North Dakota’s New Identity, As Revealed by Magnets

North Dakota has changed, to state the obvious.

Change is not easy. I should know. I used to cry big alligator tears when my parents sold off family vehicles (I just wanted them to go to a good owner!) or when we moved away from my childhood home (they did it sneakily when I was away at summer camp, the rascals!). But of course, without change, we would have no progress, no new friends, no new members added to the family, and no iced coffee sold in cartons, since that was definitely not around when I was younger. And that would just be tragic.

When I was growing up, North Dakota had a strong rural and agricultural identity. We had been through an oil boom before, in the 80s, but it was on a smaller scale and its evidence had slowly faded away as I grew up. With our rural identity, we prided ourself on our badlands, our bison herds in the west and our North Dakota State University Bison in the east, our farms and ranches, our small towns, and the wide open spaces. I really shouldn’t use past tense when I say “prided”; we still pride ourselves on these things (4-peat FCS national champion football team, anyone?).

But I think, in a way, a place’s identity is revealed by its magnets. Yep, simple little refrigerator magnets. Think about it: A place will print on magnets whatever it is best known for — whether the locals love it or not — and sell those magnets to tourists in gift shops and gas stations. My husband and I have started a little magnet collection to commemorate the places we’ve been, and sure enough, the silly little things portray the images that we want to remember most about those places. In Boston, we bought a Fenway Park magnet. In Maine, a lighthouse magnet. From Ireland I brought home two magnets: a little wooly sheep and an idyllic country scene with a pint of Guinness in the foreground. From Scotland I purchased two bitty Highland cattle. (Boy, are they cute!) We also have a Great Wall magnet from China, a Shakespeare magnet from England, a magnet replicating a Monet painting from France, and a little pirate magnet from the Bahamas.

You get the point.

North Dakota magnets, for many, many years, portrayed a few key things: scenes of the badlands, bison, wheat fields, western meadowlarks, and the like. But, when I was in Medora last weekend, my husband and I noticed that a new breed of magnets has officially overtaken the old. The Bakken is now our identity, and it is splashed all over those little North Dakota magnets.

The Old:

IMG_2637 IMG_2639

And the New:

IMG_2640-2 IMG_2642 IMG_2638

Obviously, this has been happening for years now. Cenex and Conoco wasted no time stocking their stores with t-shirts, caps, and coffee mugs depicting oil wells and rigs when all of this began. Some shout “North Dakota Oil Country” or “Rockin’ the Bakken” in large letters, and some take a little more vulgar route with slightly obscene slogans.

It makes sense, though. After all, what is it that has attracted people by the thousands to our state? Not the bison and meadowlarks, that’s for sure, although I like those things myself.

When we were examining those magnets in Medora, the nostalgic side of me wanted to buy that meadowlark magnet just to say, I remember how it used to be. I remember the empty spaces and the empty roads and I remember when meadowlarks outnumbered people. But the realistic side of me wanted to embrace this new identity and buy an oil country magnet just to say, This has revived our state. This has given people opportunities, and this has finally reversed the trend of young people leaving our state. And that means something, too. 

In the end, we settled on a magnet that simply said, “Medora.”

Change isn’t easy. A new identity creates some growing pains — for both the people that were here first and the people moving in. But luckily, we don’t have to pick a “side.” North Dakota has room for more than one identity… and my refrigerator has room for more than one North Dakota magnet. I should really go back to that store.

Has this change been easy for you?


“Because things are the way they are, things will not stay the way they are.” 
-Bertolt Brecht

2 thoughts on “North Dakota’s New Identity, As Revealed by Magnets”

  1. Wonderful again. I don’t know how you can write such meaningful stories “at the drop of a hat”. Love you and your magnets. Also the ones you have given me.

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