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FALL 2009

Vol. 10, No. 1


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Prairie Murders

Prairie murders


Book excerpt by Robert Dodge

Robert Dodge's book, Prairie Murders, is a story about North Dakota as much as about murders. This excerpt is the introduction, which sets the stage for the period when the events took place.

The introduction:
As the curtain came down on the 1960s, young people across the country were taking to the streets and protesting. Social activism sometimes got out of control over the great social and political issues of the times - civil rights and the continuing War in Vietnam.

When these activities were beyond the capabilities of local law enforcement to control or they turned into riots, the National Guard was frequently called out, such as at Kent State in 1970.

It is a telling commentary on North Dakota that, in its entire history, the National Guard has only been called on once to officially disperse a riot. That happened in the middle of the era of civil consciousness and public protest on May 10, 1969. What gives this incident such a North Dakota flavor is the special nature of the student riot the National Guard was called in to control.

In that 1969 spring, a year after the assassinations of Martin Luther King, Jr., and Bobby Kennedy and the Tet Offensive in Vietnam, and as America was preparing to send a man to the moon to take command of the space race, there had been race riots and antiwar demonstrations, forcing campuses across the nation to look at new curricula and shut down at times. National Guardsmen were frequently on campuses and patrolling streets in urban areas.

At North Dakota State University in Fargo, Kevin Carvell, the editor of the college newspaper The Spectrum, convinced some others on the staff to do something more mundane, rather than take on the great issues for the moment. It was time for a staff picnic, since spring break was coming, and they thought they'd make a bit more of the event. It could be a real joke of the North Dakota variety, which involved playing into people's stereotypes of the state and laughing at themselves while others did the same.

There is a fine line between a joke about being backward hicks where others see a joke and where locals believe that, since outsiders are laughing, they really are hicks and are ashamed. Those remain individual choices prairie people like North Dakotans deal with.

Carvell's choice for the location of college newspaper's staff spring picnic was the town of Zap, which he thought was a strange name. The staff went along with it and published their plans, and student body president Chuck Stroup took out an ad supporting it. They really did intend to have a newspaper staff gathering, but the way the idea was presented was a bit more.

The paper proclaimed that while college students all over America would have the opportunity to head off to Florida and other sunny climes for spring break, what about a choice for those living in this isolated middle of the continent? Zap was the answer, and "Zip to Zap" was born with a front page story by Carvell in The Spectrum.

Zap, with a population of 271, had been known to state residents previously as part of a response to the puzzle, name three North Dakota towns that sound like Kellogg's Rice Krispies "snap, crackle and pop" commercial. They were "Zap, Gackle and Mott." The article promised great times for college students in Zap, concluding with, "a full program of orgies, brawls, freakouts, and arrests are being planned. Do you dare miss it?"

The story was picked up by Moorhead State University across the river from Fargo and the University of North Dakota, ninety miles north in Grand Forks. The idea moved beyond being a joke when the Associated Press got wind of it and turned it into national news.

It was a time when young people congregated, expecting excitement and fun. The ultimate example would come three months after Zap at a dairy farm in New York with less facilities than Zap, but with open space and a great schedule of music, when nearly half a million would head to the Woodstock Festival.

The Zip to Zap, offering nothing, came on May 9 as an estimated 3,000 college students poured into the town, some from as far off as Florida, New Jersey, and Louisiana and outnumbering the local population by ten to one. The two local bars were soon dry and had angered the students by doubling their prices, while cafes' were not nearly prepared for such numbers. As the temperature dropped in the evening, a vacant building was torn up to use as firewood for a bonfire in the center of Main Street.

A number of students left and headed for other towns when the local people asked them to go, but about 1,000 refused, and some local businesses' windows were shattered as things began to get out of control. Several hundred merrymakers carried on throughout the night, vomiting and urinating in public while some passed out, as others slept anywhere they could find, in cars, on blankets, on the street.

The Fargo Forum reported, "There were Vietnam veterans, fuzzy-cheeked teenagers, fraternity men, long-hairs, and a minority of girls. Virtually all of the students were drinking and a majority were drunk." It was seen by this time as a riot.

At dawn 500 National Guardsmen entered with fixed bayonets. Empty beer cans and broken glass crunched under the boots of the troops as they faced little resistance while they cleared out the town. Some revilers moved on to the nearby small towns of Beulah and Hazen, and at 8:30 a.m. about 1,000 students had congregated in Beulah's main street, chanting "Open the bar. Open the bar." Again the National Guard arrived and the show was soon over.

The joke gone awry was the lead story that night on Walter Cronkite's CBS News and was carried by most major newspapers, including the Soviet Union's Pravda. News magazines told the story and their coverage made a mockery of North Dakota's provincialism and isolation.

Zap submitted bills for damage caused by the young people to the student governments of North Dakota State University and the University of North Dakota and was paid. North Dakota's only riot; the only time the National Guard has been called up to control rioting.

Carvell recalls, "Some people thought it was a left-wing commie conspiracy, but Zip to Zap was zero political. The 'commies' who showed up included the Vets Club, the football team, the Theta Chi fraternity." His comment echoes The Fargo Forum's coverage from the day, even as the crowd made its attempts in the final moments to vent frustrations. They reported, "A staggering student from Pittsburgh, Pa., refused to move, yelling 'stick it to me, stick it to me.' ... Some students tried to shout anti- establishment and anti-military rhetoric at the Guardsmen, but they were too drunk to make any coherent, well-founded statements." What The Spectrum staff had done was more in the tradition of Norwegian jokes told by North Dakota's many Norwegian descendants, where they laughed at themselves and their heritage.

It was still Cold War time and a typical joke was the one about the Russian, the American, and the Norwegian talking about their space programs. The American said, "We are going to go to Mars." The Russian said, "Oh, really. Well we're doing more than that. We are going to Jupiter." The Norwegian chimed in with, "We can top both of those. We are going to the sun." The American and the Russian looked at each other and chuckled, then said, "You can't do that because once you were within millions and millions of miles of it, the heat would be so great your spaceship and the people in it would disintegrate." The Norwegian replied, "We know that, so we are going at night." This kind of joke initiated humor about themselves and their heritage that assumed they were the dull-witted, uncultured country hicks others presumed they were and they joined in the laughter.

Like the Zap-in demonstrated and its coverage announced to the world, this could reinforce those stereotypes and make some people in North Dakota begin to accept the beliefs as well. A thesaurus written on America's East or West Coast that included "North Dakota" might well offer the following synonyms: "blizzard, remote, unsophisticated, farmer, hick." If the book had been produced in North Dakota, the entry would be more likely to say something like "honest, neighborly, courageous, hard working." They would both include descriptive elements that had foundations in truth, but those in the first set are interrelated, and North Dakotans have long been aware of outsiders' views of them and their home on the Canadian border and were hurt, or in some cases ashamed of their state.

Some fell into holding the same disdainful views as were held by more urbanized outsiders, feeling inferior or focusing on the hardships of the weather and the lack of cultural activity, such as when Eric Severeid, a native of the small North Dakota town of Velva, who offered commentary for years on Walter Cronkite's CBS News, did when he described the state as "a meaningless rectangle."

Others wore the weather as a badge of courage that showed the strength of character and fortitude of the people who had settled the prairie and those who remained and survived what nature threw at them, helping each other through it. That difficult life had given them a common challenge and sense of community. They worked harder, worshipped more, counted on family and neighbors. Their payoff for living hard lives was longer lives. The highest number of triple-digitarians in the nation was in the state where hard work and clean air came with a pace of life that measured time in seasons.

The entry for a thesaurus that comes to mind first when one leaves Minnesota and crosses the Red River into North Dakota, is "flat." This most rural state in the nation is pancake flat in the east. It was once the bottom of the great glacial lake, Lake Agassiz, created as glaciers retreated at the end of the last ice age. The sediment deposited at the bottom of the lake created remarkably fertile soil where wheat, oats, and sunflowers grow in abundance. The flatness made for spectacularly large views of the skies to horizons in all directions and watching the weather was a major concern, as it varied dramatically and the agricultural economic base was dependent on it. "Strength from the Soil" became the appropriate words on the State Coat of Arms.

Images courtesy of NDSU Archives


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