The Dunn County Historical Society hosted a special St. Patrick’s Day Program of “storytellin’ and guitar pickin’” with cowgirl poet and author Fran Armstrong on March 19.
By Jennifer Strange
For The DC Herald
Two dozen folks gathered at the Dunn County Museum in Dunn Center to socialize, celebrate the Irish holiday and meet the performer and retired North Dakota teacher.
Armstrong grew up north of Dodge on the Fort Berthold Indian Reservation. Her first teaching assignments were at Hope and Connolly Schools, both country schools north of Dunn Center. She went on to teach in Beulah for 31 years and earned her master’s degree at Minot State University in 1997. In 1999, Armstrong was named North Dakota’s Teacher of the Year. She is the author of three books: The Hills of Home, Sh-h-h! The Teacher’s Coming! and My Heroes Have Always Been Cowboys.
“She is really from right here,” said DCHS Vice President Verna Wolf, who introduced Armstrong. “She was also the wife of Dean Armstrong, one of the ‘Six Pack.’” Wolf referred to the famous group of six young North Dakota cowboys who worked the Great Plains rodeo circuit in the 1950s. Dean Armstrong (1930-2005) won all-around honors and prize money as a talented rough stock and bulldogging competitor. In 1999, he was inducted into the North Dakota Cowboy Hall of Fame, where his bronc saddle is now displayed.
Fran Armstrong credited her late husband’s colorful cowboy career and their shared adventures of renovating and running his family’s Diamond Bar Ranch and B&B near Medora as the main inspiration for the stories she tells, books she writes and poetry she performs.
As Armstrong launched into her first poem—“Just Let the Tail Go with the Hide,” about the tales cowboys tell each other in honkytonks—the fringed sleeves of her turquoise suede cowgirl jacket swayed to the rhythm. By the end of the piece, she was smiling at the audience from under the brim of her black cowgirl hat.
“This next one’s a cow poem for cow people, like me and Dean, my pard,” said Armstrong,
“Ode to Cliff’s Cows” told the story of how a cow named Mabel once helped run a “gov’mint man” off the ranch.
“If he don’t come back, can’t say I care,” concluded Armstrong to a resounding affirmation from the crowd. Was the tale true? Armstrong laughed. “Well,” she said, “it’s based on truth and if it’s not completely factual, then it’s based on what we hope would happen.”
After sharing a poem called “Parable of the Donkey,” based on the Old Testament book of Numbers, chapter 7, Armstrong reached for her guitar.
“I’ve always had a love affair with the guitar,” she said. “My mother, sister, brother and Dean all played. This is Dean’s old Gibson. One day, I just picked it up and went ‘plunk, plunk.’ When my daughter saw me, she said, What are you doing, Mom? Hugging Dean’s guitar? And I guess I was.”
After a few lessons, Armstrong got the hang of things and started to “belt out” the songs Dean used to sing. “He wasn’t great either,” she confided. “But he was loud.”
Armstrong sang the old Curly Fletcher classic “The Strawberry Roan,” followed by “Hallie Lonnegan,” a multi-versed song about the “hard times, hard luck and hard work” of being a woman on the High Plains of yesteryear.
“The secret of our history’s in a working woman’s soul,” sang Armstrong.
She stood her guitar back in its case before offering a few final thoughts.
“That song was for all of us rootin’, tootin’ women that settled this land,” Armstrong said. She swept her fringed arm toward the surrounding Dunn County Museum exhibits. “The memorabilia here shows this and more history,” she said. “I appreciate all you’ve done here and all that our forebears did to make it possible for us to sit here today and enjoy ourselves.”
Armstrong invited people to visit her B&B, where she likes to treat guests to a hearty ranch breakfast of locally-sourced beef sausages and Dean’s “cowpuncher pancakes”— with tales about the “cowboy way” for dessert.
“I might be a retired teacher by profession, but I’m a cowgirl by birth and a cowgirl poet by compulsion,” said Armstrong. “My stories generally talk nostalgically or humorously about the many rodeo cowboys and ranch people I have known.”
She also invited interested writers, musicians and poets to contact her about the Christmas Cowboy Poetry event she coordinates in Medora.
“I think the people all enjoyed Fran—she’s an interesting lady,” said Wolf of the program. “It was a pleasant afternoon of entertainment and camaraderie.”