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Women Behind the Plow exhibit honors pioneer women

Update: Due to adverse weather, the reception to mark the opening of the exhibit has been delayed until Thursday, Jan. 19. JAMESTOWN, N.D. -- An exhibit opening Thursday, Jan. 12, at the Arts Center in Jamestown aims to portray the contributions ...

Women Behind the Plow
Sally Jeppson, gallery manager at the Arts Center in Jamestown, looks at the panel exhibit of Lorraine Kaseman, one of 17 panel exhibits in the “Women Behind the Plow" traveling exhibit about pioneering women from Germans from Russia communities in North Dakota. The exhibit runs through Feb. 11. Tom LaVenture / The Sun

Update: Due to adverse weather, the reception to mark the opening of the exhibit has been delayed until Thursday, Jan. 19.

JAMESTOWN, N.D. - An exhibit opening Thursday, Jan. 12, at the Arts Center in Jamestown aims to portray the contributions of pioneer women, which organizers say are largely missing from North Dakota history.

"Women Behind the Plow" is the theme of a new exhibit at the Arts Center, said Sally Jeppson, gallery manager. The traveling exhibit premiered in Wishek in 2015 and has finally come to Jamestown at the request of members from the Germans From Russia Heritage Society's James Valley Chapter, who will provide samples of traditional German-Russian food at the opening reception.

"There are 17 panels with a selection of interviews and stories that will become part of a book available this spring," Jeppson said.

The panels contain photos and charming stories of everything that women did to run the farm while men were away in military service or working at other jobs, she said. They tended to huge gardens and livestock, cooked for threshing teams and even gathered thistles to burn in the winter.

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"They were the rock behind keeping many of these farms going," Jeppson said.

Sue Balcom, exhibit designer, said the idea for the project came from one of her own family photos where a woman was identified by her husband's name only. She said it is difficult to find even a maiden name for pioneer women.

"I thought it is terrible that these women contributed so much to the homestead era and yet they get no recognition," Balcom said.

The generation of women in the exhibit is the last to have lived without electricity in North Dakota, she said. These women remember baking bread in an oven fueled by mischt - a mixture of dried cow manure and straw - and feeding livestock during the winter without any of the comforts people enjoy today, she said.

Balcom said she expected to hear stories of harsh lives in prairie isolation. The women spoke more about the good days of a much simpler life, she said.

"These women loved what they did and totally turned the tables," she said, "The stories were humorous."

Once the voice of that generation is gone, the language and culture will disappear with them, she said. The exhibit and book that will be published in the spring about "Women Behind the Plow" are ways to help keep the culture alive, she said.

Most of the women who were interviewed were in their 80s, and one woman was 98 years old at the time and turned 100 this past November, she said. The language of the interviews resonates with the children and grandchildren of this generation who say they can hear their own grandmothers talking, she said.

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"Anyone who grew up in the North Dakota prairie will be able to relate to what these women say," she said. "The panels will evoke their own memories of a life that used to be."

"Women Behind the Plow" is the third major project of Tri-County Tourism Alliance, a nonprofit organization, said Carmen Rath-Wald, president of the Alliance. The first project started preserving the German-Russian history of Logan, McIntosh and Emmons counties in 2010 with assistance from a State Historical Society of North Dakota grant.

"These counties are the hub for the heartland of German-Russian heritage and culture," Rath-Wald said.

The project culminated in a food and culture book with stories from the oldest living German-Russians in North Dakota, she said. The second project was publishing a collection of student memories of the rural prairie schools called "Ready for School," she said.

"Women Behind the Plow" is the third project and focuses on women's contributions to agriculture and culminated in the exhibit and a book that will be released in the spring, she said.

Women worked right behind their spouses on the farm, she said. There is little or no documentation of their efforts or acknowledgement of their contributions.

"The women were involved in farming and agriculture in every aspect and I am not sure that is true of every culture," she said.

Related Topics: FARMINGPEOPLE
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