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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!

Guest Blogger's blog

Cold War Historic Site Connects with Today’s International Events

During the winter seasons at Oscar Zero, there are fewer visitors, and only the breeze at times breaks the silence of a prairie resting between harvest and planting. We have welcomed a steady share of guests with an interest in the Minuteman missile system through March, though, and questions arise inevitably concerning tensions with North Korea.

“Have any townspeople expressed interest in coming out and going downstairs during an attack?” (No)

“Could this site ever become reactivated?” (No)

The questions are often asked with a feeling of curiosity rather than worry.

It is an interesting time, as many Cold War thoughts have come back to the forefront of the news. Sweden recently announced distribution of civil defense pamphlets to millions of households due to Russian activities, something that has not happened since the end of the Cold War.

On January 13, 2018, a ballistic missile warning was mistakenly broadcast in Hawaii, causing great concern and reminding all of us that nuclear weapons have not been confined to the history books.

Facts about Fallout pamphlet

"Facts About Fallout" by the Federal Civil Defense Administration provided tips on how to deal with fallout and radioactivity

Oscar Zero is a unique part of the State Historical Society of North Dakota system due to its study and interpretation of the state’s expansive Cold War history. We have civil defense pamphlets from the 1950s and 1960s (Perhaps our favorite is “Facts about Fallout,” with a cover showing a man in a porkpie hat nervously looking up as a mushroom cloud forms behind him). The Cooperstown siren blares momentarily at noon; during the Cold War and beyond its purpose is to warn of a tornado, another type of civil emergency, or even a nuclear attack.

Outdoor warning siren

An "Outdoor Warning Siren" in Fargo. More often designated as tornado sirens across the state than a "civil defense siren," a warning on the City of Fargo website denotes, "When you hear the sirens: Immediate seek shelter indoors and turn on local media; do not assume there is no emergency because skies are clear."

Today, Minot Air Force Base’s B-52 bombers and Minuteman III missiles carry on the state’s historic mission of nuclear deterrence – a word that is an important part of any tour here at the site. Deterrence has not changed much since Oscar Zero’s Minuteman missiles stood ready in late 1966. North Dakota continues to be a part of America’s strategic vanguard.

USAF Standardized Alarm Signals

A document explaining the differences in "attack warning" and "attention alert signals" from sirens

Considering the news from Hawaii, Sweden, North Korea, and elsewhere, perhaps the old adage of “History repeats itself” is true in some regards. Much has changed since the Berlin Wall fell in 1989, but many effects of the Cold War linger on.

Explanation of a Minuteman mission from launch to impact

From the WS-133b (Minuteman II missile) manual at Oscar-Zero. An explanation of a Minuteman mission from launch to impact. It was approximately a 30-minute journey from November-33 east of Cooperstown, ND, to the Soviet Union.

Guest Blogger: Robert Branting

Robert BrantingRobert Branting is the site supervisor at Ronald Reagan Minuteman Missile State Historic Site near Cooperstown, North Dakota. Aside from providing site management and public tours at Oscar-Zero, Robert is thoroughly fascinated with Cold War history and is completing work on a book on the history of a Strategic Air Command base in Nebraska. He enjoys reading, interviewing veterans and exploring Cold War sites.

Personal Memories Connect Historic Home with Today: Gathering Stories from Friends and Relatives of North Dakota Governors

Family members and friends of the Former Governors’ Mansion’s past occupants still visit the site; these moments provide unique opportunities to hear behind-the-scenes stories. I’ll share a few of my favorites with you.

In September 2017, a gentleman and his two children from New York visited; he wanted to show his kids where their grandmother had once lived. His son looked me in the eye and said, “I also want to see the picture of my great grandfather.” The father then explained that his mother is one of Governor William Langer’s daughters. Langer was governor from 1932-34 and from 1937-1939.

As they walked around, the boy asked questions about historical events, some meant as a friendly quiz because he knew the answers. I enjoyed his spark and conversation style, which reminded me somewhat of a chess game. There was no doubt that he was the great grandson of Bill Langer. The girl, younger and not as captivated by talk of wallpaper from the 1930s, looked fondly at the piano. I welcomed her to play; the room filled with music from the same Steinway that Langer had acquired for the Mansion.

Governor John Davis's family

Governor and Mrs. John Davis and their children Richard, Kathleen, and John Jr., 1958. State Archives, A2528.

And then there’s the story of the secret identity. As part of our augmented reality project at the Mansion, I invited John Davis, Jr. , for an interview in September 2016, and he graciously accepted. John E. Davis was the state’s 25th governor from 1957-1961. In addition to showing me photos of his father, he told a few stories about living in the Mansion. Disliking the limelight when he was a teen, John Davis, Jr., didn’t want people to know that he was the governor’s son. While attending college in Montana, he carpooled home for holidays for two years without telling his travel companions about his father. He told them to drop him off at his grandmother's house down the road, so they wouldn’t know he lived in the Mansion!

Usher L. Burdick

Portrait of Usher L. Burdick, 1929. State Archives, B0076.

Another favorite encounter was with Ruth Haugland in the summer of 2016. She introduced herself and said that she was in her eighties but did not describe—at first—her ties to North Dakota history. As we chatted, I mentioned my background in teaching. Haugland said, “My father was a teacher. In fact, that’s how he met Usher Burdick.” Usher Burdick served in the ND House of Representatives, was lieutenant governor from 1935 to 1945, and served in the US House of Representatives from 1949 to 1959. Long before Burdick’s political career, Haugland’s father, Torger Sinness, answered a call to teach a bunch of rowdy schoolboys (including Burdick). The school, on Graham’s Island on Devil’s Lake, had lost a number of teachers who had literally run from the classroom and never returned; boys had been known to toss teachers or students out the windows!

Haugland said her father walked into the classroom with a pistol in his pocket, which quickly settled the class. Although Burdick put much energy into trying to scare away Sinness (including sneaking into his bedroom one night and beating him up), the teacher stood firm and eventually became Usher’s friend, mentor, and campaign manager throughout Burdick’s political career.

Another story about Haugland’s father related to the boneshaker (a bicycle with one large wheel and a tall seat) displayed in the Mansion’s Carriage House museum gallery. As we looked at it, Haugland mentioned that her father was never afraid of a challenge. She shared, “A man once challenged him to a boneshaker race. It was to be held the next day — and for a cash prize.” She leaned in closer. “Although my father had never been on a boneshaker, he accepted the challenge,” she said. In bed early to be rested for the next day, he didn’t fret about it. “And the most amazing thing happened,” she continued. “He said that he had a dream that played like a movie, and he was shown everything he needed to know about climbing onto a boneshaker, pedaling, balancing — and winning a race.”

The next day, using the images from his dream, he climbed onto the bone shaker and left his competition far behind.

Although these are brief encounters, they are the moments that breathe life into a historic site, often playing out like the “movie” in Torger Sinness’s dream. I love to see visitors’ eyes brighten at the story of the boneshaker race or a governor’s son who went to great lengths to blend in with his peers. And the story collection is growing for this interpreter who, some days, is lucky enough to catch a trip through time with the unexpected visitors who walk through our door.

Guest Blogger: Kris Kitko

Kris KitkoKris Kitko is a teacher, children's performer, and an interpreter at the Former Governors' Mansion State Historic Site. In addition to giving tours, she enjoys developing programming at the Mansion, especially for young children.