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North Dakota: Legendary. Follow the trail of legends

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!

Bringing Mars a Little Closer to North Dakota: An Upcoming Online Exhibit Explores North Dakota’s Night Sky

Today’s post is going to be about Mars. I’m letting you know that ahead of time, because in the past, people have needlessly freaked out when you surprised them War of the Worlds style.

H.G. Wells will do that to people.

Our agency is developing an online exhibit titled ND Night Sky. I’m taking the lead on developing this amazing project, which fits perfectly with my lifetime obsession of geeking out over anything “Space.” In one part of this exhibit, you’ll learn why Mars and North Dakota make great research buddies. In anticipation of seeing the exhibit, here are four facts about our planetary neighbor that will get you cool points.

1. Mars is tiny but feisty
In our solar system, Mercury is the only planet smaller than Mars. And while the atmosphere on Venus went into a runaway greenhouse effect, the atmosphere on Mars gave up. In what would be considered the blink of an eye in planetary timescales, Mars lost its atmosphere, rusted, and freeze-dried.

Wet to dry Mars animation

It’s OK Mars. If it makes you feel any better, we are constantly having asteroids thrown at us. Image source: NASA

2. Mars is the ultimate lonely planet destination
Mars is no place for the timid. What isn’t covered in ice is rugged, arid, rocky terrain. Mars is home to the solar system’s largest volcano and the deepest canyon. The extreme, frozen desert weather makes it the ultimate lonely planet destination orbiting the sun.

Olympus Mons, Mars

Olympus Mons, Mars. This volcano is 374mi/624km in diameter.  Or to put it another way, Olympus Mons is a volcano approximately the size of the state of Arizona. Image source: NASA

3. The trouble with triples-or why you can’t have a swimming pool on Mars
Having a swimming pool on Mars would be very tricky because of the low atmospheric pressure (1% of Earth’s), combined with the low temperatures, (a balmy summer day on the equator of Mars is still -20F) would cause the liquid water in your pool to simultaneously freeze and boil at the same time.

Your pool on the Martian surface would be a big hole with vapor or ice. We call this the “triple point” in chemistry.

The three states of matter

Three states of matter for the price of one. Neat!

4. Nice Mars factoids, but what does it have to do with North Dakota?
Glad you asked. The tractors that go to the U.S. Antarctic Program research stations in Antarctica? Those are made in Fargo. The Inflatable Lunar Mars Analog Habitat (ILMAH) is underway at University of North Dakota, Grand Forks. You can see the NDX-1 Mars Prototype suit on display at the ND Heritage Center & State Museum in Bismarck. And the first crops tested on the International Space Station were arabidopsis and dwarf wheat.

You thought that North Dakota was isolated, rocky, and cold. Turns out, it just might be some of the best training for living on Mars.

NDX-1 prototype spacesuit

See the NDX-1 prototype spacesuit at the North Dakota Heritage Center & State Museum in Bismarck, ND. NDX-2 is currently being developed at UND in Grand Forks, ND. Space fashion!

Coming soon to an internet near you!
A portion of this ND Night Sky exhibit will highlight North Dakota’s contributions to engineering, technology, and exploration and how they relate to Mars. Why? Because the sort of innovation that gets the robots (and someday humans) to Mars will have massive implications for the rest of us on Earth.

There’s much more to this exhibit than Mars. We’ll look at some Native American ties to the night sky, navigation, meteorites, and ND night sky activities you can do on any clear night. Watch for an opening date for this online exhibit.

Jessica holding a guinea pig with a space poster in the background

Pro tip: If you’re going to try and be “too cool to smile,” it helps if you don’t pose in front of your poster of the solar system while holding your guinea pig. I work for the State Historical Society in Bismarck by day and am old enough to know better than to stay up too late looking at the night sky but still do it anyway.

When Picnics Get Out of Hand: Hiddenwood Lake Stories Discovered in ND State Archives

North Dakota has been a state for 129 years. The Hiddenwood Old Settler’s Picnic has been observed for 116 of those years.

Most readers have absolutely no idea what or where the Hiddenwood Old Settler’s Picnic is, or why it has been around for more than a century. Most people from the small community of Ryder, North Dakota would have only a sketchy idea of their local picnic’s history if not for the resources of the State Historical Society of North Dakota (SHSND.)

Over the last couple of years, I have spent many hours researching the picnic’s history by reading microfilm in the State Archives. Luckily for me, The Ryder News was on the scene documenting the inception of the picnic, the shaky start, the good times and the bad times, the fascinating cast of characters, and the determination and spirit of the homesteaders at a place called Hiddenwood Lake. The Ryder News ceased publication on Sept. 9, 1943, but other area newspapers picked up the story and continued publishing highlights of this annual event.

Hiddenwood sod house and Old Settlers Chapel

Reconstructed sod house on the Hiddenwood picnic grounds. (Constructed 1976.)
In the background is the “Hiddenwood Old Settlers Chapel,” the original church built at Hiddenwood in 1907. (2018 photo, Doug Wurtz)

Hiddenwood Lake is a small body of water about one mile in length and a half-mile in width during good years (it was completely dry in the 1930s). The lake is located 30 miles “as the crow flies” southwest of Minot, North Dakota. It is a half-mile from the farm where I was born and raised.

My earliest memories while growing up on the farm were the yearly trips to the Hiddenwood Picnic grounds for the annual get-together of friends, neighbors, assorted politicians, and entertainers. I have always said that I grew up in “Mayberry,” the fictitious community setting for two popular American television sitcoms, “The Andy Griffith Show” and “Mayberry, R.F.D.” For those of you too young to remember the show, Mayberry was the idyllic setting of simpler times and traditions that lasted from decade to decade.

My memories of the Hiddenwood Picnic have always been just that; simple, folksy, and enduring. That wasn’t always the case.

Hiddenwood Mercantile and Hotel with people standing in front of the building

Hiddenwood Mercantile and Hotel, Hiddenwood, ND (Circa 1904) (Photo: Owned by Doug Wurtz)

In 1903, two of the original homesteaders at Hiddenwood Lake, William W. Wright and Esten R. Williams, decided to hold a community picnic to attract other new residents of the area to the retail store they had established at Hiddenwood. The Hiddenwood Mercantile and Hotel was a brand new business on the prairie and would only be successful if it became the source of supplies for homesteaders in the area. They put out the word and their neighbors came to the first picnic. The picnic was a success--neighborly and nice.

The former Hiddenwood Mercantile and Hotel building

The former Hiddenwood Mercantile and Hotel building (2018 photo, Doug Wurtz)

By the next year, the new store had flourished a bit and the second picnic was to be held. By that time, though, the true spirit of Williams was beginning to show. Research shows that he wasn’t just a new homesteader at Hiddenwood. He was also in business with Wright in a firm called “Williams & Wright” with offices in Minot and Hiddenwood. They were land men directing newcomers to claims around Hiddenwood Lake, undoubtedly for a profit. Business is business, but Williams was not content with just land commissions.

The second Hiddenwood Picnic in 1904 got completely out of hand, as was reported in The Ryder News on June 23, 1904:

“We have been to several bad picnics in our time but of all the picnics that we have been to, the one at Hiddenwood Monday certainly was the most rotten affair we have ever taken in. The blind pigs1 commenced doing business in the morning and did a rushing business all day…(Another fight ensued) when the old man Williams saw that his son was getting the worst of it, he ran into the house to get his revolver, saying that he would fix him, but luckily for Williams, somebody had hid the revolver, as if the old man had got his revolver there would probably have been a lynching, as somebody was looking for a rope at that time.”

Esten Williams packed up and left the county four days later. The Hiddenwood Picnic then settled into the neighborly affair that has been held every June for 116 consecutive years. There is much more to the history of the picnic. It is slowly, but surely, being pieced together one archived story at a time.


1 The term “blind pig” originated in the United States in the 19th century; it was applied to lower-class establishments that sold alcohol during prohibition. The operator of an establishment (such as a saloon or bar) would charge customers to see an attraction (such as an animal) and then serve a “complimentary” alcoholic beverage, thus circumventing the law. http://blindpigofasheville.com/about/what-is-a-blind-pig/