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Backstage Pass to North Dakota History

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Susan Quinnell's blog

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.

Traditional North Dakota Steel Water Towers Are Going, Going...

Stanley Water Tower

Stanley Water Tower photo by William Stark, 2008.

Municipal steel water towers are currently my sideline research project. From what I have gathered so far, the research better speed up because the towers are coming down rapidly. I’ve been able to uncover 69 traditional-style water towers in North Dakota in the past three years, and in that time seven of them have been pulled down or are scheduled to be demolished.1 I’m working with the Bureau of Reclamation to document some of these vital infrastructure elements prior to their razing.

Water towers are the most visible component of a municipality’s investment in a public potable water and sewer system, and provide pressure to move water through the system and storage capacity.

Stanley, North Dakota, provides a typical history of infrastructure development with the establishment of the community to provide coal and water for the St. Paul, Minneapolis & Manitoba Railway (later the Great Northern Railway) railroad locomotives in 1887, a post office in 1899, and more than 40 businesses by 1906. In May 1908 the Stanley Village Board organized and began passing ordinances to establish streets and sidewalks, a telephone system, road and bridge maintenance, and a village well in 1909. By 1915, with Stanley’s population growing to more than 500, the Stanley Electric Company was established and a water and sewer system installed, along with a city well nearby. In 1917 the Minneapolis Steel and Machine Builders constructed the Stanley water tower, which remains in use today, to create pressure in the water supply system.2

Drawing of Steel Water Towers associated with South Dakota Water Systems

Gregory R. Mathis Steel Water Towers Associated with South Dakota Water Systems, 1894 – 1967. Used with permission of the SD State Historical Society. Full context available at: http://history.sd.gov/preservation/OtherServices/SDWaterTowers.pdf

The structural side of documenting this group of water towers is straightforward, but documenting the manufacturer of each tower is more difficult. This traditional form of steel water tower has four steel legs, a center riser pipe, and a hemispherical bottom on the tank. Other identifying features are the guardrail around the circumference of the tank and the characteristic conical cap topped by a vent. From about 1900 to the 1960s, several regional water tower manufacturers dominated the market for construction of these handsome structures, but only two have been definitively documented to date. Pittsburgh-Des Moines Steel Company and Minneapolis Steel & Machinery are the two manufacturers that supplied the towers to North Dakotan municipalities. The towns typically either hired the manufacturer’s own construction company or a regional builder who trained specialized teams to construct them.3

Water tower in Flaxton

City of Flaxton Water Tower, Susan Quinnell.

It has been far more difficult to identify the “soft side” of municipal water development. Some municipalities got behind their water system construction projects quickly and efficiently. Williston’s project sailed through completion on the tide of progressive city officials who, by 1917, had built the water filtration plant, water tower and supply system, and paid off the municipal bond indebtedness of $40,000, primarily with the proceeds of the sale of water.4 Meanwhile other towns struggled to find local support for their pure water supply projects, even with the North Dakota Department of Health providing concrete evidence of rising levels of bacteria in individual wells sampled within the city limits of Northwood. This 1937 – 1939 project was one of many funded in part (45 percent) by the federal government’s Public Works Administration program to provide a reliable source of pure water and water for fire protection.5 My research continues with analysis of water tower types by geographic location and a search for the build dates on each municipality’s water tower.


1Survey of City Auditors taken by e-mail February & March, 2017, and Google Maps
2 William Stark, Stanley Water Tower: Context and History Stanley, North Dakota, 2008. SHSND, Archaeology and Historic Preservation Division manuscript collection, MS. 11258.
3 Survey of North Dakota City Auditors and Ronald E. Spreng, “They Didn’t Just Grow There: Building Water Towers in the Post War Era,” Minnesota History, (Winter 1992): 130 – 141.
4 Williston Graphic, March 29, 1917, 19.
5 William Start, Northwood and the Public Works Administration: A Brief History of Northwood, North Dakota’s Waterworks and Sanitation Systems, 2008. SHSND Archaeology and Historic Preservation manuscript collection, MS. 10400.