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!

Chris Dorfschmidt's blog

Hunting “Easter Eggs”: Small Details in Historical Photos Add to Interpretation

It is not uncommon for film directors and video game designers to put Easter eggs into their movies and games. No, I am not talking about literal Easter eggs, but rather hidden references to other films or aspects of pop culture—for instance, the alien from “E.T. the Extra-Terrestrial” appeared in “Star Wars: Episode I-The Phantom Menace.” Some people actively hunt these hidden treasures. You can often find videos on YouTube with a clickbait image that claims to reveal all the Easter eggs in a given movie. These videos usually have a screenshot from the film with a red circle around some aspect of the background and a title that reads “25 things you missed.” Historical photos can also have Easter eggs, although these are not intentional. These details can change how we view the image and give us a better context for telling these stories. Here are some I found while working on interpretive panels for Chimney Park at the Chateau de Morès State Historic Site in Medora.

A woman sitting sideways on a horse. the woman is wearing a dress with a belt that possibly has bullets in it.

Here I have inserted my own clickbait thumbnail like you might find on YouTube. There really is more to this photo than meets the eye. For instance, the Marquis de Morès was photoshopped out of the image. Look closely and you can still see the toe of his boot and shadow. The horse is even missing an ear. Since the photo was altered, the image was removed from our digital collections.

One of the interpretive themes at the Chateau is the Marquis de Morès’ dream of creating a cattle empire. Staff at the historic site talk about his desire to change the system for transporting beef from shipping live cattle to slaughterhouses in Chicago to shipping dressed beeves (the flesh of a cow or bull) to East Coast markets using refrigeration. While his was not the first enterprise to use refrigerated rail cars to transport dressed beeves, the scale of the Marquis’ plans were unprecedented.

A white building sits behind train tracks with a few train cars on it

A closer look at this image reveals the Marquis’ big dreams for his shipping operation. SHSND SA 00042-00188

The 1883 photo above shows the construction of the Marquis’ abattoir (slaughterhouse). We can see the main structure, with its icehouse under construction. A spur line runs between the two structures, bearing four of the Marquis’ new refrigerated rail cars. It is easy to focus on the construction and miss what, in my opinion, is the most crucial part of the photo. I know I did.

If you zoom in on a high-resolution scan of the photo, as I have below, you can read the words on the side of the rail cars. They are still a bit difficult to make out, but the places they plan to deliver to are listed, from to Duluth, Minnesota, to the West Coast, as well as the products they plan to deliver, including beef, beer, and vegetables. (You can view the full list of items and places advertised on these rail cars at the detail page here.)

Two train cars are shown that read Northern Pacific Railroad Refrigerator Line

Fresh meat, butter, fish, and beer were among the perishable products the Marquis planned to ship on his refrigerated rail cars. SHSND SA 00042-00188

Why is this important?  It shows just how big the Marquis dreamed. He had not even finished building all the infrastructure his company needed and already was listing places he would deliver to and goods he would carry. It would be like listing all the stores that will carry your new product before finishing the factory. We know now that the Marquis would not actually accomplish most of this vision, but it does show his ambition, confidence, and the sheer size of his dream. It also shapes how we at the State Historical Society share that story with visitors.

During my research, I’ve also discovered that the public at the time was fascinated with the meatpacking industry. A dark, macabre sense of humor was often displayed by the workers and companies involved in these processes. Armour & Co. produced a postcard featuring a hog wheel (used to lift live hogs to the conveyor belt system) with the slogan: “Round goes the wheel to the music of the squeal.” The Marquis’ abattoir was not immune to this dark humor, and the Easter egg proves that point. Take a close look at this photo below. What do you see?

Men stand and sit on a platform next to a train car that reads Northern Pacific Refrigerator. Two men stand in front of the train car.

Another interesting tidbit in this image is the pistol hanging from the belt of one of the men. I will need to further investigate. SHSND SA 00042-00150

Most people will say they see a group of workers holding tools posed on the abattoir’s loading dock. But look closer, and you can spot one man resting his foot on the decapitated head of a butchered cow as if he was a big game hunter.

Finally, I want to share one of my favorite Chateau Easter eggs. The worst position for a servant at the Chateau was to be the chambermaid. The Marquis and Marquise had exclusive use of the one indoor bathroom at the Chateau. Servants and guests used chamber pots, and the chambermaid was responsible for cleaning these every day. It would be inefficient for her to carry each pot downstairs to dispose of the contents. Instead, the chambermaid would empty the contents into a bucket. The chambermaid would not want to keep a bucket of foul-smelling waste sitting where it could affect the guest quarters’ air quality while she finished cleaning the 10 upstairs bedrooms. So, she would place the bucket outside a window on the roof until she needed it for the next pot. Knowing that, take a look at this iconic photo below of the Marquis, the Marquise, and their hunting party ready to go out on a hunt.

Men and horses stand in front of an old house

Getting ready for a big hunt at the Chateau de Morès, circa mid-1880s. SHSND SA 00042-00191

Can you spot it?

I recommend taking some time to explore the images on Photobook. Who knows what Easter eggs you might find? Happy hunting.

Ask-an-Expert Program Connects North Dakota Studies and State Historic Sites

When I first started with the State Historical Society of North Dakota, one of the tasks given to me was connecting the Chateau de Mores to North Dakota Studies, an online resource for students, teachers, and lifelong learners that explores our state’s people, places, events and fascinating history. It was an assignment that never made much sense to me. Good interpretive programs highlight a resource, whether it is a tree, a historic house, artifact, or just the site itself. My assignment was making North Dakota Studies the resource when it should be the Chateau. It was emphasizing the wrong thing. So what was the fix? It seems simple; we needed to make the sites a resource for North Dakota Studies. It needed to be something that helped teachers and connected to themes found within the North Dakota Studies curriculum. While this task has many obstacles, the solution has us excited.

Currently, our sites serve teachers as a field trip destination. Unfortunately, history does not always happen in convenient locations. Some sites are remote, and while we can serve students who live close to the site, what about those who don’t?

Fort Totten Education Day

Photo of Fort Totten Site Supervisor Kyle Nelson teaching a session on archery as part of the Whitestone Hill Education Day.

In a past blog, I mentioned that we were developing virtual field trips at sites. It is a good idea. How else will we get students from Abercrombie to experience a site like Fort Buford on the opposite side of the state? Plus, without the travel requirement, students can participate in several of these programs with different sites across the state. But there are problems to be solved. The biggest holdup is the limited internet at sites. It is not much of a field trip if all you can see is the office area. You want to be able to go into the underground capsule at Oscar-Zero Missile Alert Facility at the Ronald Reagan Minuteman Missile State Historic Site. Plus, not all the buildings are heated. I once did a Facebook Live video from inside the Chateau in the middle of winter. I was shivering by the end.

MYCIC Education Day demonstration of catching birds

Missouri-Yellowstone Confluence Interpretive Center Site Supervisor Joseph Garcia leads a group of students through a hands-on activity focusing on how biologists learn about bird habitats from catching birds. This program was part of the Project WET education day held at the site.

With the problems identified, what is the solution? While we still want to host virtual field trips eventually, right now we could look at a different kind of virtual offering. Currently, sites are working on a program that we call Ask-an-Expert. We are fortunate to have staff that is passionate about their site. They read books and articles and use downtime to conduct research. Some have even translated books from other languages to learn more about an aspect of their site. Allowing students to ask these experts questions could be a powerful interaction for the classroom. There is a genuine cool factor in getting to speak to an expert, and it always seems to carry more weight. Sure, I could teach a class about space, but it would mean so much more coming from an astronaut.

Here is how it would ideally work. Our sites have produced a list of themes related to their sites that tie into the North Dakota Studies curriculum. Teachers can use this list to select a site that fits what they are covering in class. After making a reservation with our site staff, the teacher will introduce the topic to the class. The students craft their questions, and the teacher sends them in advance to the site staff. Having the questions will allow the site staff to pull together resources such as photos, videos, and artifacts that they can use to answer these questions. It also guarantees that students will have questions to ask. On the day of the meeting, students get to ask their questions to the site staff who answer them using their knowledge, historical accounts, and the resources gathered.

Screenshot of a Chateau de Mores Facebook live video

Screenshot from one of the Chateau de Mores Facebook Live videos, but a great example of how an Ask-an-Expert program would look to students.

We are excited by the potential of this program. We have done a few test runs so far, and the results were fantastic. One of the most impressive things was that in the first wave of questions, we would often see basic things asked, but while they were getting those answers, the teacher was writing down questions that were coming up during the responses. This second wave of questions, when asked, often showed some historical analysis that was happening in the minds of the students. They were thinking critically about what they are hearing. A program like this encourages students to think about causality (Why did we need to spread out the launch control facilities in the missile field?) and conflicting accounts (Did the Marquis de Morès kill Riley Luffsey?). We want sites to inspire critical thinking, and this program helps achieve that goal.

We originally planned to do a beta test of this program this past spring, but COVID-19 changed that. We are looking to try a beta test this fall and roll it out in full this winter. We hope to work out any issues and get feedback from teachers. While there may be a fee for this program in the future, participating in the beta will be free of charge. If you teach North Dakota Studies and are willing to give this program a try, please feel free to reach out to me, and I will help connect you to our experts.