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Preserving ‘Dakota Attitude’ on paper

by Luann Dart


Sustained by peanut butter-and-jelly sandwiches and a coffee thermos refilled by “North Dakota nice,” James Puppe spent 14 years driving 113,000 miles across the state to chronicle the stories of a fading generation of North Dakotans.

From Abercrombie to Zeeland, he visited every town on his North Dakota road map, a tattered paper tenuously held together by Scotch tape.

While the physical journey took him from the Red River Valley to the Badlands, the personal journey took him into people’s homes, and seated him at their kitchen tables, with a coffee cup steaming in front of him. And he talked. And he learned to listen. And in the stillness, he heard voices relate strife, sorrow, pride and joy. He heard laughter and sighs. Regret and contentment.

Then, Puppe compiled those kitchen conversations – 617 stories – into his 638-page book, “Dakota Attitude. Interviews from Every Town in North Dakota.”

“It resonated in my mind when someone said that we know more about the soil of North Dakota than what we know about the people. I thought there was a silence out there about the people and what they’re all about,” Puppe says. “I wanted to find out what their dreams were when they were younger and what were their virtues and their experiences in life and what brought them back to where they are today and what advice, if any, could they give to us.”
 

James Puppe, above and at right, interviews Pauline Roll, of Heil in Grant County, who relates giving birth to 21 children in 21 years. She is one of the subjects in Puppe’s book, “Dakota Attitude. Interviews from Every Town in North Dakota.”
PHOTOS BY JAMES PUPPE

Where the story begins
Puppe’s journey began during his own childhood on a farm near Hensel in northeastern North Dakota, where he remembers listening to the stories of his many nearby relatives.

He graduated from the University of North Dakota and later served in the Vietnam War from 1968-69. Upon his return, he worked in the Veterans Administration in Fargo for 34 years with what he calls “the most rewarding assignment” as coordinator for the former prisoners of war (POWs).

It was those stories that set Puppe upon another path.

“These were special veterans and I learned so much about them and their virtues and their resilience when they came back to adjust to their life,” he says. “It was pretty heartwarming for me to see how these veterans would conduct themselves. They didn’t want to be called heroes. The heroes were the ones that didn’t come back. They were the survivors.”

He attended a national POW convention and talked to former POWs who had been held at the Hoa Lo Prison, also called the Hanoi Hilton, in Vietnam.

“That had an impact on me,” he says.

And all those experiences “roll into one big picture of a curiosity I had about the people of North Dakota,” Puppe says.

So, upon retiring in 2004, he started driving across North Dakota, sleeping in his van wherever that day’s journey ended.

“Wherever I quit interviewing is where I would find a spot to park and there I would be for the night,” he says. “There was nothing scientific the way I did it.”

Paved, gravel and dirt roads rose in his rearview mirror, as he visited just over 400 towns, gathering 617 stories for his book, which is alphabetized by county and community, one page per person per town.

Pauline Roll, Heil in Grant County, relates having 21 children in 21 years (page 221). “I’d never want to be without a family,” she says.

Arnold Christianson, Mountain in Pembina County, grew up speaking Icelandic and survived an airplane crash on a ride with his brother-in-law while buzzing a neighbor, spending three months in the hospital (page 387).

John Redmer, Bowbells in Burke County, shares catching a freight train to Oregon (page 71). “You would run as fast as you could go and when that handle come by you, you would grab it, and it would snap you right off your feet. Gee whiz. … Some of those boxcars were full. Bums. People. You can’t believe how many people were riding them, from all over the country,” he told Puppe.
 

Sitting at the table
Puppe didn’t select the interview subjects himself. Rather, he drove into town, then stopped at a local business or queried a stranger on the street with this question: “I would ask them who in that community they respect, someone of good human character. Someone to represent their town, someone with great virtues.”

Answer in hand, he knocked on a door.

“I couldn’t believe how these people selected such great individuals,” he says.

“Most of the conversations took place at the kitchen table over a cup of coffee and homemade goodies,” he says. With a digital recorder and camera in hand, Puppe simply visited.

“One of the things I had to learn was to listen,” he says with a laugh, even pointing to one interview subject who asked him to stop interrupting.

Depending on distance traveled, Puppe would average two to three interviews a day, and sometimes more, spending nights in his van.

“It’s exhausting,” he says. “But I got ’er done.”

His last interview was in Juanita in Foster County on Oct. 21, 2018, with John Otto, a teacher for 34 years (page 194).

With help transcribing the tapes and editing his manuscript, he self-published his book in December 2019 and is now planning a fourth printing.

“I didn’t want to sound like a government manual,” he says. “I wanted the stories as told by the people, their voice. It’s their voice, not mine.”

Puppe returned to those first stories from veterans by dedicating his book to his cousins, Lester and Elmer Puppe, who both died in combat just 69 days apart during World War II and are buried in Italy.

“That’s a soft spot in my heart for these guys. The effort is dedicated to those people and the POWs. Oh, what I have learned from them,” he says.

Those stories in the book also carry special meaning for Puppe.

“Veterans and those who lost someone in service, that was difficult for me,” Puppe says. He points to Rapheal and Lois Frost from Hunter in Cass County (page 118) whose son was killed in Vietnam and whose funeral on Dec. 31, 1968, was in 30-below-zero weather.

“About two in the morning, the doorbell rang and I come out. These two soldiers are standing there (to give the death notification),” Rapheal shares in the book.

“There’s a special spirit among the people of North Dakota and that is what I was trying to capture,” Puppe says.

Puppe’s book also captured some history, before it fades like a black-and-white photograph without any names.

The word “electricity” is found in 20 of the stories, as people recalled getting power to their homes for the first time.

“There’s a good reference from going from no electricity to electricity, how it changed rural America,” Puppe says.

Donald Hinrichs from Sibley in Barnes County (page 21) was a lineworker for then Tri-County Electric Cooperative, retiring in 1990 after 42 years.

“Back then, you answered trouble calls in your home. I betcha I took as many as 200 calls in one night,” Donald’s wife, Joyce Hinrichs, recalled in the book.

Another recalled the family selling a cow to purchase a washer and dryer before the powerlines were even at their home. Another remembers coming home to see all the lights on in the house for the first time.

Thirty-five percent of those interviewed for the book have died, Puppe says, which makes capturing their words even more meaningful.

“They had very little, materialistic things. A lot of them talked about having no money. But they seemed to have contentment,” he says.

At the end of every interview, Puppe asked each: “If you had your grandkids sitting at the kitchen table, what advice, if any, would you give?”

While the answers varied, Puppe remembers one particular response.

“I don’t have any advice,” the gentleman said.

“Why not?” Puppe replied.

“Well, let how I live my life be my advice to others,” was the answer.

 “And I think that’s my takeaway. In other words, I’d rather see a sermon than hear one,” Puppe says.

And that, he says, is the summation of his personal journey.

Puppe sat in many different kitchen chairs during his interviews, and features an empty chair he purchased at a garage sale for $5 on the cover of his book. Perched overlooking Fort Abraham Lincoln State Park in Mandan, the chair had a broken leg and continued to topple during the photo shoot, at least 40 times, Puppe says. But he kept setting it back up until he got his photo.

It was that perseverance that drove Puppe across the miles to capture the voices of hundreds of North Dakotans.

Then, strangers handed him sandwiches, filled his thermos and gave him a hug.

“It was just so much fun,” he says.

“Dakota Attitude” can be purchased online at https://dakotaattitude.com. A list of booksellers can also be found on the site. A portion of the proceeds goes toward scholarships for nursing students at North Dakota State University.

Luann Dart is a freelance writer and editor who lives in the Elgin area.