by Jessie Veeder
“You just throw another potato in the pot,” shrugged Jennifer Sorenson and the five women sitting at the table with her, drinking coffee and picking at the cookies on napkins in front of them all nodded their heads and chimed in with a story of their own about unexpected company, cooking for a crew and bringing food out to their husbands working in the field when there was no time for a break.
But how to cook for a big crew and unexpected company is just one small skill to cover when trying to get to the bottom of what it takes to be a ranch woman out here in Western North Dakota.
Because when it comes to running a family business, these women all agree that you’ve got to be flexible, in schedule and in skill.“There’s no rhyme or reason to a schedule,” said Kadie Sorenson, Jennifer’s daughter-in-law who is currently raising three kids and cattle with Jennifer’s son Jarvis on a ranch down the road from where he was raised. “You just don’t quit what you’re doing to sit down to eat at the table. If your husband can’t get in from the field, you pack a picnic and bring it to them.”
That flexibility, that “throw another potato in the pot,” ready for anything attitude is something these ladies have in common, either because they were raised understanding the importance, or because they have learned their lessons the hard way.
“Once you know how to do something, it becomes your job,” laughed Jennifer who remembers a summer spent in the swather while the kids played nearby, and feeling overwhelmed when she broke a sickle. Her dad found her out in the field and offered a piece of advice that’s stayed with her through the years. “He said, ‘you know Jennifer, you don’t have to work like a man. There is only so much you can do.’”
These sort of revelations were exactly the reason I gathered these women together that afternoon, women who spanned three generations of ranching and farming families in McKenzie County, families who have been undoubtedly impacted by oil activity throughout the years, but who are here because of agriculture.
What does it mean to be those women raising children, crops and cattle in rural western North Dakota?
I didn’t know how the answer was going to unfold, but I did know that we needed to have it. Agriculture, even out in the middle of the busy oil play in the Bakken, has remained North Dakota’s number one industry since statehood. And while new roads are being built, new storefronts and houses are popping up and new residents make their homes out in Western North Dakota, digging into the details of the community’s foundation has become increasingly relevant.
As a girl who grew up in cow pastures and along the back roads of this community, I’ve been witness to how these women have a special way of rolling up their sleeves and getting things done, for their families and their community.
Get it done, no matter what
“There wasn’t a piece of equipment I couldn’t run or fix,” said Ellinor Sorenson, Jennifer’s mother-in-law, who’s mother homesteaded the family’s ranch near Keene, ND in 1906, where Ellinor was born and raised. Ellinor met her husband Elmo, a Watford City graduate, when they both attended Dickinson State University. They married and began ranching together on her mother’s homestead, where they raised four kids.
“I drug him out to the country,” laughed Ellinor, whose love for the lifestyle is evident in the stories she’s eager to tell and the light in her eyes while doing so.
The former teacher is a wealth of information on witnessing the innovations that were created in the industry and in the home that made her life easier.
She remembers hauling horses to a farm they managed in Minnesota in the back of a two-wheel drive pickup with a stock rack.
“I don’t even think we had back lights on that truck,” she remembers, adding “But you just do what you have to do. The purpose was to get it done, no matter what.”
Because, Ellinor added with a smile, maybe they had somewhere they wanted to go that day, like a rodeo or the river to go fishing. But work came first.
That is a piece of advice these women will repeat again and again. To just get it done.
And to understand that you’re part of a team.
“But oh, how it changed everything when we got our first crock pot,” laughed Cleo Kirkland, who raised her family almost thirty miles down the road from Ellinor, a distance that is still considered neighbors in this community.
Cleo’s daughter, Jan Dodge, (and her husband, Cameron) has taken over the operation of the ranch where she was raised. She runs the museum in Watford City, where I gathered the women that afternoon, and is responsible for the popular “Pioneering Women” display, that features a kitchen, and lifestyle displays from the early 1900s, and a tribute to the women who homesteaded in McKenzie County over 100 years ago.
But the pioneering women’s stories aren’t just preserved between the walls of the museum. The landscape itself serves as a reminder to generations of farming and ranching women about the struggles and sacrifices that were made in settling and establishing this community.
“All of our pastures are named after the homesteaders that once owned the land,” lamented Jennifer as Ellinor added that her land is also home to tee pee rings, another reminder of prior lives lived and fought for on the landscape.
“It’s fun to picture what that might have been like. Think of all those kids that were born and raised on every quarter of land out here. There’s such a sense of history.”
And so it seems within every discussion about history, the future materializes.
Because leaving a legacy, a plan, a way of life and a lesson for their children is a mission that carries through women of every generation.
“The connection to the land is what I want to pass along to my children,” said Jan.
The women all nodded in agreement, as the conversation shifted from memories to the important life skills children learn from being raised in an environment where you are responsible for caring for the livestock and the land.
My own mother, Beth, who was born and raised in Grand Forks and had never driven on a hill before coming to live with her husband out west, recalled the culture shock and the awe she had for the women she met when she first moved out here.
“I never became a ranch girl,” she admits. “But I knew I was raising my children in the best possible place.”
Kadie, who recently hosted a group of elementary school students at her ranch, is passionate about exposing children to agriculture, the animals and teaching them about how their food is raised. She believes her children are developing character and responsibility in their daily chores on the ranch and finding an appreciation for the history in the relationships they have established with their grandparent, aunts and uncles who live nearby.
“Deep down, I’ll admit, we raise our kids wanting them to come back,” added Jennifer. “Jarvis’s connection to land and family is deep and he’s passing it on to his children. It’s so important.”
And, it’s a big deal to Jennifer, who admits that the ranching and farming lifestyle isn’t always as romantic as people think. While it’s hard to explain, most in the industry don’t do it for the money, but for the passion of lifestyle and the pride in feeding the world.
“No, you can’t count your time,” adds Ellinor. “But you get something priceless in the end.”
They can only hope that through the generations and changes that come with time passing, that the refrain will repeat…just do what you have to do, and throw another potato in the pot.
Jessie Veeder is a singer, writer and photographer who lives and works on her family’s cattle ranch in Western ND with her husband, Chad.