Author Theresa L. Goodrich presents Two Lane Gems, Vol. 2: Bison are Giant and Other Observations from an American Road Trip in serial form. Enjoy!
Everything looks better in the morning.
Jim called Hertz and extended our rental. With his mellifluous tones, empathy, and patience, our problem was solved and we had some breathing room. We had to be back by July 3, but that was four days away and those two extra days meant everything.
We checked out of our motel and laughed as we walked back from the office. Parked next to Jeannie the Jeep was a white pick-up truck emblazoned with “Miss Rodeo North Dakota” and a likeness of her face. Jim realized we’d seen her in the breakfast line, so now we’d met (sort of) two rodeo queens.
We were in Jamestown, North Dakota, because it’s the home of the National Buffalo Museum and the World’s Largest Buffalo Monument. You might have noticed I’ve been calling these giant animals bison. Technically, that’s what they are, but for a couple hundred years the colloquial term for them was buffalo. American buffalo, to be exact. The issue with the name “buffalo” is that there’s already an animal in Asia called the water buffalo, and the American mammal is a different species. It’s kind of like calling almond milk, “milk.”
The museum educates on the importance of bison to the indigenous peoples, and how an animal that numbered in the millions could be reduced to near extinction in the span of less than a century. In 1800, 40 to 60 million bison roamed the plains. In 1889, only 541 remained.
Some reduction in numbers should be expected with an increased population, but the bison’s near destruction was calculated. The animals provided food, clothing, and shelter for the Native Americans, and without them, the people would struggle. Knowing this, after the Civil War wiping out the bison became part of the U.S. Army’s strategy to defeat the tribes.
With the slaughter came a new, albeit short-lived, industry. All of those dead animals left tons of bones, and people would collect them in piles by railroad depots. They’d then be shipped to factories where they could be used to create industrial carbon and fertilizer. But then those were gone, too.
Fortunately, wiser heads stopped the bison from being completely exterminated. Walking Coyote raised six orphaned bison on Montana’s Flathead Reservation. In 1894, President Grover Cleveland signed a bill into law that protected the American buffalo. In 1896, at the urging of his wife, Charles Goodnight began breeding them in his Texas ranch and sent some to the New York Zoological Society, which is now the Bronx Zoo. We saw a few of their descendants in Oklahoma on our previous cross-country trip. By the early 1900s, the American Buffalo Society, of which Teddy Roosevelt was honorary president, began establishing buffalo ranges. Gradually, the numbers increased, and now there are about half a million bison in public and private ranges.
Outside the museum in a fenced glade, a small herd roamed and a white bull stood on his own. This was Dakota Miracle, offspring of the legendary White Cloud, an albino buffalo that’s preserved inside the museum. White buffalo are considered sacred by some Native Americans, and the presence of these rare creatures brings more visitors to the museum and to Jamestown. Drawing tourists to the area was the goal behind the construction of Dakota Thunder, the World’s Largest Buffalo Monument. Chamber of Commerce President Harold Newman had the idea for the 60ton behemoth, and by 1959 it was beckoning travelers.
Worked for us.
To get to the monument we walked through Frontier Village, but that’s all we had time to do. A Nordic runestone was calling my name.
In 1898, a Swedish immigrant named Olof Ohman made a remarkable discovery in rural Minnesota. He’d recently acquired some new land and was clearing stumps and trees so he could farm it when he came across a heavy stone entangled in the roots of a poplar tree. This wasn’t just any stone; etchings covered the surface. Olof discovered they were runes, the ancient written language of his homeland. Translated, these runes seemed to indicate that Scandinavians had made it to Minnesota in the year 1362.
What were the chances? Many said it was nigh well impossible. In other words, they thought Mr. Ohman’s story and his runestone were a bunch of bunk. There were a few reasons for this. To the skeptics, it seemed conveniently coincidental that Olof, who had arrived in Minnesota in 1890, would find proof that his countrymen had been in the same area five hundred years before he’d arrived. When he found the stone, Leif Ericson was a hot topic and it was a few short years after Norway had sent a replica Viking ship to the World’s Columbian Exposition in Chicago. Plus, the translation seemed off, and six linguists and historians declared the runestone a hoax.
Others, however, believe the Kensington Runestone, named for the town closest to where Olof found the stone, is authentic. The museum is founded on that belief, and there are several displays showcasing the extensive scientific research done in recent years.
Of course, one of the biggest questions is whether it’s even possible, and the Runestone Museum makes a compelling argument that it is.
The museum is in Alexandria, about twenty miles from Olaf’s discovery. In addition to the infamous stone, there are displays about pioneer life and the original inhabitants. Outside are historical buildings and a barn that’s jam-packed with miscellany, including a replica of a Viking merchant ship. And, an open one-horse sleigh.
Across the street from the museum is “Big Ole, the largest Viking in the land.” He’s been welcoming visitors to Alexandria since 1965, when he accompanied the runestone to the New York World’s Fair.
We took our obligatory photo and drove to Eden Prairie on the outskirts of Minneapolis. We’d hoped to get a little further, but hotels were cheaper around the city. Besides, we’d already driven more than 350 miles that day and spent six and a half hours in the car.
Eden Prairie would do just fine.