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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

History is Alive at Fort Abercrombie State Historic Site

The staff at Fort Abercrombie State Historic Site has great appreciation for history and a strong passion to teach others about the history and heritage surrounding the site. Visitors often mention that they studied history in school, but after coming to Fort Abercrombie and taking the guided tour with our staff, they can make a connection and understand what it was like to live here during the mid-19th century. As quoted by many visitors, “I feel like I am a part of history after that tour.”

That said, we do not want to be just a one-time stop. We have learned that programming needs to focus on getting people to return to the site for continuous learning and enjoyment. Our team is constantly working to provide effective programming, and those efforts have sparked a renewed interest among locals and tourists in the history of southeastern North Dakota. We are enjoying an increasing number of people who return each summer to attend events.

For example, each summer Fort Abercrombie hosts a Sunday history program, which focuses on many aspects of North Dakota history. This summer we’ll focus on the challenges of homesteading, local family history, environmental history of the Red River, and the Norwegian heritage of this area. Staff members Carole Butcher and Paul Nelson will spend countless hours researching in preparation for presentations that will allow people to make a connection to this history. Many local musicians will volunteer their talents in providing special music, and historical authors and storytellers will provide guests with entertaining and educational experiences during these programs.

We recognize that, for some people, seeing something with your own eyes can enhance your understanding of written history and create memorable learning experiences. For this reason, Fort Abercrombie hosts a Living History Weekend, as well as a Historical Authors and Crafters Weekend every summer. At this event, Michael Quade demonstrates the craft of blacksmithing in the 1860s at the fort, while Karl Schmidt demonstrates the craft of tinsmithing. These demonstrations give our visitors a way to visualize and engage with historical craftsmanship in the modern day. Visitors can also meet award- winning author Candace Simar, who has written about her family connection to Fort Abercrombie, as her great grandfather was one of the stagecoach drivers on the “Abercrombie Trail.” Historical author and storyteller Jan Smith will provide an entertaining history of real -life experiences at Fort Abercrombie and on the trail. Minnesota history educator and historical author Carrie Newman will help audiences understand different perspectives on the Dakota War. She was inspired to write the book War on the Prairie after taking a tour at Fort Abercrombie and becoming fascinated with Dakota War history. Carrie also demonstrates the craft of Civil War sewing while visiting Fort Abercrombie each summer.

The 5th Minnesota Infantry Company D Civil War re-enactment unit also plays an important role at Fort Abercrombie. The unit provides visitors with a real-life experience of what it was like to be a soldier at Fort Abercrombie and in the Civil War. History is truly alive at Fort Abercrombie. Come see for yourself at this year’s events!

May 13 Preservation North Dakota tour, 2–4 p.m.
May 27th 5th Minnesota Infantry Co. D. Training Day
May 27th Fort Abercrombie Opening Day, 8 a.m.–5 p.m.
June 4–August 13 Fort Abercrombie Sunday History Program, 2 p.m.
June 10-11 Fort Abercrombie Living History Weekend, 9 a.m.–4 p.m.
July 29-30 Fort Abercrombie Historical Authors and Crafters Expo, 9 a.m.–4 p.m.
September 8 Richland School District 9-11 Program, 9:30 a.m.
September 10 North Dakota Archaeology Association Event TBA

Jessica Dickson dressed as officer's wife

Aber Days

1862 Mountain Howitzer Cannon

5th Minnesota Infantry Company D

Interpretive Center

Interpretive sign

Tinsmith tent at Living History Weekend

Blacksmith at Living History Weekend

Photo 1: 5th Minnesota Infantry Co. D Officer's Wife - reenactor - Jessica Dickson near original 1862 Guardhouse on fort grounds
Photo 2: Fort Abercrombie State Historic Site Aber Days - Paul Nelson & Mick Owen 2011
Photo 3: Fort Abercrombie State Historic Site Interpretive Center Gallery - 1862 Mountain Howitzer Cannon
Photo 4: 5th Minnesota Infantry Company D. Aber Days 2016
Photo 5: Fort Abercrombie State Historic Site Interpretive Center
Photo 6: Ghosted sites of buildings on grounds of Fort Abercrombie
Photo 7: Fort Abercrombie Living History Weekend June 2016 - Tinsmith Karl Schmidt and his wife Nadine
Photo 8: 1862 - Blacksmith Michael Quade - Living History Weekend 2016

Guest Blogger: Lenny Krueger

Lenny KruegerLenny has been employed by the State Historical Society of North Dakota for the past 6 years at Fort Abercrombie. He has enjoyed the role of site supervisor for the past 4 years. He has many roles as the site supervisor at Fort Abercrombie as the team leader, historical interpreter, custodian, store clerk, programming, publicity ,and community relations coordinator. He has the perfect summer job as site supervisor, as he is employed at Richland 44 School District as a Title I reading and math elementary teacher during the school year.

The Off-Season

I get asked on a fairly regular basis what I do in the “off-season” at the mansion without all the summer tourists. This question always gets me a little riled up, mostly because I don’t have an off-season. We experience slower times, but we are never “off.” It may surprise you to learn that our largest audience does not consist of tourists. General visitation (our term for spontaneous visits during regular hours) only adds up to about a third of all the people that visit over the course of the year. In 2016, 6,400 people visited, and about 2,000 of those were general visits. The rest are people mostly from the Bismarck-Mandan community who come for events and private rentals, as well as a few school groups.

Johnathan Cempbell repairing banister

Site supervisor Johnathan Campbell repairing a detached banister finial. This finial has been reattached many times over the years. As people come around the corner they tend to pull on it.

So what do I do when it’s slow, and there are no people around? I clean and fix the wear and tear from all the hands on walls and feet on floors. Many people may not think of the mansion as a home, but that was its primary role for around 80 years, and that is what we preserve. Imagine what your home would look like after having a few thousand people come through it over the course of a year. Then envision having 10,000 fingers rubbing across your oak banister, and 1,000 kids using your bathroom. I’m guessing you wouldn’t let anyone touch the furniture, and you might wish you could lock the doors for a bit just so you could have a slow day or two (maybe three!) to clean. So if you come to the mansion and find the occasional speck of dirt on the floor or paint-chipped doors, please take it as a sign that the state’s historic governors’ home is well-loved by the community.

Johnathan Campbell vacuuming

Site supervisor Johnathan Campbell vacuuming dirt and melted ice from the hundreds of feet that have walked here since winter started.

And when I do get caught up on cleaning and maintenance, I go back to figuring out ways to get more people into the house so I can do it some more!

Guest Blogger: Johnathan Campbell

Johnathan CampbellJohnathan Campbell has been around the SHSND for around a quarter of a century. He has been the site supervisor for both the Former Governors’ Mansion, and Camp Hancock State Historic Sites for over a decade, and previous to that was the fossil preparator for the North Dakota State Fossil collection.