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North Dakota: Legendary. Follow the trail of legends

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

Pigeons and Eggs and Bears, Oh My: Natural History Collection Research

People often have the misconception that objects we collect and preserve in the museum collection just sit around in the dark, and no one will ever see them unless they are on exhibit. On the contrary, the objects we hold have many purposes beyond exhibits. In my mind, research is one of the most useful purposes for an object in our collection. Our ethnographic collection has the most research requests, followed by our natural history collection. We have almost 4,000 specimens in natural history including large elk and bear mounts, small humming birds, fish, reptiles, insects, rocks, and fossils. Since many of our animal specimens were collected between 1900 and 1930, they represent species that are still common, some that are rare or no longer found in North Dakota, and a few that are now extinct.

Our natural history collection has generated myriad research projects. In 2001 our black-footed ferrets had their DNA tested by a researcher from the Smithsonian National Zoological Park. She was looking at the loss of genetic diversity in black-footed ferrets when they almost went extinct in the 1980s. In 2012, a student working on his master’s degree in natural resource management cataloged the Holton Shaw egg collection (1991.54). The Shaw egg collection had been in our possession since 1924 but was never cataloged into the database since we didn’t have a biologist on staff. His work made this collection usable for future researchers. In 2014 our passenger pigeon drew visitors because of the 100th anniversary of the pigeon’s extinction.

Recently the State Historical Society of North Dakota and the University of Mary have invested time into a mutually beneficial research opportunity. When Dr. Michael Lares, a biology professor teaching an ornithology class, asked if his students could have access to our bird mounts and egg collections, I said “yes” with a slight hesitation. My hesitation was not because they were students, but rather because most of our specimens are preserved with arsenic, and I wanted to make sure the students would be safe when handling them. From our over 350 bird mounts and study skins, Dr. Lares picked study skins for the first lesson. The students learned how to take measurements that a researcher would normally do in the field. Learning how to do this on a dead specimen is much easier than on a live one. The students were able to learn how similar species varied and about the variation between individuals of one species.

Box of tagged birds

Study skins in storage. A study skin is typically stuffed with cotton with no attempt at a life-like pose.

three students measuring a bird

University of Mary students measuring a bird.

During the second lab, the students looked at the eggs. With more than 800 clutches of eggs (a clutch could consist of one egg to more than a dozen), they had many to choose from. The students gained experience measuring and describing eggs. They learned how size and shape varied between species and how shape and color were related to the nesting habitat.

box of bird eggs

Bird eggs in their storage boxes.

male student measuring an egg

Student measuring an egg.

Their third visit was set aside for a project to help the bird collection. I learned that as science progresses, the scientific names of birds have changed. The students checked the identification of a group of birds to see if they were properly identified.

two students checking bird identification tags

Students checking on bird identification.

This past year I also had the students photograph the birds. Many of birds were brought into the collection before photographing artifacts became standard practice. These photographs allow us to track changes to any artifact over time.

two students photographing a duck

Students photographing a duck.

This winter I was able to call on Dr. Lares and a few students to help me when I found some of the boxes that housed the eggs had been damaged during a water leak in our collections storage. I also found that all of the acid-free boxes had become acidic in the 27 years they had been used store the eggs. Dr. Lares and his students in one day made new acid-free boxes, transferred the eggs to the new boxes, put the eggs in numerical order, and did a box inventory. They found a few inventory mistakes including eggs in wrong boxes and clutches spread over two boxes. The eggs are now housed properly, and the database is up to date.

Dr. Lares commented, “I would not be able to teach the ornithology lab without the help of the collections at the Heritage Center, as study skins are difficult to obtain. Being able to work with the collection is a great opportunity for my students, and we also appreciate being able to give back through projects like verifying the identity of birds, photographing the specimens and re-housing eggs. It is a mutually beneficial collaboration.” In turn, I really appreciate all that Dr. Lares and his students have done to help the bird and egg collections. It is also good to know that these collections are being used for educational purposes.

There are still many opportunities for scientific research of all kinds in the State Historical Society’s natural history collections. For example, we are currently looking for someone who might be interested in working with our insect collection that has never been cataloged, nor have the insects been completely identified.

student and teacher moving boxed eggs

two students and the teacher with boxes of eggs

Students with Dr. Lares rehousing eggs.

Debunking a Myth: Tracking the Trail of “Medora’s Horse”

Our current The Horse in North Dakota exhibit at the State Museum features one of my favorite artifacts in the museum collections, a display horse (SHSND 1972.1635). Visitors to the Chateau de Mores State Historic Site (Chateau), located in the town of Medora, in the 1940s through the mid-1980s might remember a dappled grey horse sporting one of Medora’s (the Marquis de Mores’ wife) side saddles (SHSND 1972.715). Over the years this display horse gained the nickname “Medora’s Horse,” and many stories about its origins have been told.

Display horse with spots and wearing a saddle

The display horse SHSND1972.1635 in the hunting or trophy room at the Chateau de Mores State Historic Site 1971. Photo by Norman Paulson

Medora, an experienced equestrian, and her husband built the Chateau in 1883 as their summer home for a few years. One popular myth claimed that this horse was a real horse once owned by Medora and it had been stuffed after its death. In addition to being wrong, the story never explained why Medora would want one of her horses stuffed. The real story about the horse and how the State Historical Society acquired it is just as interesting, though less macabre.

Medora’s horse is actually a display horse. Much like a mannequin in a department store, this horse was used to display saddles and harnesses. It represents a gelding, standing 15.2 hands (62”) high. It is made of painted gesso over a canvas “hide” stretched over a wood and metal frame, with a real horse tail attached to a wood dowel and a real horse hair mane. It has glass eyes and cast iron ears. Each wooden hoof has a real horse shoe attached. The whole thing is mounted on a wooden platform on wheels. The lower jaw, ears, and tail of the horse are removable to make “dressing” it easier.

The horse was on display at the Chateau from the early 1940s until the mid-1980s when it was moved to the North Dakota Heritage Center in Bismarck in preparation for renovations to the house. We knew very little about this horse or where it came from. A chance reading of the newsletter of the Maryland Historical Society in late 2000 gave us our first clue. The newsletter had an article in their “Recent Acquisitions” section about Frosty Morn, a model horse they had just received. Frosty Morn was a duplicate of our horse. I learned that display horses like this one were made in the late 1880s to 1890s by the Toledo Display Horse Company in Toledo, Ohio. We now knew who made our horse and when.

The next part of the story came when I told the Chateau supervisor at the time, Diane Rogness, about my find. She sent me a copy of an article written by Harry Roberts in January 1978. Roberts was the first Chateau de Mores State Historic Site caretaker from 1941-1966. Roberts wrote about how he bought the model from a woman who lived on the south side of Dickinson. Roberts bought it for $10, though she claimed she had “$150.00 tied up in it, but it was of no use to her…” He loaded the display horse on a flatbed trailer to take it to Medora. We can only imagine the odd looks he must have received from passing motorists by hauling what looked like a real horse on a flatbed trailer. Roberts also tells of meeting with a friend, Joe Fritz, who was the chief of Police in Belfield at the time. Roberts writes, “I said to Joe that I had a horse in my trailer, and I was going into Billings County with it, maybe I should have a ‘Brand Inspection.’ As quick as Joe saw the model, ‘Why that is the horse that used to be in the Zimmerman’s Harness Shop!’” This gave us another clue to pursue. While the woman in this story was unnamed, she was possibly Minerva Zimmerman, widow of William J. Zimmerman, the owner of Zimmerman’s Harness Shop.

State Archives was the next place to look. There we found information about M.T and William J. Zimmerman, the father and son who opened M.T. Zimmerman Harness Shop in Dickinson, about 30 miles from the town of Medora, around 1898. The business continued to operate until William’s 'death in 1928. Advertisements like the one below indicate that they also sold a variety of goods including Navajo rugs and pocket knives. A display horse like this one would have been an excellent mannequin for showing off the saddles and harnesses Zimmerman made and sold.

Harness and Stock Saddles in Stock and Made to Order by M.T. Zimmerman. The Finest Line of Guaranteed Pocket Knives in Dickinson.

Dickinson City, Stark and Dunn Counties, North Dakota, Directory, 1914-1915, Vol. 3, (Norfolk, NE: Keiter Directory Co., 1915), p. 118. State Archives 917.84/D560

We now have a richer story around this display horse than the rumor that it was just a stuffed horse. We know where it was manufactured, who manufactured it, and when. We know who brought it to North Dakota and why. We know how and when it got to the Chateau de Mores State Historic Site, and the names of the people and businesses involved.

While the display horse has been a fun and interesting part of collections tours since the mid-1980s, we were waiting for the right exhibit to bring it out and show it off. Our current exhibit, The Horse in North Dakota, is a perfect way for you to see an item that is part of the Chateau legend, an integral part of the history of the West, and a symbol of the importance of the horse to the people of North Dakota.