms of architecture that embrace the coarse textures of concrete and fortified facades that imitate gun slits).

The 1997 flood wall, constructed by the US Army Corp of Engineers no less, mimics the forms of military architecture with its solid concrete walls (textured in an ashlar pattern) and long stretches of substantial earthen barriers. Thus by the end of the 20th century the Red River itself was subjected to militarized forms of discipline which served to protect the vulnerable consumer culture that emerged on Grand Forks’s expanding urban grid. Thus, environmental history, the Cold War, and Civil Defense intersected in the developing landscape of Grand Forks in ways that I wouldn’t have considered fully had I not enjoyed a couple of papers at the Northern Great Plains History Conference.

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