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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!

An Archives Christmas

As we are in the midst of the holiday season, the sights turn to snow, lit up houses, Christmas trees, and packed shopping malls. Our thoughts turn to time with family and friends, holiday parties, and gift giving. Often, this time is one that we reflect on past seasons and special gifts that brightened our childhoods and memories that will last a lifetime and beyond.

The vast collections of the State Archives provide many treasures and resources for understanding life in days gone by. It seems appropriate to consider items and collections that allow casual visitors and researchers opportunities to learn about how people in our area experienced the holiday season. We have a number of resources available related to the Christmas season that will generate curiosity and personal reflection.

Have you ever wondered what items your parents or grandparents may have had on their wish lists? Curious as to what items were available for possible gifts during Christmases past? We have catalogs from JC Penney, Montgomery Ward, and Sears that span several years. This is something many may remember doing as kids, circling the toys and other items we hoped would be waiting for us under the tree Christmas morning. These catalogs are wonderful resources to the material culture of preceding generations, illustrate changes in fashion, and provide insights into the economic history of our country. We also have an FAO Schwarz toy catalog for the fall and winter season of 1974-1975 that is full of unique toys, including the ones on the page image below.

History playsets

One page featuring some history playsets in the 1974-1975 FAO Schwarz Fall & Winter catalog.

In addition to looking at our assortment of store catalogs, those curious as to what potential gifts made Christmas lists in past decades can also examine our extensive newspaper collection on microfilm. Advertisements for goods were a common sight in North Dakota newspapers. While our minds usually gravitate towards grocery items when considering such ads, other local businesses ran ads in the pages of their local paper announcing deals on clothes, toys, televisions, and many other items. Our newspapers are also a great resource for seeing what the communities in North Dakota did around the holidays in terms of events.

Greeting cards, whether homemade or store bought, are a common item associated with the Christmas season. Several of our collections contain examples of such cards and range from simple to very ornate. The Martin M. Stasney Papers (Series# 10630) contains an example of a child’s card, as Violette Stasney colored a Christmas postcard in crayon. Another example of a Christmas card comes from the Della (Moos) Schoepp Papers (Series# 11080) and is a large Christmas card that opens to a detailed pop-up Nativity scene.

Merry Christmas angel tree

Christmas postcard colored in by Violette Stasney, part of the Martin M. Stasney Papers (Series# 10630).

Gloria in Excelsis Deo angel

Front of Christmas card from the Della (Moos) Schoepp Papers (Series# 11080). Photo by Daniel Sauerwein.

Nativity scene

Inside of Christmas card from the Della (Moos) Schoepp Papers (Series# 11080). Photo by Daniel Sauerwein.

Our holdings on Digital Horizons also provide some interesting Christmas related items. One example is from World War I, when the Gackle Republican ran an image on the front page of its December 14, 1917 issue featuring Santa Claus standing upon the world, passing out gifts to various children of the world, under the caption, “Santa Claus to all the world.” It is interesting to note that only the children of Allied nations are represented, clearly denoting that America is at war and that the enemy’s children are deemed not deserving of gifts at Christmas. This prime example of wartime propaganda during the Christmas season conveys the efforts to dehumanize citizens of the enemy nations and stands in stark contrast to the meaning of the season. The image also symbolizes that there were men fighting in the trenches during the season as well who were away from loved ones.

Santa Claus to all the world

Front page of the December 14, 1917 issue of The Gackle Republican, featuring Santa Claus passing out gifts to the Allied children of the world.

Finally, while there is a lot of work that goes on in the Archives, we also make time to get in the holiday spirit by doing a little decorating and bringing out a staff favorite. This is my first Christmas with the State Historical Society. I was introduced to a tradition in the Archives of bringing out Olive, the other reindeer, who I have been told by fellow Reference Specialist Sarah Walker is a boy, was the creation of our State Archivist, Ann Jenks, and stands watch by the reference desk. He’s quite the character to say the least. Who says archivists can’t have a little fun?

Olive the reindeer cart

Olive sends holiday greetings from the Archives. Photo by Daniel Sauerwein

I hope as you prepare your own activities for the holidays, you take some time to stop by and look at the treasures of Christmas past we have in our collections. We wish you a safe and happy holiday season.

Quirky Connections of Robinson Town Hall, WPA, and Ole

The City of Robinson in Kidder County (about 30 minutes northeast of Steele), has a wonderful town hall that was constructed as a Works Progress Administration (WPA) project in 1935, the founding year of the WPA. I am writing a National Register of Historic Places nomination for this building. The WPA federal program had one mission – to put people back to work during a Depression that began in late 1929.

Robinson Hall exterior

Robinson Hall, Main Street. Photo by Susan Quinnell.

Even though they had just incorporated in 1929, the town leaders of Robinson were able to get a WPA construction project funded and completed quickly. This was because they had already had a special election in October 1934 and passed a $2000 bond to initiate construction of the town hall, which would also feature an auditorium. Constructing a multi-purpose town hall was common at the time. They discussed the design with a Bismarck architect Herman M. Leonard. He designed the building with a bowstring truss that allowed the auditorium portion to have a 40’ x 90’ clear span. This wide open space with beautiful maple flooring was much appreciated in the ensuing decades, as it allowed events to flow smoothly. Basketball games could proceed with high throws and predictable passing. In the 1930s, schools often had auditoriums in the basements with low ceilings, water-damaged, uneven wood flooring, and large pillars. Oftentimes they were simply too small to allow full court movement. Large weddings and other celebrations occurred inside as well.


Current auditorium with original maple flooring and dropped ceiling. Photo by Susan Quinnell

More than 600 people attended the dedication ceremony on September 11, 1937. During the course of my research, this event presented a little mystery. Movies were held in the auditorium that day, yet records from the Northern Plains Electric Cooperative show that electricity didn’t arrive until 1942. So I thought there must have been an alternative power source. Further research uncovered a gas-powered contraption in a museum in Georgia that could project movies at the time and didn’t need electricity, so that seemed plausible. However, the current mayor of Robinson, Bill Bender found old newspaper articles stating that a man by the name of Ole Saltness came to Robinson in 1929 and owned a Philco generator, which produced enough power to provide electricity to a few neighbors, businesses, and the Robinson Hall. At that time, the load probably would have been little more than one or two low-wattage light bulbs per building. Instead of choking on gas fumes, the movie audience would cry “Ole, Ole!” if a fuse blew. Robinson Hall provides a glimpse into the quirks of small-town life in North Dakota during the New Deal era.