The Joy of Voting

There’s a lot going on over the next month at The Digital Press at the University of North Dakota. If you want to be in the loop follow The Digital Press on Twitter

This week, the Digital Press kicked off a collaborative project with Dr. Eric Burin in the Department of History at the University of North Dakota and Citizens University, a non profit leader in civic engagement. The project is called The Joy of Voting and it looks to “reinvigorate a culture of voting” or at least remind the public that voting can be a joyous experience. Grand Forks, North Dakota is one of four cities in the U.S. with a Joy of Voting program along with Akron, Charlotte, and West Palm Beach

The Digital Press is working on only one little aspect of the Joy of Voting project in Grand Forks, which focuses on soliciting and publishing online memories of how voting was a joyful experience. Check it out here:

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The Joy of Voting website and Facebook page will be updated daily with a new memory of voting as a joyful experience. Depending on the response to the page, we might put together a little digital book celebrating voting in Grand Forks.     

First Snow

Sometimes the first snow happens at night and that makes everything a bit challenging to photograph and post.

In keeping with tradition, here’s a photo of the first snow this year.

I’ve posted a photo of the first snow (or what I considered the first snow…) pretty regularly since 2007. Here they are: 2017 (October 26)2016 (November 22)2015 (Nov. 5), 2014 (Nov. 8),  2013 (Oct. 20), 2012 (Oct. 4), 2011 (Nov. 10), 2010 (Nov. 21), 2008 (Oct. 28), and in 2007 (Sept. 11).

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On Bump Outs, Logistics, and Citizenship

Recently, there’s been a pretty interesting debate in my little town on bump outs. Bump outs are a form of curb extension generally designed to protect pedestrians crossing busy streets by narrowing the road and slowing traffic at intersections. The Grand Forks City Council has installed a few temporary bump outs in downtown Grand Forks on an experimental basis and, as one might expect, they have attracted both positive and negative comment. 

What’s been particularly interesting to me is that the conversation around bump outs has tended to pit perceived “liberals,” who are in favor of the bump outs because, it would seem, they cost money and liberals tend to favor public spending against conservatives who are skeptical of public spending especially on things that smell a bit of the nanny state and might inconvenience the flow of private vehicle traffic through the city. 

This juxtaposition in a curious one. After all, the so-called liberal position has little to do with some uncontrolled need to spend public funds, and almost everything to do with the desire to improve downtown Grand Forks. In fact, since, as far as I know, Grand Forks doesn’t have a problem with pedestrian injuries, the bump outs are not even explicitly designed to solve a problem, but to demonstrate care or concern for producing a walkable city. The desire to produce a walkable downtown is not exactly a neutral thing. At its best, it demonstrates an interest in reducing our dependence on motor vehicles and fossil fuels, producing a higher density and, as a result, more efficient and cost-effective living space, and building a stronger sense of community through increasing the opportunities for interaction between neighbors and residents. At its worse, it reflects an investment in urban property values by building an appealing mixed-use downtown that is attractive to private investors and susceptible to gentrification.

Downtown Grand Forks is developing rapidly with new housing being built, new businesses being started in existing buildings, and new offices. The private concerns who have invested in these properties see a good partner in the city government who is willing to commit public funds to increase the value of their investments (and, inasmuch as these things are related, the quality of life for folks living and working downtown). The interest in bump outs is consistent with the recent willingness to sell downtown “pocket parks” to private investors for development. The desire to partner with private investors to increase urban density downtown is a rather direct example of using public funds to bolster the private sector. It is hardly surprising the most politically powerful developer in the U.S. made investment in infrastructure a key talking point in his campaign. Developers love infrastructure because it builds value for their portfolios. New urbanists also love infrastructure investments because higher density, high value development is a more efficient way to produce tax revenue for communities because infrastructure costs per resident (and per physical footprint) are lower in high density downtowns than in suburban sprawl. The more revenue the high density urban center can produce, the lower the taxes for everyone in the community.

It is ironic that bump outs appear to be some liberal ploy to spend public money “willy nilly” when, in fact, they’re part of a pretty well-established strategy to use public funds to support private investment. Moreover, the kind of high density downtown favored by hipster new urbanists also supports lower taxes for suburban libertarians who prefer the freedom of more dispersed settlement closer to city limits.  

Some of the folks who opposed the bump outs are equally interesting to me. I’m not particularly interested in folks who just oppose everything (and this is a rather popular political position in any small town, I think). After all, it’s easier to object than the plan. 

The more intriguing argument concerning bump outs is that they will disrupt the flow of traffic through downtown. This brings me to my recent interest in logistics. A number of authors have noted that the late-20th century expansion of the global supply chain has changed the nature of urbanism and citizenship in key ways. For some, this involves the emergence of “supply chain citizenship” which involves a sense of loyalty to a series of economic relationships mediated by transnational corporations. In many cases, this involves buying a particular product because it is produced in an ethical way (think: free trade coffee), but this can also involve supporting corporate interests in one’s community even when they run counter to the traditional government institutions. In the latter case, this reflects both a skepticism toward the role of government which is seen as either corrupt, incompetent, or fundamentally opposed to the free functioning of markets and the growth of wealth, and a greater confidence the interest and ability of a private concerns to care for its workers and communities. In a 21st-century twist on company towns, supply chain citizenship reflects a willingness to contribute to global corporate well being imagining that the rising tide of corporate profits will lift all ships or, at very least, that a sense of shared responsibility for corporate profits (or ethical behavior) will be recognized and reciprocated across the supply chain. 

A version of this kind of supply chain loyalty manifests itself in the willingness of citizens to support the often questionable practices of oil companies in the Bakken oil patch against the interests of the state or federal government. While the long term benefits of extractive industry to the state or traditional communities is difficult to identify, understand, or quantify, it appears to some that the oil industry might be a better and more loyal representative of local interests than, say, the state government. In effect, the oil industry attracts a greater sense of confidence and loyalty than the state. This is a particularly useful phenomenon for transnational corporations whose values, operating culture, and profits rarely align neatly with the vast number of traditional public interest along their global supply chains. Substituting corporate citizenship for traditional citizenship is just good business especially as logistically demanding operations like oil production necessarily involve work that cuts across numerous public jurisdictions. 

Returning to bump outs and logistics on the local level, the most compelling argument against bump outs is that they will disrupt the flow of traffic through the city. While Grand Forks can be busy, it is largely busy in a small town way, but the relatively easy flow of traffic through the community should not disguise the role of Grand Forks in larger supply chains. Grand Forks, like all cities, is a “logistic city.” Situated at the intersection of US Route 2 and the Meridian Highway (now, US 81 and Interstate 29), home to the largest flour mill in the U.S., and a stop along the Great Northern Railway’s “Hi-Line” connecting Minneapolis to Spokane and served by the Empire Builder, Grand Forks always stood as a node in the continental flow of goods. In other words, the origins of Grand Forks has always asked its residents to think globally about the function of their city. The flow of traffic through Grand Forks fortified the city’s existence and played a role in its development as a regional hub with banks, municipal services, transportation facilities, a university and hospitals.

At the same time, the needs of traffic flowing through Grand Forks continues to challenge local residents. In my sleepy neighborhood, for example, the movement of cars heading east and west across the Point Bridge over the Red River has prompted calls for traffic calming measures to reduce or slow the flow of traffic. In downtown Grand Forks, there are those who see bump outs as a threat to the movement of sugar beet trucks during the annual beet campaign. While there is little doubt that the sugar beet industry brings revenue to the city and the region, the ease of movement through downtown Grand Forks has about as much impact on the global sugar industry as similar logistic issues have on the price of oil from the Bakken. The existence of bump outs in downtown has only a rather small impact on the functioning of the sugar beet campaign and on the global sugar industry. Changes in tariffs on sugar, global markets conditions, and even the climate have a much greater impact on the fate of our local beet farmers than bump outs. In other words, the local impact of bump outs on the role of Grand Forks as a logistic city is minor.

At the same time, the battle over bump outs does pit the two views of citizenship at odd with each other. Those in favor of bump outs see their highest priority as developing the wealth of local property owners both directly through a vital and deliberately planned downtown and indirectly through the impact of these improvements on the local tax base. Those opposed (notwithstanding those opposed to everything) privilege the flow of goods and commerce and traffic through the city as a responsibility for communities situated along the global supply chain irrespective of direct local benefits. In sum, being good citizens of a global supply chain trumps being good citizens in a local community.

As our lives become increasingly entangled in the transnational web of logistics expect these competing forms of citizenship to challenge our loyalties more and more frequently. 

Sixty Years of Boom and Bust: The Impact of Oil in North Dakota, 1958–2018

Over the last year, I’ve been whispering about this project a bit. Kyle Conway is editing an updated version of The Williston Report: The Impact of Oil on the Williston Area of North Dakota (1958), and The Digital Press at the University of North Dakota will republish both original report and an updated slate of essays. The updated version will be titled Sixty Years of Boom and Bust The Impact of Oil in North Dakota, 1958–2018, and it will become a contributing volume to the Bakken Bookshelf and sit nice alongside The Bakken Goes Boom: Oil and the Changing Geographies of Western North Dakota (2016). 

Campbell et al 1958 dragged

If you’re interested in the original report, which anyone interested in North Dakota history should read. There’s a digital copy of the book available from The Digital Press’s page on the Internet Archive here (and if you’re interested in a paper copy one is available from Re-Ink Books in Delhi, India). 

Kyle Conway has sent me a little peek at the table of contents for the new version of the book. It looks fantastic:


1. Introduction: Sixty Years of Boom and Bust (2018), by Kyle Conway
2. Introduction and Summary (1958), by Bernt L. Wills, Ross B. Talbot, Samuel C. Kelley, Jr., and Robert B. Campbell

3. Physical Attributes of the Area (1958), by Bernt L. Wills
4. The Geographic Setting of the Bakken Oil Shale Play (2018), by Bradley C. Rundquist and Gregory S. Vandeberg 

5. Political Impact (1958), by Ross B. Talbot
6. Political Impacts (2018), by Andrea Olive

7. The Economic Impact of Oil Development (1958), by Samuel C. Kelley, Jr.
8. The Economic Consequences of Oil Development (2018), by David Flynn

9. Social Change in the Basin (1958), by Robert B. Campbell
10. Social Impacts of Oil Development (2018), by Rick Ruddell and Heather Ray
11. Making Home in the Bakken Oil Patch (2018), by William Caraher and Bret Weber
12. Drinking, Drugs, and Long Waits: Community Members’ Perceptions of Living in a North Dakotan Boomtown (2018), by Karin L. Becker
13. Boomtown Bias: Reflections on the Past, Present, and Future of North Dakota’s Commercial Sex Laws (2018), by Nikki Berg Burin

Appendix A: Methodology Note (1958)
Appendix B: Supplementary Tables (1958)

Kyle has also been playing around with the cover and grabbed a great photograph of Williston on his last visit to the area.


Ideally the book will drop toward the end of this year, but we’re probably dealing with the “long 2018” for this volume with an early 2019 publication date, but judging by the table of contents, I’m pretty sure that this book will be worth the wait.

Small Town Archaeology

This weekend, Bret Weber, Eric Burin, and I conducted a little backyard archaeology. Actually, we helped Bret build a “French Drain” between his garage and his alley in Grand Forks, North Dakota. It happens that the garage is lower than the surrounding alleys meaning that water flowed down into his garage during heavy rains.

Our solution to the problem was partly inspired by my work over the past few years at the South Basilica at Polis Chrysochous on Cyprus. This church was built across a natural drainage, on the slope of a hill that runs from the city to the coastal plain. As a result, the church must have constantly endured erosional problems particularly on its south wall which stood perpendicular the the flow of water down the drainage. The presence of a road upslope from the basilica did little to slow the flow of water to the south wall of the church. I have argued that the first basilica failed, in part, because of the struggle to manage this flow of water which likely ran down the slope, across an open courtyard and down the foundation trench of the basilica. The large scale reconstruction of the building in the late 7th (or early 8th) century involved the installation of a large rubble filled pit to the south of the church which would slow the flow of water and allow it to dissipate without pooling against the vulnerable church wall. We sketched out this argument here and will publish it in greater detail this winter.

The plan for Brett’s house was to build a drain along the south, alley side, of his garage that would catch the surface run off before it entered and pooled in his garage. This involved digging a trench and a reservoir with … a mini backhoe and filling this excavated area with cobble and gravel (and maybe drain tile).

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We did not dig this trench in a stratigraphic way nor did we sieve or carefully examine the material from the trench itself. That being said, the trench did reveal some interesting stratigraphy and some interesting objects, that I’ll post here in a future post.

The upper most level of the trench, the surface, was the packed gravel the is the common road surface for most alleys in Grand Forks. This layer was approximately 2 or 3 inches. Since we excavated on Bret’s property rather than in the alleyway, it seems likely that this level was part of the spill from the alley surface carried toward Bret’s garage by the flow of water, rather than the surface itself which I would imagine to be a good bit thicker. Below that was a layer of what appears to be soil that is about 4 or 5 inches in depth. Like the gravel surface in this area, I assume that this is slope wash.

Beneath this level, however, was 3-4 inch think level of black, charred material which included chunks of coal and what appears to be charcoal. This level appeared after scraping back the top levels as a couple of small patches:     

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But as our excavation continued it became clear that this was a level that extended for the entire length of the garage, 50 ft or so. It included many small pieces of window glass, table ware, bottles, as well as other material that suggests domestic discard. It was heavy, black, and burnt. The black level is visible in the photo below.

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Bret’s four-car garage was likely built in the 1940s or 1950s, but a smaller garage, probably an carriage house, existed on its footprint as early as 1897 according to Sanborn Maps for the neighborhood. This heavy burnt and coal-laced layer appears a bit deeper on the east side of the trench than on the west, but we didn’t measure it. The garage is evidence that an alley existed behind the house as early as the 1890s when this block (the Renkells Addition) first appears on the Sanborn Maps. Bret’s house is probably a few years earlier than that, and it may be noted on the Sanborn map from 1884 as one of the “5 dwgs, 2 barns.” 

On the western side of the trench, we excavated four foot deep reservoir. This revealed a 9 inch deep layer of soil below the burnt and coal. I would assume that this level represented a flood deposition at some point in the property’s history but it was below the level of the current garage so it likely pre-dated 1950s (perhaps it can be associated with the flood of 1897). Below it was a very clear, 2 inch thick surface of sand and clay. It’s visible as a light level in the photo below.

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I’m guessing that this was an early road or alley surface in the area, but without digging more, I am not entirely sure. Our rather careless backhoe excavation of this pit made it hard to isolate any particular context; moreover, there was a metal anchor of a “guy-wire” which presumably supported a now removed utility pole in the area. It was anchored below the sand and clay surface which suggested either that the surface was compromised by the installation of the anchor or that this anchor was associated with this level. 

The burnt, black coal level is baffling to me. It looks like the debris from a coal bin or the cleaning out of a furnace. Perhaps the unburned coal, clinkers, and ash were dumped in the alley way along with other household trash and over time developed into this substantial deposit. Are there parallels for this elsewhere? 


Alone Together in a Small Town

I’m messing around with a series of little “small town vignettes” for theNorth Dakota Quarterly blog. I post them first here as kind of works in progress. This is the start of thenext one. If you want something a bit more substantive to chew on during the Frog Days of summer, check out Will Jensen’s story, “A Quiet Place to Hide”over at NDQ. It was recognized in the 2017 Best American Mystery Stories, so we made it available on our blog.

In the summer months, I spend a part of my week on the lovely Grand Forks Greenway system in my hometown of Grand Forks, North Dakota. The walking and cycling paths of the greenway run for some dozen miles along the Red River of the North adjacent to downtown and various neighborhoods in town. On a good day, I can see some deer, a prairie dog or two, a few little frogs, and maybe one of the bald eagles who lives in the area. They all go about their business without paying much attention to me and I try to let them do their hoping, prancing, sniffing, and gliding without much interruption.

Grand Forks is a small town but it’s not as small as some towns, though. It’s the local county seat and market center with a big hospital, lots of banks, two malls (although one has a church as an anchor store), and a bustling little downtown with restaurants, bars, a couple breweries, and a gun shop. We have a daily paper that still publishes on paper most days per week. We know our neighbors, but not so well that we’re up in their business, but well enough to know their names and to know people who know them. My feeling is that in smaller towns or villages, people tend to know their neighbors better. In larger cities, where you have genuine suburbs, people enjoy not to know their neighbors at all. 

When I exercise on the greenway, I tend to do it by myself. Maybe this comes from years of swimming when despite being what my parents called a “social swimmer,” you are forced to be alone with the water, your strokes, and thoughts. As I ride my bike or jog along the greenway, I see other people exercising on their own or in pairs and I almost always say “hi” or “hello” or whatever. The responses tend to be quite muted. A few will respond with a cautious “hi,” but most folks just ignore it completely. At first, this struck me as a bit odd, but I chalked it up to people listening to music, distracted by their own work outs, or just not expecting someone to say “hello.” After a while, though, I noticed that people I knew also didn’t respond to my greeting.

This has got me thinking a good bit of Sherry Turkle’s 2011 book, Alone Together: Why We Expect More from Technology and Less from Each Other (London 2011). The book describes the relationship between technology mediated relationship and the growing sense of alienation in the modern world. I wonder how many of the people who pass by without acknowledging my gesture or turn their head to the side to avoid any possible interaction are deeply invested in a podcast, their workout playlist, or some other distraction being piped directly into their earhole. On the other hand, I suspect that many folks who I pass are not so much distracted themselves, but assume a kind of mutual distraction while moving along the public paths on the greenway. They might tilt their head away to avoid that disappointment of reaching out for a moment of recognition only to find the blank stare in return.





The End of Wesley College

The final demolition of the four Wesley College buildings starts today on the campus of the University of North Dakota. I’m pretty bummed to think that next time I’ll be on campus, those buildings won’t be there. As readers of this blog know, I’ve been working in and around those buildings for a few months and have compiled an intriguing and, I think, compelling archive that documents their place on campus.

On the other hand, I do think that I did my part to document and preserve them, and I am still intrigued that there is more that I can do in the fall when I return to campus through documentary records, interviews, and compiling the vast store of data that we collected.

As I’ve followed the conversation on social and traditional media about the demolition of these buildings (and, in particular, listened to what Alexis Varvel, the most eloquent and persistent advocate of these buildings has had to say), it’s helped me think through what I’m going to say about the Wesley College buildings (when I get back to writing them up) is that the fate of the buildings emerged at an interesting intersection of three things:

1. The buildings were adapted for use on the contemporary university campus. This, on the one hand, made them more useful to the campus and ensured that they served as the home for a number of programs and departments over their long history. At the same time, this compromised their distinctive character and made them less unique buildings with unique functional characteristics and more like every other building on campus. As they approached being functionally the same as every other building both through perceptions and manipulations of their fabric, they endured the same fate as any other space on campus. When they no longer were useful, they could be destroyed.

2. When Wesley College folded, it made the history of the institution and its leaders, students, and donors faded in public memory. Because no one on UND’s campus really know who Edward Robertson was (and some folks on campus still try to correct my by saying “oh, you mean Elwyn Robinson.”). The Sayre family is unknown, the Corwin’s sell cars, and Larimore is town. These names no long evoke some kind of storied past that makes these monuments integral to campus life.

3. The dynamism of a campus in flux. One of the most intriguing aspects of the Wesley College buildings is that they were modern buildings, but also contemporary with another time. While they do evoke certain timeless properties, part of what makes them compelling is their distinctive (and, to be blunt, out-dated) aesthetics, proportions, and modularity. At the same time, I suspect that their modernity has made them vulnerable. They aren’t like the rest of campus and instead of fitting into any of the cohesive master plans for UND, they stand apart as the failed framework of an unrealized future. I sometimes wonder whether they’d be easier to save if these were a tepid college Gothic or some kind of universal red-brick building, they might have found a place or formed a relationship with the rest of campus.

Of course, it’s easy enough to also note that the distinctive character of these buildings should encourage our efforts to preserve them, and you wouldn’t be wrong, but campuses are dynamic places and they constantly work to remake their own image into coherent landscape informed by aesthetics, memory, and functionality. The visual language of a campus creates its own logic that we can think away (of course), but usually only in the service of another plan. These plans emerge as much through the casual and contingent juxtaposition of buildings and spaces as they do through intentional “master planning” efforts that construct and create traditions that interweave the contingent persistence of the past with meaning in the present.

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The Abandoned Bakken

This past weekend, Bret Weber, Richard Rothaus, and I headed out West to promote our new book, The Bakken: An Archaeology of an Industrial Landscape (NDSU Press 2017) and to visit some of the sites that we documented over the course of the North Dakota Man Camp Project. 

As usual, we spent a good bit of time riding around in Richard Rothaus’s truck and talking about what we saw and what it meant. As importantly, for me, this trip through the Bakken focused on what we should do next (if anything) and how and whether to end a project that has tracked the boom of workforce housing in the Bakken (from around 2012) to its decline in 2018.

Here are my thoughts:

1. Abandonment. I’ve been observing various forms of abandonment in the Bakken since as early as August 2015. This spring’s trip was no exception, but instead of seeing evidence for abandonment that we could use to reconstruct a sites earlier history, we’re now seeing sites that we’ve documented – or even stayed in – for years being dismantled or abandoned. For example, Capital Lodge, which served as our home base in the Bakken for the first few trips to the region, is now being dismantled and the modular units being sold off, bit-by-bit. 


Near Alexander, two large workforce housing sites have been removed and relocated. The MSpace camp which stood on a rural road outside of Alexander, ND has been completely removed. In fact, we found most of the buildings from the camp in a lot just off the side of Route 85 north of Alexander. 



The site of the settlement itself, which opened in 2013, is now abandoned.P1010964


The rough camp outside the old school in Ross, ND is now abandoned as well, and the stackable units in Egan Township are being prepared to be moved to Midlands, Texas.



2. Methods for Documenting Abandoned Camps. We discussed how to approach documenting abandonment in the Bakken. We both agreed that some kind of survey project could capture the material left behind at the sites if we could receive permission from landowners. It seems likely that the communities would also have an interest in our efforts to document the material left behind after a camp departs. Documenting these sites would have to include collecting movable objects, fixed assets like electrical and sewage hooks up, and changes to the landscape like leveling, scoria roads, and gravel for sites.    




We also acknowledged the need dig into the various official records of the settlement sites to determine their legal status, property ownership, and any requirements for clean-up and restoration of the sites as well as their prior history.

Finally, we began to discuss how many sites would for a useful sample to say something meaningful about abandonment in our study area. As importantly, we discussed what we mean by abandonment. Do we mean that the sites have to be completely closed or that they’re in the process of being closed? Is our goal to document the remains of the use assemblage or post-abandonment site formation (understanding, of course, that both will be visible and documented).   

3. Settlement Patterns. I was intrigued to notice that some areas seem to have experienced a bit less abandonment than others. For example, the camps around the town of Alexander appear to be largely abandoned and removed, whereas the sites to the west of Watford City, tucked into the hill between the town and the Watford City Gas Plant, appear to still be occupied and the camps around the intersection of US 85 and Route 200 appear to be in rough shape but occupied as well (although the Bakken Buffet building has been removed). The ongoing use of these sites perhaps reflects the distribution of activity in the Bakken and their locations outside of the jurisdiction of local towns which have worked to eliminate temporary settlements – man camps, RV parks, and the like – in their jurisdiction and to transition workers to more permanent housing and hotels. 

4. The Temporary and the Permanent in the Bakken. We drove through the Watford City and admired the growing ring of new building around the town. As I noted a couple of years before, some of the apartments look similar to the mobile and modular housing that they served to replace suggesting that certain elements of industrial and residential design have started to overlap.


What was equally striking this time through the Bakken was that many of these new constructions were occupied by the same assemblage of trucks and equipment that we saw at camps indicating that they served as worker housing (as well as family housing). A banner advertising four-bedrooms with four-and-a-half baths hint that some of these apartments are designed to accommodate groups of workers and to provide them with their own spaces. More than that, the buildings themselves showed sign of wear that suggested rather low-quality construction. 

In other words, both the residents of the housing may well be temporary. Of course, the permanence of an apartment buildings or even a hotel is relative as the image below of an abandoned modular home site with the closed “Shut-Eye Motel” in the background. 


While I understand that permanent housing is as much defined by its tax status as anything else (and this has attendant benefits to the local communities), it still leaves to my mind a interesting tension between how our ideals of community and settlement have become increasingly defined by economic relationships that stand in as proxies for social values.

5. What’s next? So far, the North Dakota Man Camp Project has published a few articles and a book, but we’ve barely scratched the surface of the data that we’ve collected or the arguments that we can or want to make. We have another book in the pipeline (scheduled for 2019) and contributions to some other projects in the works, but I can’t shake the feeling that we need to do something a bit more sweeping and general.

In fact, I had a bit of a crisis on the trip as I read Hern, Johal, and Sacco’s Global Warming and the Sweetness of Life: A Tar Sands Tale (MIT 2017). The book reminded me that our work on the Bakken is really a contribution to a global story of petroculture. At the same time, petroculture is an expansive and dynamic body of thought that stretches from climate science to literature. Framing our work in the Bakken around these conversations is a daunting task, but I’m increasingly thinking that this is the most valuable contribution that our work can make (and by making our work visible to the current discussion of petroculture, we’re making our work visible to other scholars as well). 

Wesley College in the High Plains Reader

Last night my social media feeds blew up with the publication of a feature story in the High Plains Reader about the impending demolition of the four Wesley College buildings that the Wesley College Documentation Project has worked to document.

The article basically argues that the Wesley College buildings stand as monuments to the local opposition to the Ku Klux Klan in Grand Forks and, as such, the university should do all they can to preserve the buildings. Taking a cue from the recent controversy over Confederate monuments in the South, local historian Alexis Varvel proposed that destroying these buildings gives the Alt-Right a victory by erasing the memory of a courageous institution in the face of Grand Forks’ racially charged past. I was interviewed for the article and tried to offer a counter narrative or at least a more subtle reading of the situation, but, as so often happens on deadlines and with limited copy space, my views were a bit truncated.

The article is troubling on many levels, and I hesitate to engage with the arguments here, in part, because I think that the effort to save these buildings comes from a good place. It is not meant, for example, to be another effort to saddle the university with obligations that its budget cannot sustain. Nor is it, necessarily, another example of oppositional politics that sees everything done by the University of North Dakota and its administration as inherently bad, evil, corrupt, and corrosive. Finally, whatever naivety that folks like Alexis Varvel demonstrates toward the potential of these buildings doesn’t come from a place of ignorance or confusion, but from a deeply optimistic attitude toward the potential to find solutions to challenging problems.

In fact, I see Varvel, who is quoted extensively in the article, as an ally in making sure that the history of North Dakota, UND, and Wesley College are better known. Responding to some of the elements in this article, I suppose this is part of the risks and responsibilities of dealing with local history. 

First, the reporter mangles the basic history of Wesley College and the monuments. He conflates the architecture of the buildings themselves with the architectural history of UND’s campus. The buildings were not designed by Joseph Bell DeRemer, but the New York City architect, A. Wallace McRae. They’re not Tudor revival or College Gothic, at all, but Beaux Arts. In some ways, they stand opposed to the College Gothic of Joseph Bell DeRemer’s buildings on UND’s campus (e.g. Merrifield Hall) or their successors from Wells and Denbrook (like the Chester Fritz Library).

Second, Wesley College never merged with UND and certainly didn’t in 1905. From its founding in 1905 until it was purchased by UND in 1965, Wesley College was an independent institution in a cooperative relationship with UND. The emphasis on the rivalry between the two schools in the article was misplaced; throughout most of their history, the two institutions had cordial relations and collaborated extensively. Friction over music instruction simmered below the surface at times, but rarely exploded into full blow controversies.

Third, Sayre Hall was renamed in honor of Harold Holden Sayre who was not a lumber baron, but a young man who died in World War I. He was only son of A.J. Sayre, originally from Harvey, North Dakota, who enlisted in the U.S. Army in the Great War and served in the Army Air Corp as a gunner on a bomber. He was killed in action in the Battle of Saint-Mihel in 1918 and the building was renamed as a memorial to his life.

The irony is that by getting these little facts wrong, the past isn’t so much misrepresented as overwritten and appropriated for another cause; in this case, Varvel is looking to use the history of Wesley College to speak to the long history of racial tensions on UND campus, in the community, and in the state. This isn’t a bad thing, but by overwriting the history of these buildings with another narrative (and one that is particular careless with certain elements of the buildings’ architectural and institutional history) this too is an act of forgetting.

My point isn’t to suggest that one narrative should have preeminence over another, but to demonstrate how the past and the present on university campuses refract to create meaningful landscapes. The narrative that Alexis Varvel is promoting, however well meaning, is problematic, for a number of reasons. 

First, the idea that these monuments represent opposition to the Klan in the community or that Wesley College was somehow a bastion of liberalism opposite the conservative UND, is at best, a caricature of the deep involvement on UND’s campus with progression politics across the state in the first part of the 20th century. While it is fair to state that progressive issues and attitudes toward race did not map as easily onto each other as perhaps they do in the 21st century, figures like the Sociologist John Gillette, one of the great “old men” of UND, advanced the cause of the progressive Non-Partisan League as well as women’s suffrage, and his wife withdrew from some of the same Klan dominated elections that Varvel discusses in the HPR article out of concern that the Klan might support her candidacy. Opposing “conservative” UND to “liberal” Wesley College runs the risk of obscuring the real complexities of progressive politics and race in Grand Forks, and while I would not want to offer “complexity” as an excuse for racism, a more subtle reading of 20th century North Dakota politics presents lessons that are no less significant for our society today.      

More than that, reducing the history of Wesley College to the courageous fight against the Klan and transforming these buildings to the status of a monument, ignores the contemporary situation. The real fight against the debased ideologies of the Klan and the Alt-right doesn’t come from monuments or architecture alone, but from what goes on around and in those buildings on campus.

Preserving the buildings of Wesley College is an additional burden at the very time when budget constraints are compromising UND’s ability to perform its educational mission. In fact, the very progressive values that Varvel celebrates in the Wesley College buildings are themselves being challenged on campuses across the U.S. as those who see higher education as a luxury or even a threat seek to devalue its mission. Making the work of progressive voices at UND more difficult, by pushing us to preserve significant, but ultimately obsolete, expensive, and compromised buildings, undermines real efforts to keep alive the mission of institutions like Wesley College. 

To be blunt: The work of my students, myself, UND facilities, my colleagues across campus and in the community to study, celebrate, and document these building through the Wesley College Documentation Project does more to continue the real values of Wesley College, and individuals like Edward Robertson, George Henry, A.J. Sayre, Frank Lynch, and the others, who funded and built these buildings, than fighting to save the buildings. That being said, Varvel is right, of course; we should preserve the memory of courageous individuals who worked to create a more just world, but preserving the past should never compromise building the future.

The Letters of Edward P. Roberston of Wesley College

This semester, I’ve been working with a remarkable group of students on the Wesley College Documentation Project. The goal of this project is to document the four buildings on campus associated with Wesley College, a unique co-institutional college that worked alongside UND to provide music, religious education, and housing for students enrolled in both UND and Wesley College. As part of that project, I’ve spent a good bit of time with the Wesley College papers and have become transfixed by the work and personality of the College’s first president, Edward P. Robertson. I thought I might share some of his personality with a wider audience by putting together a dossier of his letters from 1935, five years after he had retired as president of Wesley College. The letters were written during the Great Depression when the fate of Wesley College was anything but certain. Robertson’s dedication, persistence, and charm comes through in these letters composed during these difficult times. 

Here’s the link. This is just a first draft of this work. Here’s my temporary cover with the preface below: 

LettersRobertsonCover6 01

The Letters of Edward Robertson, President Emeritus, Wesley College, from 1935


This collection of letters by Dr. Edward P. Robertson is the first draft of a hazy idea that I’ll attempt to explain in this short preface.

Dr. Edward Peter Robertson was the first president of Wesley College in Grand Forks, North Dakota. He was hired by the board of trustees of Red River Valley University in Whapeton, North Dakota in 1899. After a few years in Whapeton, he and the board decided that Grand Forks, North Dakota offered better opportunities for an institution of higher learning, and he successfully oversaw the moving of Red River Valley University from Whapeton to Grand Forks, where he rechristened it, Wesley College, in 1905. The reasons for this move are both complex and simple. Robertson felt that there was a better chance for the college to attract students and raise the necessary funds to operate if it were closer to the center of the state’s population which was largely concentrated in the Red River valley. From early on, Roberston recognized the importance of raising money from donors for Wesley College to succeed, and this understanding would shape his presidency and legacy.

This is not to suggest that he neglected the intellectual and spiritual aspects of running a Methodist College. In fact, the other reason that he founded Wesley College in Grand Forks was because of a remarkable arrangement he struck with the President of the University of North Dakota, Webster Merrifield. Merrifield and Robertson agreed that Wesley College would offer housing and courses for University of North Dakota students in religion, music, and elocution and expression and that these courses would count for credit at UND.

In 1908, 1909, and 1910, the first of three buildings at Wesley College opened, Sayre Hall, Larimore Hall, and Corwin Hall. The first two were men’s and women’s dormitories respectively and the third offered space for the music program and university offices. It is no exaggeration to say that in its first two decades, Wesley College moved from strength to strength with programs regularly enrolling as many as 400 students at various levels. They also maintained the attention of loyal and generous donors who ensured that the College had more than tuition and housing fees alone could provide.

The 1920s and early-1930s, however, were more difficult times. The agricultural crisis of the 1920s was bad for North Dakota, Wesley College students, and local donors. This did not discourage Robertson from securing funding from John Milton Hancock for the construction of what would become Robertson Hall which opened in 1930 and which completed a plan for the Wesley College first conceived in 1905.

The same year also saw Robertson’s retirement from the office of President of Wesley College, but the onset of the Great Depression and the worsening of the College’s financial situation, meant that his services were more needed than ever. Almost as soon as he had retired, the 70-year-old Robertson began to canvass his long-time donors for the increasingly urgent needs of the College. Unfortunately, many of these families suffered from the same economic woes as so many Americans and could no longer afford the same generosity that they had shown in the past. More troubling still is that some of the long-time supporters of the College had begun to question whether this undertaking would survive.

Frank Lynch, one of the more devoted supporters of Wesley College, withdrew his support and then agreed to donate more only if Wesley College could raise some funds first. Unfortunately, the details of this agreement remain a bit obscure (although some or another document may well emerge from the archives illuminating the agreement in detail). It appears as though Lynch offered Wesley College $150,000 in his will for an endowment in addition to $25,000 which he would make available immediately if College’s could manage to raise the necessary funds to pay its debt of $60,000 and to cover operating expenses. Using this offer, Robertson began a letter writing campaign to raise the needed funds.

The letters published here come from the Wesley College Papers (UA63, Box 1) currently housed in UND’s Chester Fritz Library’s Department of Special Collection’s University Archives. They all date from the year 1935 and document Robertson’s efforts to raise money on the basis of the Frank Lynch offers and to manage or eliminate the College’s debt. They reflect both Roberston’s determination and passion for Wesley College as well as a kind of congenial and person style of writing. The letters reveal the economic challenges of the time, extraordinary acts of generosity and compassion, and even some of the mundane obstacles that face anyone attempting to do good. They also lay bare Robertson’s occasional frustrations, disappointments, and genuine concern surrounding the fate of the institution to which he devoted his life.

More than that, they’re touching to read.

This publication is part of the Wesley College Documentation Project which is a multidisciplinary project to celebrate both the history of Wesley College and its unique place in the history of the University of North Dakota. In June of this year, the four major buildings of Wesley College are slated for demolition, but it is our hope that documenting these buildings and the Wesley College story will keep the College’s memory alive.

As I noted in the onset of this document, this is a draft publication which will hopefully develop over time and be joined by other works that tell the story of Wesley College. We hope the story of this college and the characters who shared its vision offers enduring perspectives that continue to have meaning today.  

Special thanks goes to the ten students who have worked with me on this project and the staff of UND’s Special Collections and UND’s Facilities Department who have facilitated our research throughout.

William Caraher

Associate Professor
Department of History
University of North Dakota
Grand Forks, North Dakota