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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!

These Are A Few of My Favorite Things: Audiovisual History

Images from 00032

Images from 00032, a photo collection that correlates with oral histories in our manuscript collection 10157. The images in this collection encompass a broad view of North Dakota.

I think it’s fair to say that most of us have one (or several) favorite components of our job, or at least have favorite collections or objects that we work with. Patrons and visitors ask us this sort of question frequently, so most of us have probably put some thought into the question. For example, my fellow blogger and coworker Lindsay loves MSS 10190, the Will Family collection.

There are multiple collections and even specific items within them that I truly enjoy and use frequently. But sometimes you work with a collection enough that it becomes part of you. For me, this is MSS 10157, the North Dakota Oral History Project. I often call it “my” collection, though it was created in the 1970s as part of the bicentennial, before I was born. It is a collection that I have been working with for quite some time now, and I am continuously both impressed and proud of it, for all of the history it contains and the use and memories it provides.

You might wonder what makes this collection stand out from any of the growing number of oral history collections we maintain. We do have a few, and I’ll be honest with you—I feel a little bit of love for all of them. They are all fantastic collections, and each time I “discover” a new one, I get drawn into the stories I hear within.

However, whereas many of our other collections are more focused, MSS 10157 is to my mind more of an immense snapshot of what North Dakota was at the time of the interviews and earlier. It is our second-largest oral history interview collection, numbering around 1100 cassettes, typically containing interviews with one or two people to a tape. The scope of these interviews covers the lives of the participants—sometimes their genealogy, sometimes stories about particular contemporaries or events, sometimes just their story of settlement. We have an interview with Ole Abelseth, who was a survivor of the Titanic’s sinking. We have an interview with Harry Roberts at Dickinson, whose father served as foreman of the HT Ranch in the late 1800s. Judge William L. Gipp at Fort Yates discussed his grandfather William Zahn’s service with Custer, as well as his Sioux culture. Nellie Hanson, of Grafton, was a female homesteader and served as a county superintendent of schools for a number of years. We have multitudes of men and women talking about their social activities, their towns, their memories. They cover topics from war to basket socials, and they are fascinating. There are also thousands of photos included, donated by some of the interviewees, or taken of the interview subjects at that time. These images also document a great and vast history.

Ole Abelseth Interview

Harry Roberts Interview

William L. Gipp Interview

Nellie Hanson Interview

My main role in working with this collection has been to digitize files, and, as we have begun moving into a new database system, to work with the item-level descriptions of each file. My other role in this, because I work at the reference desk, is to provide copies to the public. This is also one of my favorite parts of oral histories. These files can be easily located in the index on our website by family members who have never heard of these people or their stories. They can also be found by family who remember the interview taking place. Either way, they are able to listen to them for the first time or once again, to hear the stories, and imagine what it was like to live in North Dakota in a far more difficult time.

There are many cool objects in our collections, and we all work with different items, so it’s good to ask…you might find that little tidbit you never knew existed.

Image 1: J. R. Eide and his bride (name unknown) appear outside the church just after their wedding. While the women in the photo appear fairly solemn, the men are prepared to provide music and fun for the wedding celebration. SHSND 00032-BE-02-00002
Image 2: Members of the Monango Juvenile Band pose for a group portrait while holding their instruments and wearing their band uniforms. SHSND 00032-DI-03-00007
Image 3: Gunder Rust's snowmobile near Alkabo, N.D. SHSND 00032-DV-13-00013
Image 4: Image of interviewee James Driver Sr. SHSND 0032-IR-04-00001


Busting a Myth about Dinosaurs: Does Oil Come from Dinosaurs?

As a paleontologist, I have found that there are a few misconceptions about dinosaurs. Some of them have gone by the wayside when the research has been able to penetrate the media bombardment we face every day, while others have persisted for decades for a variety of reasons. One of these seemingly undying myths is the idea that oil comes from dinosaurs. This is an interesting idea that I believe stems from a pop culture phenomenon nearly 100 years old.

Most people have a basic understanding that oil comes from dead plants/animals/organic matter. However the misconception comes when thinking about which animals and plant remains helped create that oil. I believe a great deal of this misunderstanding comes from the Sinclair Oil symbol—a small, green, sauropod dinosaur named “Dino”. The reason for this symbol has nothing to do with where the oil is coming from, but rather has a more historical story.

Sinclair Oil mascot

Dino, the Sinclair Oil mascot trademarked in 1932, was practically ubiquitous across the United States after WWII.

In the late 1800s and early 1900s, dinosaurs were big business. Museums across the eastern United States were scrambling to get the “best” skeleton and out-do other museums. They all wanted the biggest, most complete, fiercest, etc. This was the time of the infamous dinosaur wars. One of the prominent paleontologists at this time was Barnum Brown. He was the discoverer of Tyrannosaurus rex in 1902 (Osborn, 1905) and was a prolific fossil hunter. Some say he was the greatest dinosaur fossil collector ever. In the early 1900s, Brown had a relationship with the Sinclair Oil and Refining Corporation. He assisted in writing their promotional pamphlets and designing stamps in exchange for monetary support of his dinosaur collecting expeditions (Mitchell, 1998).

The Sinclair Dinosaur Book

Images of Sinclair’s promotional and educational booklets handed out in the 1930s (Spence, 1966).

“To give better academic stature to its promotions, Sinclair financed for several years the dinosaur fossil search expeditions of Dr. Barnum Brown, then curator of fossil reptiles at the American Museum of Natural History,” (Spence, 1966).

Barnum Brown by airplane

Barnum Brown of the American Museum of Natural History, ready to depart on a bone hunting expedition in 1934 (Spence, 1966).

To capitalize on the popularity of dinosaurs, “Dino” was created as a marketing tool aimed at getting customers to believe that better oil came from older rocks. One of their marketing signs claimed it was “mellowed 80 million years” (Spence, 1966). The public equated Dino with power, endurance, and stamina (Spence, 1966). I’m sure those were qualities that Sinclair was happy to be branded with. Although the pamphlets and stamp books made reference to how oil was formed even before the dinosaurs existed, it seems the association of Dino and oil was too difficult to separate.

Graphic depicting how oil is formed

Graphic depicting how oil is formed (Chernicoff, 1995).

How oil actually forms:
When plants and animals living in the world’s oceans die, they sink to the ocean floor where their remains are eventually buried by sediment. Over time, as more of this organic matter is accumulated and buried deeper and deeper, it begins to change. Once certain pressures and temperatures are reached underground, the organic material changes into a substance called kerogen. As kerogen is buried even deeper, the increasing temperature and pressure transform it into hydrocarbons – the main constituents of crude oil and gas . The hydrocarbons will migrate through the pore spaces in rocks and accumulate in natural traps and pool together. It is these traps and pools that oil companies are searching for when they drill oil wells. It was this same process that occurred in North Dakota and formed the Bakken crude being drilled today (Nordeng, 2014).

Chernicoff, S., 1995, Geology, Worth Publishers, Inc., 593 pp.
Mitchell, W. J. T., 1998, The last dinosaur book, The University of Chicago Press, 321 pp.
Nordeng, S. H., 2014, Building the science for advancing oil and gas exploration and development in the Williston Basin: Geo News, v. 41, no. 1, p. 14-18.
Osborn, H. F., 1905, Tyrannosaurus and other Cretaceous carnivorous dinosaurs: American Museum of Natural History, Bulletin 21, p. 259-265.
Spence, H., 1966, A Great Name in Oil, Sinclair Through Fifty Years, F. W. Dodge Co. / McGraw Hill Inc., 104 pp.