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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!

Three Takeaways from Farmsteads on the Frontier: German-Russian Immigrants in Western North Dakota Field School

In June and July 2017, instructor Anna Andrzejewski of the University of Wisconsin-Madison held a four week, three-credit class in vernacular architecture, with a week in North Dakota’s Stark and Hettinger Counties, recording farmstead layout and buildings. (Vernacular architecture embodies the common building methods, materials, and decorative techniques used in a particular region during a specific period.) While in western North Dakota, students interviewed farmstead owners and photographed, drew, and made notes on the architectural features of the various buildings in their study. As review and compliance coordinator for the State Historic Preservation Office, I helped define the parameters of the field school.

Stone Barn

Old stone barn under study as part of the Farmsteads on the Frontier: German-Russian Immigrants in Western North Dakota field school, June 2017, photo by Susan Quinnell

Professor emeritus Tom Carter (University of Utah) assisted the students in their endeavors, holding the tape measure, inspecting restored tractors, and commenting on what he had noted on his first trip to North Dakota. His initial impression was that the North Dakota architecture he studied was clearly architecture of the American West, a category still being defined, but which includes the false-fronted main street building, the front-gabled mountain cabin, and the ethnic architecture of various groups that settled in the American West. Also on hand was a professional architectural historian, James Sexton from Massachusetts, who emphatically agreed. Sexton has worked in North Dakota on and off for several years and has provided hundreds of architectural site forms for research at our office. Carter is writing a book on architecture of the American West in his retirement and hopes to include work from his North Dakota field research.

Small Granary

Small granary being measured as part of the Farmsteads on the Frontier: German-Russian Immigrants in Western North Dakota field school, June 2017, photo by Susan Quinnell

Dairy Barn

Magnificent dairy barn with added stairs that lead to a hay loft converted to barn dance floor, off of Hwy 22, Stark County, North Dakota. Photo by Susan Quinnell

Barn cat and student

Barn cat meets student in the restored dairy barn, ground level. Stanchions with individual cow’s names are in the background. Photo by Susan Quinnell

After recognizing the stone barns and farmhouses in this sub-area of Stark and Hettinger Counties as examples of American Western architecture, the second notable feature to the field school group was the date of settlement. The students asked the land owners when their farms were settled. The answer from everyone was 1910. Not 1909 or 1911, but 1910. And despite this specific date, the buildings we surveyed included traditional small stone barns, the most up-to-date dairy barns of the time, and plain residential homes. Normally one would expect to find that the small stone barns were built by the first generation, the dairy barns by the next, and a small home first followed by a larger and more stylish house later. Yet here all of these types sprang up the same year, depending on the cash resources available to the owners, and perhaps the size of the family. I hope the follow-up research is able to explain why there were both traditional and modern buildings built at the same time. I think this is an important juncture in the history of settlement that occurred after a specific point in time— is perhaps after the railroads passed through the area, making standard building materials more affordable.

The third impression Tom Carter had of the settlements he studied here was how clean they were. Many of the farms and ranches he studied further west, being more isolated and generally poorer, had a more difficult time taking away the trash. He found lots of historic trash where ever he went, but here trash piles were fewer.

The students are home now, where they will complete two more components of the field school. The first is a presentation by Anna Andrzejewski, who hopes to return to North Dakota and present her findings. The second is the development of an e-book by the students which should be completed this fall.

Top 5 Most Fascinating World War I Artifacts in the State Historical Society Collection

One of the things I love most about my job is that I get to work with a truly world class collection. It is the product of over a century of collecting, and with nearly 74,000 artifacts, it never ceases to surprise me. We have lots of things that are just downright fascinating to me, not because of what they are, but because of what they represent and what they speak to. Items that give a human touch to an event or time period, or that give us an idea of what it was like to be there.


Our collection of World War I artifacts is rich with such items. The State Historical Society collected extensively during the war, bringing in artifacts from both individuals and from the US Government. I’d like to share my list of the top 5 most fascinating World War I artifacts, all items that will be on display in the Sperry Gallery at the North Dakota Heritage Center & State Museum starting in August.


1. Orchestra Ticket and US Army Uniform Jacket (12455.1, 12455.3)

US Army Uniform JAcket and Orchestra Ticket

I recently completed a major project with our military uniform collection. I quickly learned to check the pockets of uniforms, because I started finding surprises. One of the best was an orchestra ticket from France crumpled into the breast pocket of a uniform jacket, like it had been forgotten there. What makes it fascinating to me? The last person to touch that ticket was probably the man who wore the uniform, and it may have even been when he was still in France. There is no way to know. It’s a very human thing to do, to forget things in your pockets, and it makes the artifact more personal to me.


2. French Combat Helmet with Battle Damage (1990.142.4)

French Combat Helmet

This French combat helmet, like many of our World War I artifacts, was sent to us directly from the battlefields of France by Major Dana Wright, a North Dakota soldier. What makes it unique is the actual battle damage—an entry hole from a bullet on the right side and an exit hole on the right front side. We don’t know how the helmet came into Major Wright’s possession, and we have no way of knowing if the French soldier who wore it survived, but it speaks firsthand to the conditions and dangers of World War I battlefields.


3. French Army Leave Slip (L815)

French Army Leave Slip

A resident of Fargo, Sydney Mason joined the French Army and served on the battlefields in the Ambulance Corps. In June 1917, he was granted leave to visit Paris. According to the pass, he was not allowed to carry luggage or take a horse. It fascinates me for two reasons: for one, I didn’t know that Americans joined the French Army during the war prior to seeing this. Also, how many of these documents actually survive? It is something that would commonly be disposed of after it was used, and many probably met that fate.


4. German Mourning Card (L92)

German Mourning Card

This mourning card was found in a German trench by a (then) private named Neil Reid, who was part of an American unit that had just pushed the Germans back. It was sent to his mother in North Dakota, who then loaned it to the State Historical Society. The card memorializes a 20- -year-old-German soldier killed in April 1918 named Peter Rappl. Was he a loved one of a soldier who had just retreated? These were often handed out to the families of fallen soldiers, but it is a question we can’t answer.


5. German Combat Helmet (1990.142.3)

German Combat Helmet

We have 18 German combat helmets in the collection and 22 dress helmets, making them far from rare. What makes this one unique? It was mailed to us directly from the Meuse Argonne Sector in France after being picked up on a battlefield there. I don’t mean that it was placed in a box and shipped to us—three 12-cent postage stamps and an address label were stuck to the side of the helmet. The label, which you can see in the photo above, is still attached.  Unfortunately the postage stamps were removed at some point in the last 100 years. I’ve heard you can mail almost anything as long as it has enough postage, but who knew you could drop a helmet in the mail and have it delivered?

You can see all of these items and many more in our World War I exhibit, which will be opening in August.