When I'm waiting at a stoplight and can hear the "thump thump thump" of the stereo in the car next to me, I sometimes find myself yearning for a simpler time. I imagine I am not alone. Evidence of this is the popularity of reenactment festivals that celebrate the past. Renaissance festivals, fur trading rendezvous and Civil War reenactments come to mind. Some can be overly commercial, blurring their original intent. For those looking for an authentic experience of the past, Sodbuster Days at the Sunne Demonstration Farm at Fort Ransom State Park is a must.
Nestled in rolling hills along the Sheyenne River Valley and blanketed with hardwood trees, Fort Ransom State Park is 34 miles south of Valley City near the town of Fort Ransom in Ransom County. The Sunne Demonstration Farm sits on a rise overlooking bottomland where fields of corn, oats and potatoes are planted. Annually in mid-July and again in early September - coinciding with hay, potato and grain harvest - visitors can see, hear, smell, feel and taste the past. For some, especially youngsters, this is a whole new experience - a history lesson. It is a witness to the way things used to be. For those who actually remember horse-drawn wagons and steam threshers, it's a chance to reminisce about the simpler times and the harder work.
Many pioneer villages and reenactment events around the country harken back to a time nobody still with us today experienced. The fact that Sodbuster Days focuses on a way of life from the not-too-distant past ensures an authenticity that is rare. Sodbuster Days also differs from other history-related events in ways that enhance its magic. The activities represent the peak of American rural life from around the turn of the 20th century and continuing into the early 1950s. A few of these practices even linger on family farms today as traditions.
This era is unique in the history of rural America because it represents the beginning of the mechanization explosion in our country. The adoption of these innovations would revolutionize farming in the United States and eventually make American farmers the most productive in the history of humankind.
Another distinction at Sodbuster Days is that visitors won't see actors portraying a historical event. These are farmers actually performing the vital tasks involved in farming. It is not a re-enactment. It's the real thing. Sodbuster Days presents families with a seemingly endless offering of activities all day. And with certain activities, visitors are welcome to pitch in themselves.
The Sodbuster Days experience starts on a country road that meanders through the scenic park and takes you to a field where visitors leave their cars behind. From here it's a healthy walk to the farm. But don't fret, there is transportation. However, don't expect a motorized tram to come by and pick you up. Your day of horse-drawn experiences is about to start. A team pulling a wagon will be by shortly to take you up the lane to the farm and into the past. You and a dozen or so others climb aboard the wagon and find a seat for the short ride. The only motorized vehicles you are likely to see on the farm are vintage tractors and antique pickups.
Draft horses and mules, and the harvest activities surrounding them, are the showcases of Sodbuster Days. Giant Belgian and Percheron horses are still raised by people around the country. Members of this group were instrumental in the formation of the Sodbusters Association.
Agrarian culture has always revolved around planting and harvest and the Sunne Demonstration Farm is no exception. Presenting Sodbuster Days during harvest is crucial to getting a glimpse of what life on the farm might have been like in turn-of-the-century America. Seeing these magnificent horses pulling functional antique equipment - the kind mostly seen rusted in a forgotten weedy patch - is well worth the trip, but that's only the beginning.
Children and adults are welcome to pick potatoes off of the ground after the horse-drawn and traction-powered potato picker has made a few passes and the marshal gives the "all clear." It's not uncommon to see families climb back onto the wagons with grocery bags of 10-15 pounds of new, red potatoes.
Sodbuster Days definitely offers something for everyone. There are stationary engine demonstrations. In the fall, oats are cut and threshed. The smithies in the working blacksmith shop make slugs for muzzle loading rifles and sinkers for fishing. They also conduct a demonstration of the lost art of the wheelwright - fixing an iron tire to a wooden wagon wheel. This requires a fire large enough and hot enough to heat the entire ring of iron before it is set on the wheel and cooled with water. This fire always draws a crowd.
There are antique vehicles and equipment on display as well as antique appliances and household furnishings in the demonstration and collection building. Woodworking without power tools of any sort, quilting and the carding and spinning of wool are among the many activities that can be observed. There's fresh-pressed apple cider, bobbing for apples and scavenger hunts for children. There is live musical entertainment throughout the day. In keeping with the theme, the music consists of the styles and instrumentation that people would have enjoyed in the era: fiddles, accordions and acoustic guitars present listeners with bluegrass, waltzes, folk music and songs of the day.
In the culinary building there is a selection of great food. Hamburgers and brats are on sale in the food line, but a more authentic meal that would be more familiar to farmhands of a bygone era is also served. There's homemade ice cream as well as Scandinavian specialties reflecting the ethnic heritage of the region. Don't forget to try the rommegrot.
If you visit Fort Ransom State Park and take part in Sodbuster Days, try to bring a friend or relative along who is old enough to remember first-hand some of the activities here. You will get a perspective from them different from your own. And as they see the past parade before their eyes, watch for the sparkle of distant memories and perhaps a tear that only such experiences evoke.
For dates of next year's Sodbuster Days, call 701-973-4331. There is a nominal admission fee, or you can join the Sodbusters Association and help support this great piece of living nostalgia. Membership is $5 per person or $10 for a family. For more information visit www.state.nd.us/ndparks/Parks/FRSP.htm and click on "sodbusters."