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Sauerkraut Triangle, North Dakota: Prairie Places Festival (Day 1)

May 28, 2012

Saturday, May 19, 2012; Wishek and Napoleon, ND (and various points of interest in the vicinity)

No, there’s not really a town called “Sauerkraut Triangle” in North Dakota, but maybe there should be. The “Sauerkraut Triangle” refers to an area in south central North Dakota settled by German Russians in the late 1880s (Lawrence Welk is one of the most famous descended from these pioneers). This area is the site of Preservation North Dakota’s 19th Annual Meeting, the Prairie Places Festival, where I am volunteering today and tomorrow. Preservation North Dakota ( is a nonprofit “dedicated to preserving and celebrating the architecture, historic places, and communities in the varied landscapes of our prairie state.”

I’m having a blast, learning a ton, and meeting really interesting people. And eating food I’ve never had before: salt pork ribs, knoephla soup, and authentic kuchen.

I thought about calling this trip “Gopher in North Dakota” because that’s basically what I’ve been doing—I am an all-around “gopher,” including driving the conference organizer to meet the dinner caterer, assisting a guest speaker with audio-visual setup, and helping the caterer carry leftovers back to her car.

Day’s highlights

St. Andrews Lutheran Church Choir put on a special afternoon for us, Zeeland, ND

Caravanning (10 cars or so) across the prairie to St. Andrew’s Lutheran Church and Cemetery outside of Zeeland, ND, a historic Lutheran church (actually two churches) built in 1893 and 1906: We heard the story of German migration to the Black Sea area of Russia, and then to the prairies of North Dakota, punctuated by hymns in the local German dialect sung by the church choir, almost all elders whose parents or grandparents had migrated.  Singing “America the Beautiful” all together at the end was a most fitting way to conclude a truly moving story of grit and cultural preservation. This legacy, a source of enormous and well-deserved pride for the locals, is enduring yet vulnerable. Afterward they hosted us in the stone church for coffee and delicious cookies.

Grotto of the Holy Family and Prairie Bells, about 16 miles east of Linton, ND

Getting to tour the area with Suzzanne Kelley, a key conference organizer and past president of PND: Suzzanne was the one who responded enthusiastically to my request out of the blue to help with the conference. We went to see the Prairie Bells (preserved from three local church buildings that no longer exist—you can ring them, and we did!) and Grotto of the Holy Family (inspired by Italian grottos).

Napoleon Livestock Auction Barn, Napoleon, ND

Dinner at the Napoleon Livestock Auction Barn, not a restaurant but as the name says, a real livestock auction barn: I got to help Debra Marquart, born in Napoleon and now professor of English at Iowa State University, set up for her plenary session, drawn from her memoir, The Horizontal World: Growing Up Wild in the Middle of Nowhere. I’ve begun reading it, and not only is it well-researched historically, it is also poignant, keenly observed, and unflinchingly honest. The perfect way to complete my cultural immersion in this unique area of the world.

Dinner in a barn! (and Debra Marquart setting up for her presentation) – Napoleon, ND

What I’ve Learned Today

A big theme of today has to be community. Before I arrived, I wondered how I would be seen as the “outsider” and how I would fit in—my typical mental construction about unfamiliar people and situations. In just a few short hours, I was able to join the community by offering my support. People have been genuinely open to newcomers like me as well as old buddies. I’ve been taken in by everyone I’ve met, with friendly curiosity about who I am and what I’m doing here. There were times I noticed myself pulling back, hesitating. I wanted to relax at times (as in slack off, which is something I also do in groups—“someone else will take care of it”). When I noticed myself falling into the old habit, I reminded myself that my job here and now is to help out. So I kept offering to do more, and the result is that very satisfying exhausted-contented feeling (like a “runner’s high,” except connected with other people instead of solitary). I had more fun than I’ve had in long time both helping out and caravanning around the prairie with a bunch of new friends.

If today was the main course of salt pork ribs, Day 2 in North Dakota is the jello dessert, coming right up.

  1. lilysea permalink

    Remember “freedom fries?” I recently learned that during WWI, the U.S. government propaganda machine tried to get everyone to start calling sauerkraut “liberty cabbage.”

    “Liberty Cabbage Triangle” doesn’t have quite the right ring though, does it?

    But whatever you call it, it sounds fun. I’ve never been to North Dakota. Say hi for me!

  2. Carmen permalink

    Davis, thank you for visiting the Sauerkraut Triange, we very much enjoyed having you. Come back soon!

  3. Tracie B. permalink

    Love this post too! I’ve read Debra Marquart’s book, and had no idea she was speaking about it in Napoleon. I would have loved to have been there! So glad you visited. And the comment above about liberty cabbage is hilarious!

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