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Doug Wurtz's blog

When Picnics Get Out of Hand: Hiddenwood Lake Stories Discovered in ND State Archives

North Dakota has been a state for 129 years. The Hiddenwood Old Settler’s Picnic has been observed for 116 of those years.

Most readers have absolutely no idea what or where the Hiddenwood Old Settler’s Picnic is, or why it has been around for more than a century. Most people from the small community of Ryder, North Dakota would have only a sketchy idea of their local picnic’s history if not for the resources of the State Historical Society of North Dakota (SHSND.)

Over the last couple of years, I have spent many hours researching the picnic’s history by reading microfilm in the State Archives. Luckily for me, The Ryder News was on the scene documenting the inception of the picnic, the shaky start, the good times and the bad times, the fascinating cast of characters, and the determination and spirit of the homesteaders at a place called Hiddenwood Lake. The Ryder News ceased publication on Sept. 9, 1943, but other area newspapers picked up the story and continued publishing highlights of this annual event.

Hiddenwood sod house and Old Settlers Chapel

Reconstructed sod house on the Hiddenwood picnic grounds. (Constructed 1976.)
In the background is the “Hiddenwood Old Settlers Chapel,” the original church built at Hiddenwood in 1907. (2018 photo, Doug Wurtz)

Hiddenwood Lake is a small body of water about one mile in length and a half-mile in width during good years (it was completely dry in the 1930s). The lake is located 30 miles “as the crow flies” southwest of Minot, North Dakota. It is a half-mile from the farm where I was born and raised.

My earliest memories while growing up on the farm were the yearly trips to the Hiddenwood Picnic grounds for the annual get-together of friends, neighbors, assorted politicians, and entertainers. I have always said that I grew up in “Mayberry,” the fictitious community setting for two popular American television sitcoms, “The Andy Griffith Show” and “Mayberry, R.F.D.” For those of you too young to remember the show, Mayberry was the idyllic setting of simpler times and traditions that lasted from decade to decade.

My memories of the Hiddenwood Picnic have always been just that; simple, folksy, and enduring. That wasn’t always the case.

Hiddenwood Mercantile and Hotel with people standing in front of the building

Hiddenwood Mercantile and Hotel, Hiddenwood, ND (Circa 1904) (Photo: Owned by Doug Wurtz)

In 1903, two of the original homesteaders at Hiddenwood Lake, William W. Wright and Esten R. Williams, decided to hold a community picnic to attract other new residents of the area to the retail store they had established at Hiddenwood. The Hiddenwood Mercantile and Hotel was a brand new business on the prairie and would only be successful if it became the source of supplies for homesteaders in the area. They put out the word and their neighbors came to the first picnic. The picnic was a success--neighborly and nice.

The former Hiddenwood Mercantile and Hotel building

The former Hiddenwood Mercantile and Hotel building (2018 photo, Doug Wurtz)

By the next year, the new store had flourished a bit and the second picnic was to be held. By that time, though, the true spirit of Williams was beginning to show. Research shows that he wasn’t just a new homesteader at Hiddenwood. He was also in business with Wright in a firm called “Williams & Wright” with offices in Minot and Hiddenwood. They were land men directing newcomers to claims around Hiddenwood Lake, undoubtedly for a profit. Business is business, but Williams was not content with just land commissions.

The second Hiddenwood Picnic in 1904 got completely out of hand, as was reported in The Ryder News on June 23, 1904:

“We have been to several bad picnics in our time but of all the picnics that we have been to, the one at Hiddenwood Monday certainly was the most rotten affair we have ever taken in. The blind pigs1 commenced doing business in the morning and did a rushing business all day…(Another fight ensued) when the old man Williams saw that his son was getting the worst of it, he ran into the house to get his revolver, saying that he would fix him, but luckily for Williams, somebody had hid the revolver, as if the old man had got his revolver there would probably have been a lynching, as somebody was looking for a rope at that time.”

Esten Williams packed up and left the county four days later. The Hiddenwood Picnic then settled into the neighborly affair that has been held every June for 116 consecutive years. There is much more to the history of the picnic. It is slowly, but surely, being pieced together one archived story at a time.


1 The term “blind pig” originated in the United States in the 19th century; it was applied to lower-class establishments that sold alcohol during prohibition. The operator of an establishment (such as a saloon or bar) would charge customers to see an attraction (such as an animal) and then serve a “complimentary” alcoholic beverage, thus circumventing the law. http://blindpigofasheville.com/about/what-is-a-blind-pig/

Benefits of Volunteering at the North Dakota Heritage Center & State Museum: Making Our Community A Better Place

While doing research for a recent project, I stumbled across a website that proposes that the act of volunteering has numerous health benefits, both physical and mental.

The website goes into specific detail:

  • 76% of people who answered a recent survey indicated that volunteering made them feel healthier
  • 94% said volunteering improved their mood
  • 96% said volunteering enriched their sense of purpose
  • 95% said by volunteering, they were making their community a better place
  • 80% felt they had more control over their mental health and depression
  • 78% said volunteering lowered their stress levels
  • 49% said it helped their career in the paid job market
  • 56% said it helped their careers

Volunteer in the Paleontology Lab

A volunteer at the Paleontology lab working while a tour of students looks on.

According to Beth Campbell, Visitor Services coordinator for the State Historical Society of North Dakota, volunteers are a large part of the agency’s success. She said there are currently more than 200 Heritage Volunteers working statewide at various sites.

Every summer, a Heritage Volunteer recognition social is held at the North Dakota Heritage Center & State Museum in Bismarck. In the 2017 program from that event, Claudia Berg, agency director, included the following remarks:

“Each and every one of you brings your life experiences, skills, abilities, passion and compassion, intellect, and humor with you when you volunteer … For whatever reason you volunteer, you make a difference to our organization. You give your time generously without expectation of reward … Last year (2017) that time totaled 11,711 volunteer hours. Since the program’s inception in 1981, Heritage Volunteers have donated over 425,764 hours.”

What Claudia didn’t mention is that we volunteers (all 200+ strong) are surely deriving all the benefits detailed in the study quoted above: better moods, sense of purpose, lowered stress levels, and so on.

Volunteers sorting in the Archaeology Lab

Volunteers working in the Archaeology lab.

I can’t validate the numbers in the study cited above, but I can attest to the following perks of volunteering at the State Historical Society:

  • studying dinosaurs with professional paleontologists
  • studying artifacts with professional archaeologists
  • learning research methods from professional archivists
  • learning object preservation from museum preservation experts
  • participating in programs developed by the Communications and Education Division
  • assisting gallery guides with public presentations
  • meeting and interacting with ND Heritage Center visitors from around the world
  • building a personal network of other volunteers with similar interests
  • spreading the word and recruiting other volunteers
  • eating way too many cookies (That should probably be at the top of this list.)

Volunteer working on computer in the State Archives

Erlys Fardal has contributed in excess of 6,500 hours of volunteer time at the North Dakota Heritage Center and State Museum.
She is pictured here doing research in the Heritage Center archives division.

I, personally, have had the great satisfaction of logging in excess of 2,000 hours of volunteer time at the ND Heritage Center & State Museum. I have been asked numerous times how I became a volunteer and why I continue to do so.

I am a firm believer in the old adage of “use it or lose it.” While there are physical benefits to volunteering at the ND Heritage Center, (it is a healthful walk from the west visitor entrance to the coffee shop on the east side), I became involved because of my interest in North Dakota history and archaeology and the mental benefits of continued study and research after my retirement. I have to admit that the first step was a little scary. I came from a profession far removed from history and archaeology. My early apprehension quickly dissipated after working with staff members. They were willing to share their knowledge and expertise in a manner that was neither threatening nor discouraging. After 2,000 hours, I am just getting a good start.

Volunteer sorting in the Archaeology Lab with the help of a staff member

Volunteer working in the Archaeology lab.

As Claudia mentioned in her quote above, we all come to the State Historical Society with our own “life experiences, skills, abilities, passion and compassion, intellect and humor.” The ND Heritage Center is a great place to enhance all of those qualities. In addition, our moods have improved, our stress levels have diminished, we have contributed to the community, and our experience and knowledge has continued to grow.

If you are interested in becoming a volunteer for the State Historical Society of North Dakota, contact Beth Campbell, Visitor Services coordinator, at bcampbell@nd.gov or give her a call at 701-328-2674. She will get you pointed in the direction that most suits you and your skills and passions.

“Volunteering is the ultimate exercise in democracy. You vote in elections once a year, but when you volunteer, you vote every day about the kind of community you want to live in.” (Author Unknown)