NEWS for North Dakotans
Agriculture Communication, North Dakota State University
7 Morrill Hall, Fargo, ND 58105-5665


April 30, 1998

Plains Folk: Muskrats and Mink

Tom Isern, Professor of History
North Dakota State University

1998 Plains Folk

"These potholes and wetlands, to a lot of people they were a big nuisance," observes Ernie Zahn, "but to us, they were one of the most valuable assets we had."

Now retired in Velva, N.D., Ernie grew up in a large German-Russian family in Dickey County, and during the 1920s to 1940s they were doing quite a bit of living off the land—and off the potholes and sloughs that covered the land.

"Trapping was the most profitable thing we did, other than the livestock on the farm," he says. "The drought ended, the potholes filled up, and we got mink, muskrat and weasel.

"We'd put trap lines out. We each had a riding horse, and we'd saddle up in the morning and check our trap line. We'd have trap lines fifteen, eighteen, twenty miles long. We'd have two trap lines, one day we'd run one, the next day the other. There was five of us boys. Four would be out trapping, while one would be taking care of the livestock. Some years we had four, five, six hundred muskrat."

Muskrat trapping was cold, hard work. Ernie explains, "You set your traps, and within hours you probably had muskrats in the traps." Hence the continual round of running the line.

Too, "Muskrat was the number one food of mink," he says. "If you had a good supply of muskrat, then you had a good supply of mink. Us boys used different methods from most people. We used a lot of dogs in trapping mink. If it wasn't too tough, the dog was trained to go where the mink was, and in fifteen or twenty minutes of digging we already had the mink." If the mink couldn't be dug out, then they set traps.

"I remember one time I had my trap line, and we were getting ready to have Thanksgiving dinner," Ernie recalls. "It turned out snowy and blustery. The wife had cooked Thanksgiving dinner and nobody came. I said, I'm going out to check some traps."

It turned out to be a day of thanks after all. "The first mink trap I checked I had a beautiful male mink in the trap. The second trap, another mink. That night when I come home, I had seven mink. It was after dark when I got home, and my wife was concerned I might have fallen through the ice and couldn't get out. But those mink brought from 15 to 35 dollars apiece. My seven mink in one day stood as our record for a number of years."

Now, the sort of life that Ernie Zahn describes in the middle of North Dakota two generations ago is, to paraphrase a great historian, a foreign country to most of us. Like many people my age I have an intense interest in traditional ways of working and providing—the knowledge of gardening and food preservation that the women of the plains devised, practiced and perpetuated, the knowledge of crop and animal husbandry that people on the plains worked out in order to make a living from this place. What Ernie talks about, though, is a step removed from all that. He is talking about people in mid-20th century harvesting a substantial part of their sustenance and livelihood from fish, game and furbearers.

And this way of life is in the recollections and life experience of people who will see the dawn of the 21st century.

There sometimes exist in the same country generations that are so far apart in their life experience that unless they become personally acquainted, they cannot possibly imagine one another's life experiences. People from Minneapolis or Seattle drive though the Dakotas and they cannot understand why there are all those billboards damning animal rights and defending trapping as a way of life. Those same people have neighbors, however, born and raised on the northern plains, who know exactly where those sentiments come from. They come from the survival instincts of plains folk.

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Source: Tom Isern (701) 231-8339

Editor: Barry Brissman (701) 231-7866