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Susan Quinnell's blog

The Construction of the 1917 Wabek Consolidated School

Wabek Colsolidated School

1917 Wabek Consolidated School Photograph by Hunter Andes, August 2018

Wabek School, located about three miles south of Plaza in Mountrail County, is a unique two-room schoolhouse constructed from two separate one-room schools. The school comprised the Charipar School building (originally located six miles to the east) and Worsley School building (originally located five miles to the south). These buildings were both moved to Wabek School’s current location in May 1917 and joined by a central addition, including a bell tower. Construction was completed in October 1917.1 The consolidation of small, rural schools into larger ones like Wabek School was a key component of education policy in North Dakota during the early twentieth century.

By this time, educators in North Dakota--as well as those in many other states--realized that rural one-room school houses could not offer the educational opportunities that town and city schools provided, and that rural school children had poor educations compared to town and city children. The disparity between rural educational opportunities and those afforded to town and city children was alarming. In North Dakota by 1915, “less than 25% of farm children finished the eighth grade, while more than 75% of the city children completed this grade; less than 10% of the farm children of high school age did high school work, while more than 60% of this class of city children were so enrolled . . .”2 Professional educators, such as Neil C. Macdonald, found that the school term in one-room rural schools was less than seven-and-a --half months, while city children were attending for nine months. Country boys in particular lost many days of schooling because their labor was needed on farms. In North Dakota, Macdonald won the state superintendent of Public Instruction position under the banner “A Square Deal for the Country Boy.” He and other educators saw the consolidated school as the best solution for providing better education to rural youngsters.3

Map of Chosolidated Schools in North Dakota

Financial aid from the State Board of Education and its continuing promotional campaign encouraged school consolidation in the early 1900s. This map shows that by 1916 there were 401 consolidated Schools in North Dakota with 151 of them open schools, which are schools built in the country and not in railroad towns. From N. C. Macdonald’s “The Problem of Rural School Betterment” May, 1917, p. 16.

Professional educators in the early 1900s had several other reasons for promoting consolidated schools, including the expense of educating students in isolated schools having less than 10 pupils, the inability to pay teachers enough so that they could better their training, the lack of social opportunities, and poor sanitation, ventilation, lighting, and heating in the school buildings. Many believed that these schools did not equip students with the knowledge needed to function in a rapidly changing democratic society.4 By 1911 the State Board of Education had begun to reward school districts that chose to consolidate with payments at a higher rate. Town and city school districts also took advantage of the financial opportunity and consolidated.

More than five hundred children had spelling bees, played basketball, and performed in school pageants at Wabek School from 1917 - 1960. For example, during the 1936 – 1937 school year, Wabek School hosted a Playday event in which students from Wright, Banner, and Mountrail Schools attended. After 1960 the community used it as a meeting hall, until it eventually fell into disuse.

For its unique construction and its representation of the consolidated school movement in North Dakota, the local township community hopes to forestall the demolition of the Wabek School building and is seeking to nominate it to the National Register of Historic Places.


1 Geo. A. Ogle & Co., Mountrail County Atlas, Plaza Township, 1917. Also Hazel A. Frye, Wabek Reunion, Wabek, North Dakota, copied transcript, 1977.
2 N. C. Macdonald, “The Consolidated School in North Dakota,” December 1915, p. 6. State Archives
3 Janice Lookhart Ginger, Neil C. Macdonald: Schoolman, North Dakota Mini-Biography Series, (Bismarck, 1986), p. 13.
4 N. C. Macdonald, “The Consolidated School in North Dakota,” December 1915, p. 8. State Archives.

Documenting the “Toxic Purity” of Lead Paint in North Dakota (1906–1909)

In 2000 historian Christian Warren published Brush with Death: A Social History of Lead Poisoning in which he introduced his construct of “toxic purity” relating to historic lead paint. Warren explains that in the early 1900s, US citizens (most well aware of the toxic nature of lead paint) still wanted pure lead paint—leaded paint with no adulterants or additives. When we think of lead paint today, we immediately associate it with the toxic side of this construct. Most consumers at that time, however, were worried about additional ingredients diluting the purity of lead paint.

One hundred twenty years ago consumers perceived lead paint to be the best. Consumers wanted to know the contents of the paint cans they purchased. If they contained ingredients such as water, benzene, chalk, or any oils other than linseed oil, many considered them to be inferior paints.1 There were no labeling laws; consumers did not even know the net weight of a can of paint. Although there were no standards set by industry or the government at the turn of the last century, consumers were hoping to purchase linseed oil thoroughly mixed with pure white lead powder and maybe some colorants.2

Capitol Shite Lead paing label

A label from one of many regional white lead paint producers. https://www.npr.org/2016/04/06/473268312/before-it-was-dangerous-lead-was-the-miracle-metal-that-we-loved

North Dakota was the first state to fully address informing consumers about the contents of a can of paint.3 In 1905 the state legislature passed “An Act to Prevent the Adulteration & Deception in the Sale of White Lead and Mixed Paints.”4 The legislature put the responsibility for carrying out this act on the capable shoulders of Edwin F. Ladd, the “fighting” chemistry professor at the North Dakota Agricultural College (now North Dakota State University), who also oversaw the publication of five bulletins on the subject of paint, its composition, and  clinical tests of various brands of paints.

Historian Elwyn B. Robinson characterized Ladd as a zealous and courageous publicity seeker, outstanding in an era of progressive reformers.5 Ladd had already led the charge against food alteration at the college’s Experiment Station6, publishing his results in the station’s Bulletin 53. His work was important in the passage of the federal Pure Food and Drugs Act of 1906.7

In his introduction to Bulletin 67 on white lead paints, Ladd calmly informs paint manufacturers who want to challenge his results published therein to “let the courts decide.”8

The Dutch Boy's Lead Party - A Paint Book for Girls and Boys

Dutch Boy logo and brand trademarked for the National Lead Company in 1907. Click the image to see the inside pages where happy children learned that lead was a most useful metal present in light bulbs, shoes, “tin” soldiers, baseballs, china, and other common household products.

In Bulletin 70 (1906) we learn the state court ruled in favor of the state’s right to regulate paint labeling. The Bulletin also provides the names of manufacturers who used up to 24 percent water in their paints, those who provided short weight adulterated or diluted lead in their paint composition, and those using up to 70 percent inert material, which was merely filler.9 In Bulletin 86 the Experiment Station analyzed many paints with mixed ingredients such as zinc oxide, a legitimate white lead substitute.10

At the time there were many small and regional paint manufacturers due to the cost of transportation of heavy ingredients. Ladd expected that manufacturers in the western half of the United States would provide inferior paints to those in the east, but found shocking results. Regardless of the region, “dope” paints were manufactured all over. North Dakota was the exception, as by the end of 1909 Ladd felt that the legal requirement to have truthful labels had greatly improved the quality of paint sold in the state.11

New Jersey Zinc Co. ad asking if lead paint is worth the risk and advertising zinc white.

1903 Advertisement for the New Jersey Zinc. Co. We wonder if master painters and others knew about the toxicity of lead in the paints they used at the turn of the twentieth century. Yes they certainly did, better than we can know today, as they felt the agony of stomach ulcers, intestinal binding, tooth loss, gout, and arthritis. Some symptoms sent them to their beds for weeks waiting out “painters colic” if they (or more likely their apprentices) inhaled or ingested too much of the chalky powder. From Warren, Brush with Death, 61, and Olga Khazan, “How Important Is Lead Poisoning to Becoming a Legendary Artist?” Atlantic, November 25, 2013,  https://www.theatlantic.com/health/archive/2013/11/how-important-is-lead-poisoning-to-becoming-a-legendary-artist/281734/.


1 E. F. Ladd and C. D. Holley, “Paints and Paint Products,” North Dakota Agricultural College Experiment Station Bulletin 67 (1906): 575–77.
2 Christian Warren, Brush with Death: A Social History of Lead Poisoning (Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 2000), 44–45, 52–53. The first ready-mixed paint came from Sherwin-Williams in 1880, but some master painters were still having their apprentices mix barrels of dusty white lead into linseed oil in the early 1900s. “The First Paint Revolution,” Sherwin-Williams, [accessed July 11, 2018, https://www.sherwin-williams.com/painting-contractors/business-builders/paint-technology-and-application/sw-art-pro-paint-revolution].
3 Warren, Brush with Death, 54. Nebraska passed a paint labeling law in 1902. It was backed by the lead-based paint manufacturers, who wanted to influence consumers to think of any new paint formulas that introduced new ingredients as inferior to lead paint. The labels did not require the disclosure of the amount of white lead.
4 Laws Passed by the Ninth Session of the Legislation Assembly of the State of North Dakota, 1905, Chapter 8 SB 49, 13.
5 Elwyn B. Robinson, History of North Dakota (1966; repr., Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press, 2009), 261.
6https://library.ndsu.edu/ir/bitstream/handle/10365/23594/ndfr_19500501_v12_iss05_162.pdf
7 Warren, Brush with Death, 282.
8 Ladd and Holley, “Paints and Paint Products,” 575.
9 E. F. Ladd and C. D. Holley, “Paints and Their Composition,” North Dakota Agricultural College Experiment Station Bulletin 70 (1906): 53–65.
10 E. F. Ladd and G. A. Abbott, “Some Ready-Mixed Paints,” North Dakota Agricultural College Experiment Station Bulletin 86 (1909): 80–89.
11 Ladd and Abbott, “Some Ready-Mixed Paints,” 80–81.