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!

Jenny Yearous's blog

The Horse Exhibit Artifacts: Where are They Now?

We recently took down The Horse in North Dakota exhibit. Some colleagues and I have written about how we produce an exhibit (Part 1 and Part 2), getting the horse-drawn fire wagon into the building, trying to find artifacts for display, research about artifacts, and how we clean those artifacts. These blogs brought to your attention just a few of the artifacts we used in The Horse exhibit.

I thought I would share with you what happens to these pieces now that they are off exhibit.

For most artifacts, we check the condition report completed on the artifact prior to the exhibit. The condition report includes a description of the artifact describing all damage such as chips, dings, scraped paint, frayed edges, tears, fading of colors, insect activity, or whether something like a button on a garment is missing. When we see no changes to the item’s condition after being on exhibit, the object goes back to its storage location. We note that movement in the database and then move on to the next item. But for a few artifacts, it is not so easy.

The horse-drawn fire wagon was probably the most complicated piece to move. Bryan Turnbow, in his Jan. 27, 2020, blog, talked about how we had to use a forklift and our platform loading dock lift to get our fire wagon into the building. We, of course, had to reverse the process to get it out of the museum. It is a bit nerve racking to see such an important artifact suspended over the edge of the platform lift being held only by the tines of the forklift. Both lifts were slowly lowered with staff members standing by as spotters to make sure nothing went wrong.

loading fire truck into the building

Fire wagon being lowered with platform lift and forklift (1988.178.11)

I would love to say we have a wonderful enclosed trailer to safely transport the wagon to our off-site storage, but we don’t. Instead, we needed to wait for a nice day and use an open trailer. This also created moments of trepidation. An open trailer leaves the object open to many possible problems from a passing bird, to road debris kicked up from other vehicles, to the wind pulling on parts, or our worst nightmare, its falling off the trailer. All parts of the wagon were double-checked to make sure everything was secure. The tie downs were checked and double-checked to make certain they all were secure, and off they went . . . slowly. Bryan Turnbow said he “drove like I was driving Grandma around: drove slower, braked sooner and gradually, and took the smoothest roads.”

first truck on trailer

Fire wagon on trailer

hauling fire truck

Fire wagon going down the road

Fire truck in storage

Fire wagon in its new home

With the skills and planning of our Audience Engagement & Museum team and just a little luck, the fire wagon reached the off-site storage, a 5.5-mile trip, safely. It now sits in preparation for the next exhibit or research opportunity.

When we checked the condition report on a few objects, the condition of some items had changed. Melissa Thompson, in her Aug. 6, 2018, blog titled “Primping and Prepping Artifacts for Exhibit,” showed how she cleaned artifacts that had green corrosion product and spue (fatty acid blooms). Most of these items that had been cleaned beforehand were great when we pulled them off exhibit, but a few were not. Stock saddle 2007.89.1 was found with a fresh outbreak of spue. According to our records, a condition report was done on the saddle in March 2008 when the item was initially brought into the collection, and spue was removed at that time. In preparation for the exhibit, another condition report was done July 2018, and it was cleaned again. When we took it off exhibit a couple of weeks ago, I noticed more white spue and had to clean it for a third time before I put it back into storage. These condition reports indicate that the item seems to have frequent fatty acid blooms, so now I have this item flagged so I can check it at least yearly to see if more spue shows up and clean it if necessary. While the spue is not damaging, it is unsightly and could attract and hold on to dirt that could be damaging. Cleaning it regularly is important for long-term preservation.


Stock saddle after second cleaning (2007.89.1)

riding habit

Medora's riding habit (1972.383.1-.2)

kids cowboy shirt

Child’s cowboy shirt (2011.30.66)

colorful Metis sash

Métis sash (1986.234.62) on capote (5301)

For a few items the condition reports were fine, and putting them away would not have been a problem; BUT we didn’t need to put them back into storage. They were going back on exhibit in the upcoming exhibit Fashion and Function: North Dakota Style. Visitors to The Horse in North Dakota exhibit will recognize Medora’s riding habit, the child’s cowboy shirt, spurs, leather cuffs and a few more. We see these as a bonus since we won’t have to put them away, nor do we have to put them on a mannequin. Of course, we did double-check the condition report to make sure that things were still good. We did change how the Métis sash is going to be displayed—we put it onto a capote (5301) to complete the look.

Artifacts going on exhibit go through many steps to ensure they can be safely displayed. When they come off exhibit, they go through more to make sure they were exhibited safely. There are many behind-the-scenes steps that happen for each artifact for every exhibit. When you see the new exhibit Fashion and Function: North Dakota Style (opening in January 2021), you will have a better understanding of how we have planned, primped, moved, and built another exciting exhibit for you to enjoy.

Fabulous Flour and Feed Sacks

In preparing for our upcoming Fashion and Function exhibit at the State Museum, I was reminded of some interesting objects in our museum collection. They appear to be run-of-the-mill objects: a quilt, and a couple of dresses, pillowcases, Native American leggings, and a homemade sheet. These everyday objects have a very interesting connection—they are all made from flour or feeds sacks. People tend to say any items made with the small cotton prints in colors typical of the 1930s are made with flour sacks, but I find very few items that really are made from these. People also seem to forget that women went to stores and bought yardage, sometimes in the same design and colors used in the sacks. There are two ways that I know of proving that an item is made of flour or feed sacks. Firstly, are they printed with a label? A home-made sheet displays this well.

flour sack material

SHSND 1975.23.245

Leggings made by Anne Good Eagle, Lakota, sometime in the 1920s, show traditional materials of leather and dyed porcupine quills on the lower half —the part that was visible below a dress. On the upper part that is hidden by the dress, she used flour sacks from Rex Flour.

lakota leggings from 1920s

Front and back of leggings. SHSND 1986.234.222v

While having a flour sack logo where no one could see it was fine, women would try to bleach away the printing when the fabric would be more visible to others, usually with mixed results. A Dresden Plate quilt, made by Anna Johnson of Coteau sometime between 1925 and 1934, used flour sacks for the white background. If you look carefully around the plates, you can see the black printing of the Russell-Miller Inc., North Dakota Milling Company, Occident Flour logo.

lavender quilt with a close up

Dresden Plate Quilt and close-up of flour sack printing. SHSND 1981.1.5

As we can see on the quilt, bleaching didn’t always work. Of course, women complained about the ink not coming out, so the mills started to use paper labels. Those could be soaked off, leaving a nice piece of fabric.

Dakota maid feed sack with paper label

Dakota Maid Feed sack with paper label, SHSND 1982.197.11

From the 1920s to 1950s many flour and feed mills, including the North Dakota Mill and Elevator, used pretty printed cloth for the sacks to encourage reuse.

Women in an evening dress made from feed sacks

Woman wearing an evening dress made from feed sacks standing in front of a Dakota Maid promotional display. SHSND SA 2019-P-134-00046

With the printed labels gone, I rely on the second way of identifying flour sacks. I look for the stitch holes in the fabric. Sacks were sewn together with a large needle using string for thread. When the sack was taken apart, a series of small holes were left behind from where the needle broke threads in the fabric. Note the row of small holes along the edges of this pillowcase.

pink pillowcase w close up

A pillowcase and close-up of sack stitch holes. SHSND 1976.00160.00093A

A pillowcase is the obvious item to make from a sack, and some sacks were made with a pretty border across the top for just that purpose. Looking carefully at the dress image above, you can see the same print used for the pillowcase. Other sacks having an overall design were more like yardage, perfect for creating clothing items. Wives would send their husbands to the feed store with strict orders to get bags all with the same design and color. Dresses could require five or more bags. Occasionally patterns would even indicate not only yardage but how many bags it would take to make the dress. A dress made by Carol Eklund in the 1950s as a 4-H project was said to be made from feed sacks given to her by a neighbor. Carol was diligent to avoid or hide most of the holes, but near the hem at the back a tell-tale row of holes is visible, confirming the story.

yellow flour sack dress w close up

Dress made from flour sacks and close-up showing the holes. SHSND 2018.72.5

Many items might be legitimately made from sacks, yet we can never know for sure because the maker managed to bleach out the printing, or hide the holes, or used such small pieces they avoided the holes all together. Also, most of the items made from feed sacks were utilitarian. The items were used until they were no longer usable, so they were rarely passed down in families. Even so, we can’t discount our grandparents’ stories about using feed sacks for all kinds of things from dish towels to shirts and dresses. I have had more than one person who grew up in the 1930s tell me about having underwear with “Russell-Miller” across their bottoms. Unfortunately, we don’t have any in the collections for me to share with you. A few of these stories might be like the stories they told us of walking to school uphill both ways through 6-foot-high snow drifts. You’ll be able to view some of the pieces referenced in this blog in our Fashion & Function exhibit opening in 2021.