“Welcome to the folk school on Willow Creek featuring university distinguished professor Tom Isern singing and telling stories from the Saloon on Willow Creek,” announces Suzzanne Kelley, Isern's wife. With a smile to the camera and sip of joe, Tom Isern begins strumming his six-string to a new, original folk song and another livestream of the Willow Creek Folk School is underway.
Isern has a passion, which perhaps goes unmatched, for telling, documenting and teaching about life and stories on the prairie.
Isern had a rural upbringing that instilled that passion about life on the Plains. “I’m a farm boy from western Kansas,” said Isern. “Still got farm, by God.”
A family operation, Isern was put to work as a youngster.
“I did everything on the farm. It was wheat, alfalfa, cattle, feed grains, quarters under irrigation. I always say it was alfalfa that drove me off the farm,” he said with a chuckle.
When he left the farm, Isern pursued his academic career. In 1977, he earned his doctorate from Oklahoma State University. He’s been with North Dakota State University since 1992 and is a university distinguished professor of history, teaching courses covering history of not only the North American Plains, but the history of Australia, New Zealand and Canada as well.
“I came to NDSU to hitch up with a land grant university," he said. "The type of institution that I figured suited my personality and interests.”
Isern came into NDSU as a dean of humanities and social science. Unsatisfied with that position, Isern later transitioned to his current role of professor.
David Buchanan, associate dean for academic programs at NDSU, noted how Isern is able to bring the history of the Plains in a way that is engaging to all.
"My interactions with him would say that he is fairly unique in his ability to connect the culture and the landscape of North Dakota to things that are of interest to everybody. Not just the place where we are, but the sense of who we are here, he is able to encapsulate in ways that are really special," said Buchanan. "If you think about the word 'professor,' what is it that we do? We profess things. He professes what we are here in the Great Plains."
His courses going completely online brought to life the idea of a weekly virtual folk school.
“It’s something I had been thinking about for years,” said Isern. “During the pandemic, I thought ‘now is the time.’ I had kind of lost my groove with music. Music has always been important to me, all through life. I needed to find a way to bring that back. That’s when we founded the Willow Creek Folk School. Since then, every Friday night I’m livestreaming from what we call the Saloon on Willow Creek.”
Since starting the hour-long story-telling and music-playing virtual gatherings, the response has been incredible. Isern’s Facebook livestreams average anywhere from 700 to 1,000 views each week with a host of followers chiming in and communicating through the live chat.
“There’s been a whole community that’s come together around that,” said Isern of his Willow Creek Folk School. “There’s been people from all corners of the country and even some from several countries who have all tuned in.”
As the pandemic subsides, Isern hopes to take the show from his home to on the road.
“I expect the Willow Creek Folk School will leave Willow Creek for a number of weeks. I predict we will be doing some from New Zealand or Australia in the coming year,” he said.
The Willow Creek Folk School is just the latest extension of his overall Plains Folk brand.
Plains Folk started as a weekly newspaper and radio feature in Kansas in 1983. Written by both Isern and his long-time friend Jim Hoy, professor of English emeritus at Emporia State University, the feature is devoted to highlighting life on the Great Plains of North America.
“It has always been self-syndicated and we’re still running in Kansas newspapers on that basis,” said Isern of Plain Folk.
From there, Isern brought Plains Folk to Prairie Public broadcasting to share short, weekly audio stories from life on the Plains, which only gave his stories more exposure and brought them to new audiences.
“There is only so much you can do in print — and I am a great lover of print media — but that microphone, it’s another layer. It’s not better than print, it’s different,” he said.
Co-author of seven books throughout his career, Isern said his writing stems from both a love to write and a passion for agriculture.
“When I was younger, the writing brought me back to who I was. And it still does,” he said. “Almost everything I do in writing and a darn lot of what I do in teaching springs directly from my farm roots.”
As it relates, almost all of Isern’s work ties back to agriculture. As he sees and studies it, agriculture is the backbone of the Great Plains.
Last year, Isern began a college course at NDSU covering the history of agriculture. The course takes an in-depth look at the practices farmers do in agriculture on the Great Plains.
“It explores the culture of wheat and cattle and the other things we produce here and how we live as farmers on the prairies. But it’s actually global in scope,” said Isern. “We also cover the world sugar production system and bring it down right here to the Red River Valley by the end of it. I think it’s important to study agriculture because it grounds you where you are on the prairies and it also opens the doors to interconnect the rest of the world.”
Isern has seen the incredible transformation in agriculture not only through his studies as a professor, but all his in his personal life.
“In the first place, it’s inevitable,” said Isern on his take of agriculture’s modernization. “In the second place, it’s not to be considered an end in itself. All of the technological advances should be for purposes of better production and a better life. If they don’t serve those, then it’s worthwhile to put them into question. I grew up in the days of DDT. It worked great, but I’m not going back to that. I believe we have to make modernization, technological advances and developments our servants and not our masters.”
Isern’s affinity for life on the Great Plains comes by honestly. He isn’t only intrigued in the study of it — that’s how he lives his life.
“I try to live what I call the Dakota Mystique — the full life on the Plains,” Isern continued. “That’s everything from teaching and writing about the Plains to raising a big garden and learning how to raise things on the micro-level on the Plains, to cooking traditional foods from our part of the country to traveling the Plains. Even to helping others discover great things on the Plains — the heritage, the features that are spangled across our landscape. It’s not just an academic interest, it’s a life."