New Plateaus: Enjoying Northern Minnesotan culture

If you'd asked me before about the culture of northern Minnesota, or America even, I'd have suggested it was better described as a lack of culture. Nothing we did hearkened back to the days of our ancient ancestors. We never had exotic clothing o...

Horses and cowboy hats at the Beltrami County Fair shows a slice of northern Minnesota culture, says Brandon Ferdig. Submitted Photos

If you'd asked me before about the culture of northern Minnesota, or America even, I'd have suggested it was better described as a lack of culture.

Nothing we did hearkened back to the days of our ancient ancestors. We never had exotic clothing or ceremonies like the ones we associate with ethnicities around the world. Removed from lederhosen and the German language (though I suppose not entirely from polka) my family didn't identify with the "old country" in any traditional sense.

And you know what? I actually saw our lack of cultural identity as an asset. Fewer divisions between people; less exclusion; less boxing oneself in. And with all the ethnic conflicts around the world, I saw the whole idea of "culture" as over-rated. America gave humanity a chance to "reset." God bless it.

Interestingly though, and also having just returned from China, it was opportune to take a good, fresh look at my old stomping grounds in northern Minnesota and realize that, yes, there is culture. And it's alive and well.

To the Beltrami County Fair!


Yes, the rides, the beer, the events, the music, the livestock. The whole get-together exclaimed the social vibe, the emotional release and the identity its participants gain that good culture offers anywhere in the world. It also exemplified two telling cultural traits of America -- farming and competition. I have to say that the idea of a person in China taking pride in how well their pig or zucchini stands up to others brought a smile to my face as that would seem so out of place. (The unique culture of America reveals itself.)

Also, we may have left the lederhosen in Europe, but through the years, the new Americans picked up a hat here and some boots there, and many at the fair on this pleasant day strutted the most recognizable fashion statement from here -- that of the cowboy. I spoke with one cowgirl from the Nebish area who had a beautiful brown horse at her side. She sported the wardrobe: cowgirl hat with string under her chin, orange cowgirl shirt, big belt and buckle, blue jeans and, of course, cowgirl boots. This blonde northern Minnesotan farm girl was competing in a horse-riding competition. She and told me about life on her and her husband's little hobby farm. It may not be ancient or even all that traditional, but the "reset" of America gave her new citizens a chance to start something new.

Culture around here also has a way of adapting to new inventions. And at the Beltrami County Fair, this manifests as the proud tradition of the demolition derby. Because peaceful competitions like livestock judging is one thing, but shoot, here in America we don't just like to beat the opponent, we gotta crush 'em. The demolition derby was another event that seemed odd with fresh eyes from China; the destruction of functional cars, the enjoyment crashing into one another. It's again what makes us unique.

So time to sit back, relax...ah, who am I kidding?! Time to lean forward and cheer 'em on as they crunch, SMASH, DESTROY!! Ahhh!!! (Sorry, had to get that out of my system. I spent a long time pent up over there in China.) And if smashing cars wasn't American enough, later in the match came the trucks. This was some super-saturated American culture here. I almost had overload, so had to take a dip, grow a goatee and wear a John Deere hat just to appease myself. Speaking of goatee and Deere hat, my brother-in-law, Kevin, rolled out there on the track in a gigantic old four-door boat of a truck. She was a bruiser, but her bones weren't the best, and when jacked by another truck, her driveshaft popped out. And that was all she wrote. Until Grygla.

I also have to mention, though not on display this day, over in the western part of the state, a friend tells me they blend agriculture and smash competition with combine-tractor demolition derbies. I don't know what's more indicative of life here: The fact that people will smash anything that moves, or that they'll race anything with wheels. (See lawnmower racing.)

On this day, I realized that though the traditions aren't ancient, they are traditions just the same and are just as important as any other culture's to how its participants express and define themselves. Also, as my day at the fair indicated, the culture of northern Minnesota isn't unique just in terms of the particular traditions, but in how culture has been cultivated and adapted with little influence from how our ancestors did things. It opposes the cultures that hold sacred the ways of their ancients -- the Orthodox Jew, the Chinese, and of course, right here in northern Minnesota, the Native American.

Later this same weekend, I would talk to both my grandfathers and gain further insight into this fascinating culture of ours. Look for it next week.

For some footage and other pictures of cowboys and car smashing, or to comment or ask questions on this article, go to my Facebook page: .


BRANDON FERDIG blogs at . Email him at .

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