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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!

Two New Exhibits at North Dakota’s State Museum Showcase Ancient Predators of the Sky and Sea

I have a variety of responsibilities within my job, all of which I enjoy. One of those duties is the development of new exhibits or improvements of current exhibits across the state. The paleontology department has recently added two new aspects to current exhibits at the State Museum at the North Dakota Heritage Center in Bismarck.

During one of our fossil digs in the summer of 2017, a very large bird claw was collected. After some careful comparison to modern bird claws, we determined that this fossil claw was most likely from a bird closely related to the modern Golden Eagle. This fossil bird (Palaeoplancus) lived during the Oligocene Epoch, approximately 30 million years ago. It was a large bird, very similar in size to its modern Golden Eagle relative, and probably would have been one of the dominant predators of the time.

Bird fossils are rare and tell a unique aspect of the story of past life in the region. For this reason, it is important to share this rarely told story with the public via exhibits. The paleontology department purchased a cast of a modern eagle skeleton and hung it in an attack/diving position. It is hanging in a way so that it seems to be chasing one of its likely prey animals, the small horse Mesohippus. The fossil claw is also on exhibit as well as a cast of a modern Golden Eagle claw for comparison.

Palaeoplancus diving after its prey animal Mesohippus

View of the Oligocene bird Palaeoplancus diving after its prey animal Mesohippus.

The second addition to an exhibit is the incorporation of a new mural, cast, and exhibit case with specimens into the Underwater World in the Adaptation Gallery: Geologic Time. After being collected in southwestern North Dakota and then stored at the Pioneer Trails Museum in Bowman, ND, for more than 20 years, a partial skeleton of a plesiosaur was brought to Bismarck in 2016. Plesiosaurs are a group of long necked marine reptiles (not dinosaurs) that were swimming in the Cretaceous seas when dinosaurs were roaming the Cretaceous lands. Plesiosaurs and mosasaurs lived at the same time and were both likely the dominant predators of their time, feeding on fish and likely anything else they could catch. Plesiosaurs are rare finds as fossils. Large predators tend to be relatively rare in the fauna they are a part of, and that rarity translates to the fossil record as well. The specimen we now have on exhibit is the most complete specimen ever found in North Dakota, and it is comprised of less than 10 percent of the entire skeleton.

Part of this exhibit consists of a new mural depicting part of the animal. Paleontologist Becky Barnes discussed painting this mural in her last blog post. Another part of the exhibit consists of 38 casted neck vertebrae and a skull of a plesiosaur, mounted in such a way to depict a seamless transition between the fleshed out mural and the skeleton mount. The last part of the exhibit is the actual fossil. We have on display a measly 15 vertebrae from the neck, which likely consisted of 70 neck vertebrae in the living animal. All of these pieces together will enhance the story of underwater life in North Dakota 80 million years ago.


The new plesiosaur addition to Underwater World at the State Museum in Bismarck. The mural and cast depicting the animal are above the fossil specimen in the exhibit case below.

Understanding the Importance of Tinware Production throughout History

Although tin as a metal has been used for thousands of years, its use as a coating for metal plate dates only to the 16th century. Historical records suggest the first manufacture and use of tinplate was in Bohemia (now a part of the Czech Republic) and parts of southern Germany. A coating of tin on thin metal plate provides a rust inhibitor. Because it’s non-toxic and food-safe, tinplate is a useful material for making cups, bowls, and plates.

Tin, which is contained in an ore called cassiterite, was mined in various places historically, including perhaps most famously in the British county of Cornwall. Cornish mines provided tin to the ancient Romans when they occupied what they called ‘Britannia’; later, Cornish tin was exported to Bohemia and other centers of tinplate production as a raw material. But the secret of how tin was made to coat very thin iron plates was kept a secret for many decades, until a bit of early industrial espionage made the secret available to the English in the third quarter of the 17th century. The impetus for covertly acquiring this knowledge was declining tinplate availability in England. The English (like many others) had been importing finished tinplate from the Bohemians and other producers for many decades. A shortage of tinplate, however, made them want to discover the secret of making it for themselves. An Englishman named Andrew Yarranton traveled to Germany in 1665-1667 with the express purpose of touring facilities and learning the process of making tinplate. Having learned the manufacturing process, Yarranton brought that knowledge back to England. Combining Cornish tin with thin iron sheets milled in Wales, British tinplate manufacturing took off rapidly.

The first tinsmiths came to the American colonies from England in the mid-17th century and began producing tinware for the colonial market. Tinware proved popular, and the few tinsmiths found themselves with more work than they could handle. This situation led to the training of new tinsmiths and to the creation of new foundries to produce tinsmith’s stakes and other tools. By the US Civil War, much tinware was being made in factories, although nearly every town across the country still had a working tinsmith who produced tinware for sale and made repairs.

Tinware remained popular until the 1920s and 1930s, when it began to be replaced with aluminum and stainless steel and later, plastics.

Karl and Nadine Schmidt in front of their Tinsmithing stand at Fort Abercrombie

Karl and Nadine Schmidt tinsmithing at Fort Abercrombie, June, 2016

A friend of the Fort Abercrombie State Historic Site, Karl Schmidt developed an interest in tinsmithing after he met a working historical tinsmith at the Brookings Summer Arts Festival in South Dakota some 12 years ago. Karl was fascinated by how the tinsmith turned flat sheets of tinplate into useful items. In spring 2014, Karl learned that the resident tinsmith at the Stuhr Museum of the Prairie Pioneer, Loren Miller, was offering a weekend in Nebraska. Karl and his family signed up. For Karl, this was the beginning of a new adventure.

Historical tinsmithing tools

Historical Tinsmithing tools

By spring 2015, Karl decided to become a working historical tinsmith (one who makes primarily historical tinware reproductions and uses primarily antique tinsmith’s tools). He found tools and hand-crank machines on Ebay. Some tools, like the tinner’s stakes, were ready to use, but some items, particularly the tinner’s machines, needed careful restoration work, which Karl did himself.

horse and pig tinware molds

Tinware by Karl Schmidt

In June 2015, Karl met William McMillen, arguably the best-known and most accomplished historical tinsmith in the country. Two months later, he attended McMillen’s week-long tinsmithing workshop, learning the fine points of historical tinsmithing, and making a variety of projects.

Tinsmith Karl Schmidt working

Tinsmith Karl Schmidt working with period tools

With excellent training under his belt and a tin shop full of tools, Karl began to make tinware and demonstrate his craft. Karl first demonstrated tinsmithing Fort Abercrombie State Historic Site for the Living History Weekend in June 2016.He continues to demonstrate his craft each summer in historical dress, using his 19th century tools.

Lantern made by tinsmith Karl Schmidt

Lanterns by Karl Schmidt

If you are interested in meeting Karl and watching the art of tinsmithing, join us for Fort Abercrombie State Historic Site’s opening day on Saturday, May 26, 2018. Karl and his family will be demonstrating and having wares for sale at this event and at Fort Abercrombie Living History Weekend, June 9 – 10.


Photos and history summary courtesy of Karl Schmidt.

Guest Blogger: Lenny Krueger

Lenny KruegerLenny has been employed by the State Historical Society of North Dakota for the past 6 years at Fort Abercrombie. He has enjoyed the role of site supervisor for the past 4 years. He has many roles as the site supervisor at Fort Abercrombie as the team leader, historical interpreter, custodian, store clerk, programming, publicity ,and community relations coordinator. He has the perfect summer job as site supervisor, as he is employed at Richland 44 School District as a Title I reading and math elementary teacher during the school year.