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

The Unglamorous Side of Historic Site Management

One day in the fall of 2018 when I was the site supervisor of Chateau de Morès State Historic Site, my staff and I hosted a bus tour. It was the off-season, and we were short-staffed. Two of my team were at the Chateau, which left the store manager and myself to cover the Interpretive Center. After we greeted the group and showed them the orientation video, they were free to explore the galleries or visit the gift shop. I was in the primary gallery interacting with several of the participants when one walked up to me and said in a sly voice, "You know, when you get older, your aim gets worse."

At first, I wondered what he was talking about, but then he quickly added, "You may need to have somebody clean up your bathroom." All other staff were occupied with their assigned tasks, which left me to wield a mop and clean the sullied restroom stall. While being a site supervisor can be a dream job for some—I know it was for me when I started–it does come with an unglamorous side.

A man stands next to a garden with many trees in the background

Site Supervisor Kyle Nelson pulls weeds as he checks on the victory garden at Fort Totten State Historic Site.

State historic site supervisors have a challenging job. Site supervisors are jacks-of-all-trades, and their positions can be broken down into many roles. For their sites they are the chief administrator, the human resources department, head of maintenance, event coordinator, program creator, lead interpreter, store manager, social media coordinator, marketing department, and even custodian. Some sites have large staff who help with these roles, but at other sites you might see the site supervisor get off the mower to collect admission, sell a souvenir, and then lead a tour.

On top of that, people expect you to be an expert and to speak with authority, especially on all topics of history and preservation. During my initial three months as the Chateau’s site supervisor, I was asked my first question about the historic preservation of a structure on the National Register of Historic Places (not my strongest area of expertise when I started). On the other hand, sometimes people also assume that your historical knowledge includes every aspect and minute detail of your site. While being considered a content expert in the ranching and meatpacking industries during the “Great Dakota Boom” and in the sophisticated home management practices of the aristocracy during the Gilded Age is an ego boost, there are plenty of humbling moments.

If there is a problem, for instance, site supervisors are the ones everybody looks to for answers and guidance. Sure, there are big, noteworthy things that site supervisors and staff do where they receive recognition. They create new programs that benefit tourists and local communities and deal with disasters like wildfires, runaway carriages, and roofs that have blown off historic buildings.

A white building with red trim around the windows and roof is shown with part of the roof blown off

A windstorm in June blew the roof off the girl's dormitory at Fort Totten State Historic Site. Assistant Site Supervisor Lisa Rainbow led the cleanup efforts as Site Supervisor Kyle Nelson was away at the time.

But rarely are people aware of the less-than-glamorous, behind-the-scenes work that goes into the job, like the site supervisor at Fort Abercrombie State Historic Site cleaning bird feces off interpretive panels in the morning or the site supervisor at Fort Totten shoveling snow out of a building with a broken window or crawling under a historic building in the mud to diagnose a wiring problem. When a security alarm goes off at a state historic site at three in the morning, the site supervisor must get up and go check it out, even if it means driving 30 minutes there and 30 minutes back. I know of one site supervisor who even chose to spend his anniversary at a three-hour city council meeting in order to represent the agency on an issue. Site supervisors step up and tackle challenges as they arise because it is what needs to be done.

I’ll never forget the time I was visiting the Oscar-Zero facility at the Ronald Reagan Minuteman Missile State Historic Site last summer, and the site was hosting a large family group. The staff did a great job. However, while preparing to leave the facility for their next location, the visitors exposed a problem with the plumbing, which resulted in both the men and women's toilets clogging simultaneously. Site Supervisor Rob Branting tried his best to expel the clogs and restore proper flow. He called every plumber in the phone book looking for relief but finding a plumber on a Friday afternoon in a rural community can be a challenge. Rob went so far as to walk out into the nearly dried sewage lagoon to see if water was flowing out from the facility. Now that is truly going above and beyond.

A man stands in the middle of many weeds

Site Supervisor Rob Branting walks to the center of a sewage lagoon at the Ronald Reagan Minuteman Missile State Historic Site to check on the water flow.

When I talk about my job, I often talk about how I get to work with fantastic colleagues. The agency and the people of North Dakota are lucky to have hardworking, knowledgeable, and passionate staff supervising our state historic sites. Our historic sites are in good hands, and I am proud of all our site staff's work, whether I hear about it or not. But for the record, I do prefer to hear about it.

Ice Cream, Accordion Music, and Kite Flying: North Dakota State Historic Sites Offer Summer Visitors a Season of Delights

A new season is upon us, and we are thrilled by the prospect of delighting visitors at our state historic sites. There is much curiosity about what kind of season we will have this year. Last year was tough on sites. Our site supervisors worked hard to open on short notice, create procedures to keep visitors safe, and rearrange schedules to accommodate staff in quarantine. This year we are ready for guests and providing new events and experiences.

As part of their effort to keep visitors safe in 2020, sites canceled many summer events they would typically hold. This year, we have established new guidelines for events at sites, and I am super excited about the great events we will be hosting. Some are returning favorites; others are brand new. There are too many to list each one, but here are a few highlights of what’s happening at sites this summer:

June 27 Great Western Trail Monument Dedication. Missouri-Yellowstone Confluence Interpretive Center, near Williston
July 3-4 Kite Flying Weekend, 9 a.m.-4 p.m. Fort Abercrombie State Historic Site, near Fargo
June 15 and July 13 Entertainer Kittyko holds a child-oriented performance, 11 a.m.-12 p.m. Former Governors’ Mansion State Historic Site, Bismarck
July 24 Grant Invie Concert. 1883 Stutsman County Courthouse State Historic Site, Jamestown
August 8 Annual Ice Cream Social returns. Former Governors’ Mansion State Historic Site, Bismarck
August 14 Painting class with Linda Roech. Welk Homestead State Historic Site, near Strasburg
August 17 Entertainer Kittyko holds a child-oriented performance, 11 a.m.-12 p.m. Camp Hancock State Historic Site, Bismarck

many people are gathered outside for an event. Some are eating ice cream cones. A blue canopy is set up between a green building and a yellow house.

The annual ice cream social at the Former Governors’ Mansion State Historic Site returns this summer after a pandemic-related hiatus.

Beyond events, some sites will also offer new experiences for visitors this year. Fresh off of their success opening Fashion & Function: North Dakota Style, the exhibit team has been hard at work on a new Sitting Bull exhibit for the Missouri-Yellowstone Confluence Interpretive Center (MYCIC). The exhibition focuses on the Hunkpapa Lakota leader’s life and cultural impact and will open in June. Last year we installed a new civics exhibit at the 1883 Stutsman County Courthouse State Historic Site. With the looming threat of COVID-19, many of the hands-on elements in that exhibit had to be put on hold. This year, however, thanks to some new procedures and the improving pandemic situation, we are now able to bring these elements to the public.

A gold colored embossing stamp sits nest to a roll of gold starburst edged stickers, a bookmark displaying an embossed sticker with an illustration of a brick building, and a sign that reads Try it! with some other unreadable text. All of these items sit atop a wooden desk or table.

Visitors to the new civics exhibit at the 1883 Stutsman County Courthouse State Historic Site will finally be able to try their hand at the embossing stamp shown above. This stamp was one of several interactive elements put on hold due to the COVID-19 pandemic.

Meanwhile, at the Ronald Reagan Minuteman Missile State Historic Site, Rob Branting, site supervisor, will conduct a new interpretive tour of November-33. (November-33 is a decommissioned Launch Facility, which housed a Minuteman III missile that could be fired from a Launch Control Facility such as Oscar-Zero.) Rob’s tours will take place on alternating Fridays and Saturdays in the summer from 11 a.m. to 2 p.m. Contact the site for details.

At the time of this writing, some site projects and programs are still works in progress. At Camp Hancock State Historic Site, our Site Supervisor Johnathan Campbell is working to recreate how U.S. Weather Bureau offices once located at the site would have looked in the 1930s. Similar to the civics exhibit at the 1883 Stutsman County Courthouse, the recreated Weather Bureau offices will incorporate hands-on elements. The Ronald Reagan missile site is planning a Perseid Meteor Shower Party for the evening of August 12. The 1883 Stutsman County Courthouse will host talks by both the veterans officer for Stutsman County and the president of the county commission. The Welk Homestead State Historic Site is organizing its annual Accordion Jam Festival, slated for July 17. At the Chateau de Morès State Historic Site, staff are collaborating with the Friends of the Chateau de Morès to convene a series of outdoor painting classes with Joseph Garcia, site supervisor at MYCIC and Fort Buford State Historic Site.

If these or other events mentioned in this blog sound of interest, keep an eye on the site’s Facebook page for further details, or check out the events page on the State Historical Society of North Dakota’s website.

Two couples dance outdoors in front of a tent with a tuba player and piano player.

Couples polka during the 2019 Accordion Jam Festival at the Welk Homestead State Historic Site.