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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!

Oh, the Places You Will (Not) Go: Inside Forbidden Spaces at the Former Governors’ Mansion

In his classic children’s book, Dr. Seuss wrote, “Oh, the places you will go….” But at the Former Governors’ Mansion State Historic Site, we could add “and the places you will not go.” We have both kinds of places—rooms and nooks where visitors can spend hours, and places that are generally off-limits because of accessibility or safety issues (such as the precarious basement stairs). Let me take you now to some of those forbidden places.

Roof: The hatch in the ceiling of the attic can be reached by climbing a ladder, and the original, 134-year-old wooden ladder is still used today by our staff for roof access. The flat roof, marked by the widow’s walk railing, provides a stunning view of downtown Bismarck and beyond.

Basement: Although the interpretive panel on the basement door describes the area, venturing into the basement is more exciting. While there is electricity (bulbs hanging from cords), a flashlight provides a better view of the cistern, coal room, and the work table used by prison release trustees (inmates cleared to leave the prison briefly to perform repairs and upkeep at the Mansion). The enormous silver furnace, most likely original to the mansion, is a work of historic technological art.


Furnace in basement (Photo: Johnathan Campbell)

The cistern (the original water source) is approximately ten feet deep and can be accessed only by crawling through a space high in the wall of the coal room. Around the corner is a small bathroom (added between 1907 and 1913) with a toilet still equipped with the wooden tank and pull cord high above the seat. This area also contained a laundry room and a cupboard for canned goods.

Bathroom Cabinets: One of Bismarck’s first indoor bathrooms is mostly sectioned off from traffic. Still inside the cupboard, out of view from the hallway, sits a can of Bon Ami cleanser, circa 1940s.

Top Floor, Carriage House: As the interpretive panel describes, some of the mansion’s caretakers and their families lived in the bright, airy apartment on the upper floor of the Carriage House. Because that area is now Johnathan Campbell’s office (the site supervisor), it is not open for tours. But some of the features of the apartment remain, such as the faux burnished copper light fixtures popular during the Arts and Crafts Movement (late 1800s–early 1900s).

Light fixture

Faux burnished copper light fixture, 1920s (photo: Kris Kitko)

Servant’s Staircase: The narrow, steep, unlit staircase (without handrails) hides a memento in the dark door frame: the initials “R.H.” written in pencil. Site supervisor Johnathan Campbell speculates that the culprit was Robert Hanna, son of Governor Louis B. Hanna, who lived in the mansion with his family from 1913 to 1917.

Initials R.H. written on wood

Initials in servant's staircase (photo: Johnathan Campbell)

If you visit the mansion and would like to see some of these unique spaces, be sure to ask. We may be able to accommodate some requests, with the exception of rooftop visits—as much as we’d like to!

Every year it seems we find something yet to be uncovered, like a tossed light bulb under a staircase, letters etched in wood, or evidence of something that was once secured to the floor. So keep your eyes open; perhaps you will make a discovery in one of the places you (usually) can’t go!

Primping and Prepping Artifacts for Exhibit

We will be opening a new temporary exhibit in the Governor’s Gallery of the North Dakota Heritage Center & State Museum on August 25, 2018. The exhibition, titled The Horse in North Dakota, includes about 200 artifacts and specimens from the Museum Division, Archaeology and Historic Preservation Division, the North Dakota State Fossil Collection, as well as a few items borrowed from the citizens of North Dakota.

The Museum Division staff is spending many hours of preparation on artifacts selected for the exhibit. Once artifacts are selected, the objects need to be cleaned, their conditions evaluated and reported, and object data sheets created. Each artifact that requires additional physical support must then be fitted on appropriate mannequins or mounts.

Many of the artifacts selected for The Horse in North Dakota include leather. Due to the organic nature of leather and its natural oils, a very common reaction between leather and metals occurs, especially between leather and copper. Copper in contact with leather develops a waxy, flakey, or hairy buildup that needs to be removed. Technically this accreted material is known as fatty acids stained with copper ions, but we affectionately call it “green gunk.” In order to remove the green gunk, it is gently rubbed off using thin wooden dowels, skewers, and cuticle pushers. Additionally, brushes, cotton muslin, and cotton swabs are used for cleaning. It is finished off with a swipe of ethanol.

Before and after photos of the green gunk removal from a metal ring on a

Before and after photos of the green gunk removal from a metal ring on a saddle (14682.2).  It took Melissa Thompson, Assistant Registrar, nineteen hours of work to clean all of the green gunk off the McClellen saddle.

Spew, or bloom, is a white powdery substance that appears on the surface of leather. Spew is formed when the fatty acids and oils in the leather migrate to the surface and are exposed to air. The powdery substance is easy removed with either a soft bristle brush or a cotton cloth.

Spew being removed from the strap of a saddle bag

Spew being removed from the strap of a saddle bag (09186) using a soft bristle brush.

Many metal objects are polished with a cream or tarnish remover while they are in use. We do not polish any of the metals in our collection for various preservation reasons. Over time, residue from the polish that was once used on the artifact turns white and can hide many of the decorative details of an artifact. Such is the case with these medallions on the sides of a bridle. The green gunk was removed using the wooden tools. Then, using distilled water and small wooden skewers, as much of the white residue was removed as possible to unveil the medallion’s detail.

Before and after of brass tarnish being removed from bridle

Before and after removing brass tarnish residue from bridle (2007.00053.00049)

A condition report, which is a written description and visual record of an artifact’s condition, is completed before the object goes on exhibit. All defects are described, measured, and photographed. We look for fading, cracks, tears, deterioration, missing parts, chips, and any other types of damage depending on the artifact’s material make-up. Once an artifact comes off exhibit, condition reports are completed again to determine whether any changes occurred while it was on exhibit.

Data sheet for toy horse

A Word document produced directly from our museum software database program. Click image for larger view.

Some of the objects selected for The Horse in North Dakota will need to have custom mounts created. These mounts may be soft mounts, which is Coroplast (corrugated plastic) covered in cotton batting and cotton muslin. They could be made out of Plexiglas, or they may be mannequins. Sometimes we make our mannequins from scratch. We use metal rods for the stand, Ethafoam (a closed cell polyethylene material), and either cotton muslin or cotton stockinette.

Making a mannequin for a child's Cowgirl costume

Jenny Yearous, Curator of Collections Management) carving ethafoam into a neck and shoulders with an electric carving knife.  B.  The neck and shoulders covered in stockinette, and the ethafoam waist. C. Finished mannequin with children’s Cowgirl costume (2017.66.11-12).

Come see all of these artifacts and many more in The Horse in North Dakota starting August 25th!  Let us know how many hours you think the collections staff spent getting the artifacts ready for display.