BISMARCK — Sue Balcom had been trying to come up with a project for a North Dakota Historical Society grant when she flipped over an old photo she had pulled from the bottom of an heirloom blue suitcase that had passed through her family. The label identified the people in the photo as “Mr. and Mrs. John Dockter.”
“And I thought to myself, these women didn’t even have first names,” Balcom said. “They just never got any recognition.”
Shouldn’t the women who had helped settle North Dakota, toiled in the fields alongside their husbands, fed and raised families and built communities be remembered? Balcom thought so.
“They deserve some kind of recognition for their contributions to the development of ag in the state of North Dakota,” she said.
And that’s how the idea of cataloging the stories of the farm women of south-central North Dakota began. First, a photo exhibit and then a book, “Women Behind the Plow” is now a documentary that will premiere on Prairie Public TV on Sept. 26.
While the project was named after one of the photos Balcom and her collaborators found of a woman plowing behind a team of horses, the women shown in the project contributed far more than farm labor.
“They weren’t always behind the plow,” Balcom said. “It’s kind of metaphor for how those men would not have survived on the Plains without their wives. Period.”
The project started as a photo exhibit. Along with a grant from the historical society, the Tri-County Tourism Alliance — a society based in Logan, McIntosh and Emmons counties that focuses on the heritage of Germans from Russia — supported Balcom’s project. They interviewed women about their farm memories and took new photos to go with old ones.
The exhibit, which still can be displayed for free anywhere in the state, was so popular that Balcom took the more than 400 photographs and the stories she had collected and turned them into a large coffee table book full of memories of the lives of the farm women of German-Russian country.
Carmen Rath-Wald, president of the Tri-County Tourism Alliance, said Prairie Public had turned several other alliance projects on the Germans from Russia into documentaries, and Women Behind the Plow was a perfect fit for another one.
Bob Dambach served as producer and co-executive producer on the film. Cassie Pierce was the editor. Michael Miller, director and bibliographer of the Germans from Russia Heritage Collection at North Dakota State University, also was a co-executive producer.
Rath-Wald, a recently retired North Dakota State University Extension agent for Logan County, said the lessons of the immigrant farm women who “came here with one little trunk for their entire family” can show the people of today what is possible.
“Their strength, their will — they have a lot to teach us,” she said. “I think it’s important that we give that to our children.”
While the photo exhibit and the book look to the past, Rath-Wald said the documentary also “stretches into the future,” interviewing women who farm today in Emmons, Logan and McIntosh counties.
Balcom never learned the Christian name of “Mrs. John Dockter,” and she wishes more of the women of that generation could know how much their contributions are appreciated. Many women were reticent when she interviewed them, thinking they didn’t have anything of interest to share. But once they saw the photo exhibit, they were in awe.
“It meant so much to them that someone actually said, ‘You were an important part of ag in North Dakota back in the day,’” she says.
While Women Behind the Plow focuses on the Germans from Russia, Balcom and Rath-Wald say it’s not just a story for a certain heritage.
“It’s a bigger story,” Rath-Wald says. “It’s a story beyond the German-Russian population. This is just a story of survival and resourcefulness and that spirit.”