Plains Folk

The Plantsman


Let me try to help you fellows who have trouble buying gifts for your significant others. Find yourself a gal who loves books, and in addition to the many other benefits of such a relationship, it will solve your dilemma as to gifting.

So here is my current triumph: a first edition of Plants of North Dakota, by Orin Alva Stevens. This 1950 publication from the Institute for Regional Studies is the one with the dust jacket depicting a cluster of prairie roses. “1143 Species Described / 308 Photos and Drawings.”

In recent weeks I have been talking about the regional project, that is, the academic and literary effort to build regional identity on the prairies, and about the founding of the Institute for Regional Studies at North Dakota State University. Publication of Plants of North Dakota was the first public triumph of the institute.

This beautiful book is a memorial, a worthy monument to its author, O. A. Stevens, a great plantsman of the Great Plains. He had a 67-year-long career at North Dakota Agricultural College, which became North Dakota State University. His life is well documented by two sources: first his papers (and the finding aid to them) in the institute collections of NDSU Archives, and second a wonderful four-part profile of Stevens written by the stalwart Fargo Forum reporter, Roy Johnson, in 1951.

Born in 1885 on a farm near Blue Rapids, in eastern Kansas, Stevens indulged a boyhood passion for collecting all sorts of natural history, especially plants. His interest was sparked by the botany textbook his older sister brought home from school. He went to Manhattan to get a degree in agriculture from Kansas State College, taking extra work in biological sciences.

Stevens came to NDAC in 1909 to staff the state seed laboratory, created to comply with the state pure seed law. This is to say, his work was strictly applied, perhaps even boring.

Except that Stevens the botanist went feral, jumping the fences of his job and roaming the countryside collecting plants, along with specimens of bees and wasps and God knows what all, while also becoming a regional authority on birdlife. He wrote a series of 250 articles on birds for the magazine North and South Dakota Horticulture during the years 1930 to 1953.

To Fargo with him from Kansas he brought his well-educated wife, Julia Anna Monroe Stevens, who was a pillar of Fargo social life and, at age 82, would be named North Dakota Mother of the Year.

  1. A. Stevens was a renaissance man at an agricultural college. This may have handicapped him professionally. His promotions to associate and full professor were slow and late.

There are two legends attached to Stevens’s life I should address. The first has to do with his personal energy and vigor. Yes, he walked or biked to work every day, arising customarily at six to be at the office by seven, but sometimes in by 5:30am.

These verifiable habits led to the second legend, that Stevens never learned to drive a car. This is not true; he just didn’t like automobiles. He did make use of them for collecting across the state, but his capable wife did the driving. I think I know why, and it’s perfectly understandable.

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