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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!

Benefits of Volunteering at the North Dakota Heritage Center & State Museum: Making Our Community A Better Place

While doing research for a recent project, I stumbled across a website that proposes that the act of volunteering has numerous health benefits, both physical and mental.

The website goes into specific detail:

  • 76% of people who answered a recent survey indicated that volunteering made them feel healthier
  • 94% said volunteering improved their mood
  • 96% said volunteering enriched their sense of purpose
  • 95% said by volunteering, they were making their community a better place
  • 80% felt they had more control over their mental health and depression
  • 78% said volunteering lowered their stress levels
  • 49% said it helped their career in the paid job market
  • 56% said it helped their careers

Volunteer in the Paleontology Lab

A volunteer at the Paleontology lab working while a tour of students looks on.

According to Beth Campbell, Visitor Services coordinator for the State Historical Society of North Dakota, volunteers are a large part of the agency’s success. She said there are currently more than 200 Heritage Volunteers working statewide at various sites.

Every summer, a Heritage Volunteer recognition social is held at the North Dakota Heritage Center & State Museum in Bismarck. In the 2017 program from that event, Claudia Berg, agency director, included the following remarks:

“Each and every one of you brings your life experiences, skills, abilities, passion and compassion, intellect, and humor with you when you volunteer … For whatever reason you volunteer, you make a difference to our organization. You give your time generously without expectation of reward … Last year (2017) that time totaled 11,711 volunteer hours. Since the program’s inception in 1981, Heritage Volunteers have donated over 425,764 hours.”

What Claudia didn’t mention is that we volunteers (all 200+ strong) are surely deriving all the benefits detailed in the study quoted above: better moods, sense of purpose, lowered stress levels, and so on.

Volunteers sorting in the Archaeology Lab

Volunteers working in the Archaeology lab.

I can’t validate the numbers in the study cited above, but I can attest to the following perks of volunteering at the State Historical Society:

  • studying dinosaurs with professional paleontologists
  • studying artifacts with professional archaeologists
  • learning research methods from professional archivists
  • learning object preservation from museum preservation experts
  • participating in programs developed by the Communications and Education Division
  • assisting gallery guides with public presentations
  • meeting and interacting with ND Heritage Center visitors from around the world
  • building a personal network of other volunteers with similar interests
  • spreading the word and recruiting other volunteers
  • eating way too many cookies (That should probably be at the top of this list.)

Volunteer working on computer in the State Archives

Erlys Fardal has contributed in excess of 6,500 hours of volunteer time at the North Dakota Heritage Center and State Museum.
She is pictured here doing research in the Heritage Center archives division.

I, personally, have had the great satisfaction of logging in excess of 2,000 hours of volunteer time at the ND Heritage Center & State Museum. I have been asked numerous times how I became a volunteer and why I continue to do so.

I am a firm believer in the old adage of “use it or lose it.” While there are physical benefits to volunteering at the ND Heritage Center, (it is a healthful walk from the west visitor entrance to the coffee shop on the east side), I became involved because of my interest in North Dakota history and archaeology and the mental benefits of continued study and research after my retirement. I have to admit that the first step was a little scary. I came from a profession far removed from history and archaeology. My early apprehension quickly dissipated after working with staff members. They were willing to share their knowledge and expertise in a manner that was neither threatening nor discouraging. After 2,000 hours, I am just getting a good start.

Volunteer sorting in the Archaeology Lab with the help of a staff member

Volunteer working in the Archaeology lab.

As Claudia mentioned in her quote above, we all come to the State Historical Society with our own “life experiences, skills, abilities, passion and compassion, intellect and humor.” The ND Heritage Center is a great place to enhance all of those qualities. In addition, our moods have improved, our stress levels have diminished, we have contributed to the community, and our experience and knowledge has continued to grow.

If you are interested in becoming a volunteer for the State Historical Society of North Dakota, contact Beth Campbell, Visitor Services coordinator, at bcampbell@nd.gov or give her a call at 701-328-2674. She will get you pointed in the direction that most suits you and your skills and passions.

“Volunteering is the ultimate exercise in democracy. You vote in elections once a year, but when you volunteer, you vote every day about the kind of community you want to live in.” (Author Unknown)

The 1935 House that Introduced the FHA to Bismarck

Sketch of house

This is a 1935 sketch of 903 North 9th Street, a model home that helped introduce FHA loan programs to Bismarck. The house still exists and looks much like this, with the interior features much the same. From The Bismarck Tribune, March 10, 1935, 6.

It was a real surprise to find out so much about my neighbor’s house while researching the Federal Relief Programs started by the Roosevelt Administration. This house still embodies many modern features for energy efficiency and convenience that inspired and thrilled our grandparents. It was built as part of a nation-wide competition to promulgate the new Federal Housing Administration (FHA) and showcase the latest in modern home comforts.

In the early 1930s Bismarck and the rest of the country was in the depth of the Great Depression, and President Franklin D. Roosevelt had rolled out numerous federal agencies designed to get wageworkers re-employed. One of the industries hardest hit was construction. In 1930 Bismarck had 57 new home starts, but in 1934 there were only seven.1 Most local construction workers were under or unemployed.

These grim conditions were everywhere, so one of the best-known federal agencies specifically organized to get construction revitalized was the FHA, founded in 1934. The Better Housing Program, under the FHA, encouraged homeowners to improve their house’s function and resale value through small but complex projects that would require cabinetry or the hiring of an electrician, plumber, or other trade specialist. It also funded new homes and promoted major repairs to improve neglected housing stock through low-interest loans.2 In North Dakota, homeowners spent $1,250,000 in 1934 – 1935 on home improvements, which facilitated getting tradespeople back to work.3

The Better Housing Program publicized a competition for a new modern home to be drawn by an architect and completed by a local builder in each city. Nationally 1,500 designs were submitted. Bismarck’s 1935 home is still standing today at 903 North 9th Street. It was designed by architect H. M. Leonard and built by Robert G. Aune.

Here are some of the conveniences packaged in this Picturesque-style home. The basement floor has an insulating concrete type (new in the 1930s), according to the architect, and balsam wool batt insulation in the attic.4 The living room is in rustic design with a beamed ceiling, oak flooring on the first floor, and birch trimmings. It contains a fireplace of native rock. Other lovely characteristics of the first floor are its rustic iron stairway to the second floor, a telephone niche, and a built-in buffet.5

The builder Robert Aune was a multi-talented cabinet-maker who later headed the FHA’s office for Bismarck. In the mid-1930s there was a serious housing crunch in Bismarck fueled mostly by refugees from dust bowl conditions in the surrounding area and natural population increase.6 The FHA’s support and pent-up demand for housing led him to build his model home on the corner and the house next to it at 905 North 9th Street. He also specialized in stonework as well as being a general contractor. I’m looking for other examples of houses and buildings that he built. If you know of any, please contact me at squinnell@nd.gov!

A few of the many FHA-related headlines generated in the mid-1930s (Bismarck Tribune). Housing Situation Acute Here; Heavy Construction Seen. Insulation will be of Great Interest, Architect Believes. FHA Drive Produces Big Results in ND. Home Owners, Businessmen Hold Key to Success of Modernization Drive. Completed Plans for Ultra-Modern House Announced.


1 Bismarck Assessing Division, Construction Analysis, 1930 – 1950, October 5, 2005, compiled from assessors records.
2https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=xSce7l0SlkI Better Housing News Flashes by Pathé Films, 1934.
3The Bismarck Tribune (Bismarck, North Dakota), Tue, Apr 30, 1935, 3.
4The Bismarck Tribune Jul 8, 1935, 7. http://www.ncwhomeinspections.com/Balsam+Wool+Insulation
5The Bismarck Tribune June 10, 1935 page 6.
6 Bismarck Census Figures from: http://www.bismarcknd.gov/DocumentCenter/View/4382