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!

From Fiction to Fact: Family History Shapes Our Lives and Culture

Frequently, I tell my friends, coworkers, and family that I have one of the most important jobs in the world. As head of reference services at the State Archives, I help connect people to the past, historically and also genealogically.

You may know a genealogist. They may have even been a regular person at one point in their life. Then they tasted that sweet drink of knowing their own roots, finding family secrets, and unlocking their own (and everyone else’s) direct past through the use of obituaries, photographs, census records, biographies, and more. They are the person who drags their family to archives, libraries, and cemeteries whenever they go anywhere on vacation. After tasting that drink, they can’t go back, so now they are the keeper of secrets for their family (and any other family they get interested in).

My family’s genealogist is my mother, and because of her I know all sorts of things about my family and every person who happens to accidentally fall into one of our large ancestral families, which, by the way, is all-consuming in North Dakota. It’s a big state, so I’m probably only connected to half of it. The Germans from Russia half, of course.

A woman in a red dress and black leggings stands in front of wall lined with 5 rows of books and is holding a light blue book with dark blue writing in front of her.

Despite my best efforts, I have inherited my mother’s insidious genealogy genes. I use this interest in family history to help others do their own family history research.

When I was younger, I never thought that I would end up helping others fall down the rabbit hole of family history research—but I did, and I love it. Because, again, this is one of the most important jobs in the world. And if you don’t believe me, look at the evidence! Family is all around us—from Luke Skywalker learning that his father is Darth Vader in “Star Wars” to people begetting people in the Bible to King Henry VIII and all the royals. Our families define us, our culture, and our history.

I recently revisited one of my favorite fictional accounts of the importance of family history: “A Swiftly Tilting Planet” by Madeleine L’Engle. After taking a brief, limited survey of some of the people I know, I feel confident in stating that you likely haven’t heard of this book, part of L’Engle’s Time Quintet series, but I am sure you have heard of the first in the series, “A Wrinkle in Time.” I read “A Wrinkle in Time” in elementary school, and I absolutely loved it. Much later in life when I learned that there were sequels, I was excited to read them as well. All are in the fantasy/science fiction genre.

In “A Swiftly Tilting Planet,” Meg Murry, who was the slightly unconfident, ugly duckling lead character in “A Wrinkle in Time,” has matured and married her childhood sweetheart Calvin O’Keefe, who also starred in the first book and who does not get enough “airtime” in this book.

Readers of the first book will already know that Calvin’s family life as a child was not the best. He was kind and smart, but the rest of his siblings were hard and constantly in trouble. His father was mean and his mother detached. Calvin was an outlier. Meg’s scientifically minded family is quirky, fun, and different; her mother is known for cooking meals in her lab over her Bunsen burner, her father studies the science of time, and she and her siblings are all smart in their own way and all very loved.

While Calvin is presenting at a conference in Britain, a very pregnant Meg is celebrating Thanksgiving with her family. Calvin’s mother, Mrs. O’Keefe, has joined the family and is there when the president of the United States calls (it makes sense in the book) and tells Meg’s father that a dictator, Mad Dog Branzillo, is threatening nuclear war.

At this news, surprisingly, Mrs. O’Keefe lays a charge on Charles Wallace, Meg’s youngest brother who is also the most intuitive, to save the world.

After this, Charles Wallace ends up meeting a unicorn (again, it makes sense) who allows him to travel through time, despite mainly staying in one location, in one “where.” In this way, Charles Wallace is able to experience the struggles, connections, and history of multiple generations of one family as he attempts to prevent war by changing the timeline.

I don’t want to ruin the ending, since you will all want to go and read this book immediately, but ancestry is very important to this story. So is the journey to learning this interconnected family history, despite being rife with hardships.

Charles Wallace does not get to look up names in a computer to easily discover who is connected to whom, or what is about to happen to these families. However, he does learn through first-hand experiences. He also eventually gets access to letters from the family (discovered in somebody’s attic, of course) as well as a book that tells important details about the history of the family.

A tree with nametags on it that says Family Tree underneath it with a couple scrolls and ink and quill

Oh, the places a little genealogical research can take you.

Though his fantastic journey is probably a genealogist’s dream come true (who wouldn’t want to travel through time with a unicorn?), it is also (much like genealogical research) fraught with unknowing, anguish, and frustrations. Our patrons can’t just come into the State Archives and find everything they want by entering a family name into some amazing, magical database. Researchers must pick through whatever they can find to learn the details of a family’s history, which sometimes are very limited. A marriage license here, a death notice there, and a lot of luck may lead them to their quarry.

In the end, Charles Wallace does save the world (sorry to ruin that portion of the ending for you) by finding the “correct” timeline for one family to trace down. We will ignore the nature versus nurture discussions that could occur here and jump right into the crux of the situation—Charles Wallace has discovered how connected we all are through his journey through time.

Our tagline at the State Historical Society of North Dakota is “History for everyone.” I think we can also add, “Everyone’s history matters.” Genealogy may not be of interest to everyone—and I’ll say it—not knowing your ancestry does not mean that you are necessarily lost in this world. But everyone has a story, and that story interacts with everyone else’s story, and we are all more connected than we even realize. Every person, every place, every “where,” and every “when” connects in our shared history.

Genealogy. It matters!

For the birds? Budget-friendly Invention Saves Signs and Keeps Our Feathered Friends Happy

Birds have completely domesticated the State Historical Society of North Dakota. No joke, bear with me. I have evidence. To keep our incredible archaeological and state historic sites accessible and attractive to the public, we mow them. Mowing keeps the sites looking tidy, keeps our visitors happy, and lowers the risk of fire. If you have met me and conversed with me in the last year, you may have heard that mowing grass is one of my favorite things to talk about. Never in all the time I was in museum and history school did I learn one single thing about mowing grass—the manpower and expertise needed to do so, the expense of the equipment, or the unintended consequences of mowing.

A man in a blue polo shirt and baseball cap sits behind a desk

Agency construction supervisor, fellow Detroit Tigers fan, and turf manager extraordinaire Paul Grahl.

I would like to introduce you to agency Construction Supervisor Paul Grahl. If he didn’t work for the Historical Society Paul might be professionally described as a greenskeeper, turf manager, or groundskeeper. He has numerous licenses and certificates that allow him legal access to a wide range of tools, which he uses to keep our sites looking spectacular. Paul’s responsibilities also include maintaining a vast array of equipment that we use throughout the year. He runs a tight shop; it is neat as a pin, and every tool is in its place. Frankly, it’s beautiful. This time of year, lawn mowers from quite a few of our historic sites show up at Paul’s shop on Main Avenue in Bismarck for regularly scheduled seasonal maintenance. The mowers naturally get put away in preparation for our other season—Plowing Season. Our mow/plow armada includes 17 mowers, five skid steers, one tractor loader, and a forklift.

Two orange riding lawn mowers sit in a storage area

Two examples from our fleet of 17 mowers.

Now back to the birds and their subjugation of the State Historical Society. Birds love our historic sites. We provide carefully manicured meadows for them to hunt insects and pursue other prey. To help them survey their avian domains, we provide said birds with perfect perches in the form of state historic site interpretive signs. In the bird world, our signs are unparalleled observation points and snacking stations.

One morning this past July, I was at Fort Abercrombie State Historic Site. I arrived there early (the early bird and all) and was fortunate to ride along with Site Supervisor Lenny Krueger as he opened the site for the day. Among his various duties that morning, Lenny washed the bird droppings off the interpretive signs at Fort Abercrombie while I helped sweep out some of the blockhouses. During our ride, I did some quick “Bill math” that entailed counting our historic sites, adding up interpretive signs, and generally thinking about how much time each historic site’s staff spend per week washing bird poop off interpretive signs. I came up with about $9,500 a year for our role as bird bathroom janitors. That amount seemed like a lot, but it also seemed to me like an unpleasant task that we should try to eliminate. Our interpretive signs are made of high-pressure PVC laminate. If the bird droppings are not removed from signs, they eventually damage signs by fading the colors and causing the first layers of laminate to separate.

An outdoor sign with many spots of bird poop on it

Our friends at the Minnesota Historical Society have the same sign issue. Photo by David Grabistke

Naturally I started to ponder possible solutions. The first round of thoughts involved keeping the birds off our signs. Paul had some good ideas on this topic as well. But here is the thing—I really like birds, and I really like seeing them at our historic sites (except for pigeons, that is a whole different story). So I ruled active deterrents out. I instead settled on ideas that involved improving the signs so birds continue to feel welcome at our sites, saving money, and keeping our signs clean so our staff teams can start each day facing one less unpleasant chore.

A hand sketched varsion of birds pooping on outdoor signs and a solution to add a piece to the top of the signs so the bird poop does not go on the signs

My hand-sketched visual summary of the agency’s avian predicament and revolutionary sign-saving solution.

I am no inventor, but I do love to bang around in the shop. If something is shiny or loud, I am almost guaranteed to love it. After a bit of trial and error, a piece of 5/16 steel rod, a few minutes at the anvil with red hot metal and a cross pein hammer, and six self-tapping sheet metal screws, I came up with a solution of sorts—Bill’s Sign Saver. I proudly showed the prototype to Paul. After he stopped laughing, Paul agreed to install it first at Double Ditch State Historic Site and then at Huff Indian Village State Historic Site. The Huff site is a notorious bird paradise where Paul could quickly collect a lot of data. While the marketing team might have some work to do on the name of the sign saver, early reports indicate we are really onto something when it comes to keeping signs clean. We might make a few more sign savers next summer and collect more data. I’m hoping that we can help other agencies and organizations facing the same challenges with keeping outdoor signs clean and well maintained while continuing to serve our beloved bird visitors.

A man in a blue polo shirt and brown hat stands holding a sign holder with a piece added on the top to help keep birds from pooping on the sign

Paul Grahl test fitting the sign saver in the agency’s maintenance shop.

A sign holder with a piece of metal attachd to the top to keep birds from pooping on the sign

My sign saver prototype awaits installation.

An outdoor sign installed with the attached piece of metal at the top to keep birds from pooping on the sign

Bill’s Sign Saver at Double Ditch Indian Village State Historic Site.