Updating a classic


Jan Orvik

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Updating a classic

Professor Kim Porter takes over North Dakota history where Robinson left off, all the way into the new millennium

It needed to be done, said Kim Porter, professor of history, about her book, North Dakota: 1960 to the Millennium. It started when one of her North Dakota history students said her grandfather may have been a North Dakota governor.

"Turns out it was her great-grandfather, and he was a senator," Porter said. She teaches courses in North Dakota history, and knew an update was needed for the classic History of North Dakota, which is still used in state history courses across the state. Elwyn Robinson's history, published in 1966 and still in print, essentially ended in 1950, and there was no current state history.

"North Dakota is their home," she said of her students. "Their grandparents read the same history book that students do today. They need to continue the history with current names and faces."

North Dakota's role has changed, Porter said. When Robinson's history ended with the 1950s, the Cold War was ongoing, the state had no interstate highways, no missile stations, and no oil boom. Garrison Dam was not yet built, and televisions were a luxury. Today, politics have changed, North Dakota has its first woman senator, and it is the only Great Plains state that is growing.

Porter, who grew up on a farm in Iowa, was a bit nervous about being seen as an outsider. But Robinson himself was an Ohio native, and Porter has been in the state for 18 years, longer than most of her students have been walking. She joined UND in fall of 1996, "just in time for the 1997 flood," and was attracted to the position because it was the only listing with "rural" and "agriculture" in the job title. "I understand what a piece of ground means and feel a connection to tradition."

Porter's book connects North Dakota to the nation and focuses on politics, the economy, weather, and interesting aspects of the state, such as the "Zip to Zap," the Poppers and their Buffalo Commons proposal, and more.

"Focusing on a box of dirt is boring," she said. Through feast and famine, boom and bust, flood and drought, the book details North Dakota and its connection to national politics and the larger world with a clear and affectionate eye.

"There's nothing flat about North Dakota except the Red River Valley," she said.

Porter pursues other projects in addition to North Dakota history. She is currently working on a Grand Forks community oral history in which she interviews community elders, and is kicking off an oral history of World War I veterans by interviewing their children. She recently completed an oral history of the Synagogue in Grand Forks, which is now on the National Register of Historic Places, and is working on a book about Henry Field, a seedsman from Iowa who founded Field's Seed and Nursery Catalog.

"People don't write books anymore like Elwyn Robinson did," she said about the 20 years Robinson spent writing the book. "Academics are expected to produce more."

And Porter's book already needs a new chapter, she said. Times are changing so fast that it's out of date as soon as it's printed.

"If this is where you want to be, you can make your story here," she said. "You become a person rooted in something greater than yourself."

Jan Orvik University & Public Affairs writer

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