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!

Past Bloggers's blog

Crafting Exhibit Text: Compelling, Vivid, and Short

What makes compelling exhibit text? I just employed one strategy: opening with a question. Well-crafted exhibits tell stories — both visually through artifacts and photos, and with words by using vivid, concise language to convey colorful, informative histories to our audience.

Ideally, you want the viewer to pause long enough to look, read, reflect, and feel a connection with your topic. Does that anecdote remind them of something a family member told them, or that artifact look just like one in their grandparents’ house? Or, does the exhibit allow the audience to enter a world far removed from their own — either by going back in time, or by exploring a different culture — and yet find a connection through empathizing with a story character, or just from seeing the look in a photographed person’s eyes?

Group of 4 people dressed in 1920s clothing

One of my favorite photos of State Historical Society staff, Sept. 5, 1926. Can you relate to the people in the photo? What stories does this image tell? SHSND SA 00200-6x8-00287

When I travel, I like to stop in museums for exhibit text ideas. In this label from the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York, look at the last paragraph. What is more compelling, saying, “Most of the gold was stolen by thieves,” or, as they do, “Most of the gold was hacked away by plunderers who desecrated the burial”?

museum panel with photo and text

In 2018 I viewed the fantastic Stampede exhibit at the Denver Art Museum depicting a broad range of animals in art. In this label titled “Menagerie,” the text is concise, engaging, and clear — and also translated into Spanish for additional audience inclusion.

bilingual museum panel

Currently, our State Museum’s Innovation Gallery: Early Peoples features select quotes and audio of several Indigenous languages. In a similar vein, I loved this painting title at Fundació Joan Miró in Barcelona, but can’t imagine routinely proofreading text in four languages (Catalan, Spanish, English, and French).

Miro Painting

Miro painting museum panel

This fall I was privileged to draft the exhibit text for our current Prairie Post Office exhibit in the James E. Sperry Gallery. This exhibit is unique in that it is based on a book by the same name, written by K. Amy Phillips and Steven R. Bolduc, published by NDSU Press. The exhibit follows the basic structure of the book and incorporates contemporary photography by Wayne Gudmundson, but also adds artifacts and archival photos and whittles the book text way, way down into digestible exhibit labels. Each chapter received about 150 words, not much longer than this paragraph. I tried to take the major themes of the book and add questions, examples, and surprising facts and ideas I learned thanks to the authors’ research.

Post Office museum graphics panel

Wall of museum info panels

Exhibit panels from The Prairie Post Office, on view through 2021.

Finalizing the exhibit text was a team effort: members of our editorial and design team, exhibits team, collections staff, and the book authors all reviewed the text and offered feedback. Just like sustaining life in rural communities — the major theme of this exhibit — creating an exhibit takes a village.

I invite you to come view The Prairie Post Office, spend time (briefly) reading, and let us know what you think.


Past Blogger: Ann Crews Melton

Ann Crews MeltonAnn Crews Melton is associate editor of the State Historical Society of North Dakota. She edits this blog, assists with "North Dakota History: Journal of the Northern Plains," and scribbles a red pen across many other resources.

A Visit to Burlington Homes: A Plan for Rural Sustenance

red barn

This small barn still features typical elements from its construction in 1936: the sliding barn door and the small, centered loft door with a fixed, four-pane window.

In 1934 families of lignite coal miners west of Minot at Burlington faced a bleak future. The Depression was grinding into its fourth year, employment in the coal mines was slack, and people were losing hope. The lignite coal mines never offered much employment, just a few months in the winter. Now the local lignite mines faced stiff competition from out-of-state coal mines that had harder coal that burned hotter, offered at about the cost of local lignite coal thanks to cheaper railroad transportation.1

Similar grim conditions were everywhere at that time, and the federal solution was to funnel funds to states, as state and local governments, as well as private and religious charities, had traditionally supported people facing hard times. A nonprofit group, the North Dakota Rural Rehabilitation Corporation (NDRRC), received about $100,000 to solve the destitute conditions of about 40 families by providing irrigated land, a house, a small barn, a henhouse, and a privy.

The NDRRC incorporated in 1934, and by late 1935 had purchased 640 acres for irrigable land, pasture, and home sites. It planned a dam on the Des Lacs River to provide gravity-fed irrigation water, and contracted to build about 35 sets comprising a house, barn, henhouse, and privy.2 It appears that five families left the area or otherwise did not participate in the program.

The general idea was that the families would work cooperatively to market cash crops such as strawberries, raspberries, and seed carrots to local outlets near Minot. They could also raise hens and gather eggs, and the small barn could easily house a cow and calf as well as agricultural supplies and tools. They rented to own and paid $25 to $35 a month for a few acres of land, shared pasturage, and the house, barn, henhouse, and privy. By the early 1960s the project had reclaimed the $100,000 through rent, 40 percent of the hay crop, and 25 percent of the grain crops.3 The Burlington Homes Project was closely connected to Judge A. M. Christenson, who donated many hours to advance the project’s success.

grainy black and white photo of minimal tradition home

This Minimal Tradition home has a basement and five rooms, including space for two bedrooms upstairs. The brick chimney, slightly offset door, sets of windows flanking the front door, two windows down, and one window in the apex of the gable end are features found in the Burlington Homes houses. Originally the homes had red cedar shingles, a small shed roof above the front door, and were heated with coal furnaces. From Burlington Centennial, p. 94.

small red shed

A sturdy but small henhouse with a people door on the gable end. The tiny ventilator and ridge cap are original features of the henhouses.

The architectural firm Van Horn and Ritterbush provided specifications for these small buildings, which included high-quality materials such as fir structural members and red cedar siding, and conservative building practices like 12-inch on-center spacing for the ceiling joists in the small barns. The applicant families apparently had some say in the house design, since some have elevated basements, and some had rough-in plumbing initially while others did not.

The electrician was instructed to provide rough-in electrical wiring and detailed instructions to homeowners on how to wire light fixtures and electrical switches.4 One house, recently remodeled, had the outdoor water pump just outside the front door, which provided all the water for domestic purposes, at least initially. The specifications mentioned that the applicant families were to provide their own water well and trenching for the concrete privy vault.

Today the 1.5-story Minimal Traditional homes, small barns, henhouses, and at least one privy still dot the landscape along North and South Project Road just west of Burlington. Many of the homes have been remodeled, but the barns and henhouses are a tangible reminder of difficult times and creative solutions to improve a whole community. In the 1950s some of the lots were offered on a rent-to-own basis to veterans with disabilities, and eventually all of them transferred to private ownership.

medium size red barn

Well-preserved barn at TC Landscaping in Burlington, still useful after more than 60 years.


1Burlington Centennial, 1883–1983 (self-pub., 1983), 92; “A Brief History: National Association of Rural Rehabilitation Corporations,” accessed Sept. 12, 2019, http://www.ruralrehab.org/briefhistory.html.

2Burlington Centennial, 90; Steven Martens, “Federal Relief Construction in North Dakota 1931–1945,” accessed Sept. 12, 2019, https://www.history.nd.gov/hp/historiccontexts.html.

3Burlington Centennial, 90. For further background information, see Gudmund Leonard Dalstad, History of the North Dakota Rural Rehabilitation Corporation (Bismarck, ND: self-pub., 1996).

4 Specifications for the Burlington Homes Project, 3rd group of buildings, Van Horn Ritterbush Company Collection, box 6, file 47000107, State Archives, State Historical Society of North Dakota, Bismarck.


Past Blogger: Susan Quinnell

Susan QuinnellSusan Quinnell tackles the review and compliance work from federal and state agencies. She reviews development projects such as wind farms and pipelines to be sure that the federal and state agencies avoid any harm to significant cultural resources, such as historic buildings or archaeological sites.