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!

3 “A-ha” Histories Hidden in North Dakota Museum Work: Quirky discoveries about Peggy Lee, Gannon Mystery Murals, and a Tunnel to Nowhere

An impossible ache runs deep when you hold an old document, a childhood toy, or a photograph and connect with its history. It might involve the thrill of finding an unmarked musty dusty box, coming across a long-forgotten love letter, or finding a black-and-white photograph of your hometown. Those moments cause you to pause and sigh with a satisfied “A-ha” as the lines blur between past and present. I’ve been fortunate to experience several of those twinklings in 2020 while working on an upcoming exhibit and new visitor tours. Here are three of my favorites.

1. Mystery Murals in a Hidden Box

Nothing gets a curator’s heart racing with glee like finding a mysterious box on a storage shelf. The large box was unmarked when a few Audience Engagement & Museum collections staff discovered it. What mysteries would lie within the box? Inside they found 30-some rolled strips of painted canvas with torn edges. As these 10-foot strips were unrolled, my collections team realized these pieces came from State Historical Society murals created as backdrops for 1930s natural history exhibits. Clell Gannon (1900-1978), a regionally known artist and historian, painted the canvases.

A man stands outdoors wearing a hat, bandana around his neck, button up shirt, and pants with belt.

Clell Gannon lived an adventuresome life as a skilled artist, poet, historian, and creator of a charming stone home in Bismarck. You can view a few of his murals at the Burleigh County Courthouse. SHSND 00200-4x5-0402c

Part of this story remains a history mystery, but we think that Gannon’s North Dakota badlands landscape scenes hung in the Liberty Memorial Building on the Capitol Grounds (now the home of the State Library) until the North Dakota Heritage Center opened on the grounds in 1981. In 1980, the State Historical Society staff moved all museum collections from their space in the Liberty Memorial Building into the North Dakota Heritage Center. The unexplained history mystery evolves around “why” and “who” tore the 13’ x 10’ murals into long narrow strips and placed them in an unidentified box on a shelf.

6 deer and 2 elk stand posed in an exhibit display with outdoor scenery

Deer and antelope shared the exhibit platform in front of artist Clell Gannon’s painted mural at the former State Museum location in the Liberty Memorial Building. SHSND 00200-4x5-C-00402

We’re thrilled about discovering these fragile murals and are in the process of digitally bringing Gannon’s artwork back to life. In June, while the State Museum was closed due to COVID-19, we opened the box while we had daily access to sparkling clean and empty museum corridors. Our curators carefully unrolled each 90-year-old strip on long tables and gently brushed off areas of flaking paint. All the strips have deteriorated, but oh my, they are still beautiful. Gannon’s bison—blurred from peeling paint—represent a former generation of these majestic herds that continue to thrive in the badlands today.

museum staff unrolling large mural piece

David Newell, Jenny Yearous, and Lori Nohner of the Audience Engagement & Museum team unroll and prepare a section of a Clell Gannon mural for photographs.

museum staff carefully brushing loose particles from mural pieces

Loose paint flecks are carefully removed from the panels by Jenny and Lori, one small brushstroke at a time.

photographer taking photos

New Media Specialist DeAnne Billings begins photographing two adjacent strips of a mural. Similar to a quilter, she’ll digitally stitch the pieces together to create two murals.

Over the next several months, DeAnne will be digitally “stitching” the sections of these two murals back together, like a careful repair of a beloved old quilt. Watch for our 2021 digital reveal of these artistic treasures.

detail close up of painting

Here’s a sneak peek at a few of Clell Gannon’s badlands bison on small section of a mural, painted about 90 years ago.

2. Peggy Lee’s Hidden Talent Trove
Like one of Grandma’s quilts tucked into a dusty attic trunk, famous Wimbledon native Peggy Lee’s fashion designing talents were hidden away. Familiar with Disney’s classic “Lady and the Tramp” film? Then you already know Peggy Lee’s trademark sultry purr. She’s the voice of both Siamese cats, Peg, and Darling. The talented Lee also composed and sang three of the movie’s memorable songs (“He’s a tramp, but I love him...”). Or you might know her from her many #1 Billboard hits such as “Fever.” What you might not be aware of is this North Dakota native’s lesser known artistic talent.

sepia photo of Peggy Lee with Disney's Tramp on her shoulder

The “Lady and the Tramp” film (one of my all-time favorites!) showcases the multifaceted brilliance of Peggy Lee. She helped compose the score, sang songs, and was the voiceover of four characters including Peg. Did you know “Peg” was named in tribute to her? Credit: © Walt Disney Productions

Peggy Lee was considered a celebrity fashionista of her day, often appearing on stage in gorgeous form-fitting gowns. Over the years, I’ve wondered where she purchased her stunning wardrobe. Where does a North Dakota girl shop after she becomes internationally famous? Which designer’s label was her go-to?

While recently researching and writing about Peggy Lee for an upcoming fashion exhibit, I had an opportunity to speak with Lee’s granddaughter Holly Foster Wells. Of course, I had to ask about the gowns. Wells shared, “After she became famous, my grandmother used to sketch all of her gowns. She designed her gowns and had a seamstress who made clothes for her come to her house every day. She was very into fashion.”

From bathrobes to ball gowns, this Theodore Roosevelt Rough Rider Award winner designed most of her own stylish garments. I love learning another dimension to Peggy’s amazing talents—Grammy award-winning singer, composer, and actor by day, and talented clothing designer at night.

Peggy Lee's formal dress

“Her wonderful talent should be studied by all vocalists; her regal presence is pure elegance and charm,” Frank Sinatra once said about Peggy Lee. You can view one of Peggy Lee’s early performance dresses in our Fashion & Function: North Dakota Style exhibit opening at the State Museum in Bismarck in January 2021.

3. Rumors of a Hidden Tunnel to Nowhere
About 20 steps from my office at the ND Heritage Center & State Museum is a non-descript, ivory metal door--always locked. Behind this door is a short tunnel, winding around a couple of turns and abruptly ending with a stark cement wall after 79 feet. So what’s the story behind this quirky hidden tunnel?

white door

What’s behind this locked door at the North Dakota Heritage Center & State Museum?

As a high school student when the ND Heritage Center opened in 1981, I remember hearing rumors about a newly constructed tunnel system running underneath the State Capitol. As the rumor went, it was allegedly a secret emergency escape route for the governor. While “The Case of The Secret Escape Tunnel” might have caused Nancy Drew and her gal pals Bess and George to come running, alas, the rumor isn’t true. The real story, however, is a noteworthy piece of North Dakota government’s architectural planning history.

Here’s the scoop: This tiny tunnel was part of the original ND Heritage Center construction project. The architectural plan included an underground passageway connecting this building with the Department of Transportation (DOT) building and the State Capitol, all located within eyesight of each other. If completed, the service tunnels would have been used by state employees for easy multi-building access. An underground walkway between the Capitol and DOT was constructed and is currently used by staff, but at the ND Heritage Center, only our small concrete segment of the tunnel was started. Lack of funding stopped the project. Your challenge: Try to find the door to the “hidden tunnel” during your next trip to the ND Heritage Center & State Museum! It’s hidden in plain view.

detail of tunnel wall

No physical distancing is needed in the North Dakota Heritage Center’s tunnel to nowhere. This cement wall is the end of the journey.

COVID-19 concerns have caused our team to shift several professional priorities in 2020, providing an unusual invitation for us to look deeper into some hidden places. While living the sobering realities and challenges of a pandemic in our personal and professional lives, our Audience Engagement & Museum team continues to create positive, engaging visitor experiences for the citizens of North Dakota, retaining a sense of wonder as history continues to reveal itself in our work.

Ask-an-Expert Program Connects North Dakota Studies and State Historic Sites

When I first started with the State Historical Society of North Dakota, one of the tasks given to me was connecting the Chateau de Mores to North Dakota Studies, an online resource for students, teachers, and lifelong learners that explores our state’s people, places, events and fascinating history. It was an assignment that never made much sense to me. Good interpretive programs highlight a resource, whether it is a tree, a historic house, artifact, or just the site itself. My assignment was making North Dakota Studies the resource when it should be the Chateau. It was emphasizing the wrong thing. So what was the fix? It seems simple; we needed to make the sites a resource for North Dakota Studies. It needed to be something that helped teachers and connected to themes found within the North Dakota Studies curriculum. While this task has many obstacles, the solution has us excited.

Currently, our sites serve teachers as a field trip destination. Unfortunately, history does not always happen in convenient locations. Some sites are remote, and while we can serve students who live close to the site, what about those who don’t?

Fort Totten Education Day

Photo of Fort Totten Site Supervisor Kyle Nelson teaching a session on archery as part of the Whitestone Hill Education Day.

In a past blog, I mentioned that we were developing virtual field trips at sites. It is a good idea. How else will we get students from Abercrombie to experience a site like Fort Buford on the opposite side of the state? Plus, without the travel requirement, students can participate in several of these programs with different sites across the state. But there are problems to be solved. The biggest holdup is the limited internet at sites. It is not much of a field trip if all you can see is the office area. You want to be able to go into the underground capsule at Oscar-Zero Missile Alert Facility at the Ronald Reagan Minuteman Missile State Historic Site. Plus, not all the buildings are heated. I once did a Facebook Live video from inside the Chateau in the middle of winter. I was shivering by the end.

MYCIC Education Day demonstration of catching birds

Missouri-Yellowstone Confluence Interpretive Center Site Supervisor Joseph Garcia leads a group of students through a hands-on activity focusing on how biologists learn about bird habitats from catching birds. This program was part of the Project WET education day held at the site.

With the problems identified, what is the solution? While we still want to host virtual field trips eventually, right now we could look at a different kind of virtual offering. Currently, sites are working on a program that we call Ask-an-Expert. We are fortunate to have staff that is passionate about their site. They read books and articles and use downtime to conduct research. Some have even translated books from other languages to learn more about an aspect of their site. Allowing students to ask these experts questions could be a powerful interaction for the classroom. There is a genuine cool factor in getting to speak to an expert, and it always seems to carry more weight. Sure, I could teach a class about space, but it would mean so much more coming from an astronaut.

Here is how it would ideally work. Our sites have produced a list of themes related to their sites that tie into the North Dakota Studies curriculum. Teachers can use this list to select a site that fits what they are covering in class. After making a reservation with our site staff, the teacher will introduce the topic to the class. The students craft their questions, and the teacher sends them in advance to the site staff. Having the questions will allow the site staff to pull together resources such as photos, videos, and artifacts that they can use to answer these questions. It also guarantees that students will have questions to ask. On the day of the meeting, students get to ask their questions to the site staff who answer them using their knowledge, historical accounts, and the resources gathered.

Screenshot of a Chateau de Mores Facebook live video

Screenshot from one of the Chateau de Mores Facebook Live videos, but a great example of how an Ask-an-Expert program would look to students.

We are excited by the potential of this program. We have done a few test runs so far, and the results were fantastic. One of the most impressive things was that in the first wave of questions, we would often see basic things asked, but while they were getting those answers, the teacher was writing down questions that were coming up during the responses. This second wave of questions, when asked, often showed some historical analysis that was happening in the minds of the students. They were thinking critically about what they are hearing. A program like this encourages students to think about causality (Why did we need to spread out the launch control facilities in the missile field?) and conflicting accounts (Did the Marquis de Morès kill Riley Luffsey?). We want sites to inspire critical thinking, and this program helps achieve that goal.

We originally planned to do a beta test of this program this past spring, but COVID-19 changed that. We are looking to try a beta test this fall and roll it out in full this winter. We hope to work out any issues and get feedback from teachers. While there may be a fee for this program in the future, participating in the beta will be free of charge. If you teach North Dakota Studies and are willing to give this program a try, please feel free to reach out to me, and I will help connect you to our experts.