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Backstage Pass to North Dakota History

This blog takes you behind the scenes of the State Historical Society of North Dakota. Get a glimpse at a day-in-the-life of the staff, volunteers, and partners who make it all possible. Discover what it takes to preserve North Dakota’s natural and cultural history. We encourage dialogue, questions, and comments!

Susan Quinnell's blog

Quirky Connections of Robinson Town Hall, WPA, and Ole

The City of Robinson in Kidder County (about 30 minutes northeast of Steele), has a wonderful town hall that was constructed as a Works Progress Administration (WPA) project in 1935, the founding year of the WPA. I am writing a National Register of Historic Places nomination for this building. The WPA federal program had one mission – to put people back to work during a Depression that began in late 1929.

Robinson Hall exterior

Robinson Hall, Main Street. Photo by Susan Quinnell.

Even though they had just incorporated in 1929, the town leaders of Robinson were able to get a WPA construction project funded and completed quickly. This was because they had already had a special election in October 1934 and passed a $2000 bond to initiate construction of the town hall, which would also feature an auditorium. Constructing a multi-purpose town hall was common at the time. They discussed the design with a Bismarck architect Herman M. Leonard. He designed the building with a bowstring truss that allowed the auditorium portion to have a 40’ x 90’ clear span. This wide open space with beautiful maple flooring was much appreciated in the ensuing decades, as it allowed events to flow smoothly. Basketball games could proceed with high throws and predictable passing. In the 1930s, schools often had auditoriums in the basements with low ceilings, water-damaged, uneven wood flooring, and large pillars. Oftentimes they were simply too small to allow full court movement. Large weddings and other celebrations occurred inside as well.

Auditorium

Current auditorium with original maple flooring and dropped ceiling. Photo by Susan Quinnell

More than 600 people attended the dedication ceremony on September 11, 1937. During the course of my research, this event presented a little mystery. Movies were held in the auditorium that day, yet records from the Northern Plains Electric Cooperative show that electricity didn’t arrive until 1942. So I thought there must have been an alternative power source. Further research uncovered a gas-powered contraption in a museum in Georgia that could project movies at the time and didn’t need electricity, so that seemed plausible. However, the current mayor of Robinson, Bill Bender found old newspaper articles stating that a man by the name of Ole Saltness came to Robinson in 1929 and owned a Philco generator, which produced enough power to provide electricity to a few neighbors, businesses, and the Robinson Hall. At that time, the load probably would have been little more than one or two low-wattage light bulbs per building. Instead of choking on gas fumes, the movie audience would cry “Ole, Ole!” if a fuse blew. Robinson Hall provides a glimpse into the quirks of small-town life in North Dakota during the New Deal era.

Three Takeaways from Farmsteads on the Frontier: German-Russian Immigrants in Western North Dakota Field School

In June and July 2017, instructor Anna Andrzejewski of the University of Wisconsin-Madison held a four week, three-credit class in vernacular architecture, with a week in North Dakota’s Stark and Hettinger Counties, recording farmstead layout and buildings. (Vernacular architecture embodies the common building methods, materials, and decorative techniques used in a particular region during a specific period.) While in western North Dakota, students interviewed farmstead owners and photographed, drew, and made notes on the architectural features of the various buildings in their study. As review and compliance coordinator for the State Historic Preservation Office, I helped define the parameters of the field school.

Stone Barn

Old stone barn under study as part of the Farmsteads on the Frontier: German-Russian Immigrants in Western North Dakota field school, June 2017, photo by Susan Quinnell

Professor emeritus Tom Carter (University of Utah) assisted the students in their endeavors, holding the tape measure, inspecting restored tractors, and commenting on what he had noted on his first trip to North Dakota. His initial impression was that the North Dakota architecture he studied was clearly architecture of the American West, a category still being defined, but which includes the false-fronted main street building, the front-gabled mountain cabin, and the ethnic architecture of various groups that settled in the American West. Also on hand was a professional architectural historian, James Sexton from Massachusetts, who emphatically agreed. Sexton has worked in North Dakota on and off for several years and has provided hundreds of architectural site forms for research at our office. Carter is writing a book on architecture of the American West in his retirement and hopes to include work from his North Dakota field research.

Small Granary

Small granary being measured as part of the Farmsteads on the Frontier: German-Russian Immigrants in Western North Dakota field school, June 2017, photo by Susan Quinnell

Dairy Barn

Magnificent dairy barn with added stairs that lead to a hay loft converted to barn dance floor, off of Hwy 22, Stark County, North Dakota. Photo by Susan Quinnell

Barn cat and student

Barn cat meets student in the restored dairy barn, ground level. Stanchions with individual cow’s names are in the background. Photo by Susan Quinnell

After recognizing the stone barns and farmhouses in this sub-area of Stark and Hettinger Counties as examples of American Western architecture, the second notable feature to the field school group was the date of settlement. The students asked the land owners when their farms were settled. The answer from everyone was 1910. Not 1909 or 1911, but 1910. And despite this specific date, the buildings we surveyed included traditional small stone barns, the most up-to-date dairy barns of the time, and plain residential homes. Normally one would expect to find that the small stone barns were built by the first generation, the dairy barns by the next, and a small home first followed by a larger and more stylish house later. Yet here all of these types sprang up the same year, depending on the cash resources available to the owners, and perhaps the size of the family. I hope the follow-up research is able to explain why there were both traditional and modern buildings built at the same time. I think this is an important juncture in the history of settlement that occurred after a specific point in time— is perhaps after the railroads passed through the area, making standard building materials more affordable.

The third impression Tom Carter had of the settlements he studied here was how clean they were. Many of the farms and ranches he studied further west, being more isolated and generally poorer, had a more difficult time taking away the trash. He found lots of historic trash where ever he went, but here trash piles were fewer.

The students are home now, where they will complete two more components of the field school. The first is a presentation by Anna Andrzejewski, who hopes to return to North Dakota and present her findings. The second is the development of an e-book by the students which should be completed this fall.