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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!

Training State Historic Site Staff (and You!) as Certified Interpretive Guides

I’ve been leading (and loving) Certified Interpretive Guide (CIG) trainings for about six years now. When I started as a historic site manager this spring, I was thrilled to be asked to lead them for the State Historical Society as well. CIG, a four-day course designed by the National Association for Interpretation (NAI), is an enriching opportunity to learn, share, and develop ideas with other heritage interpreters.

What do I mean by heritage interpreters? You may also know them as docents, tour guides, rangers, or public historians. They’re the people who translate technical knowledge into inspiring informal education for kids, tourists, or your family from out of town. You might encounter an interpreter at a museum, local or national park, botanic garden, zoo, aquarium, online, or, of course, at a historic site.

I’m passionate about interpretive training like this for two reasons. First, our visitors get a better experience. Second, it shows that interpretation is not just a hobby, it’s a profession.

So what will participants learn? There’s a lot to it, but there are six central attributes of effective interpretation that we spell out as an acronym: POETRY.

Purposeful. Interpretation solves problems for an organization like the State Historical Society. When a historic site needs maintenance, when common visitor behaviors may threaten a historic resource, or when funds need to be raised, interpreters communicate the need. CIG training gives guidance on how to develop an objective for a given interpretive program and how to measure its success.

Window turn buttons

These window turn buttons from around the Former Governors’ Mansion were each installed at different times. Though seemingly insignificant, they help site staff interpret when different changes and remodels were made to the house. Photo credit: Johnathan Campbell

Organized. The invisible side of interpretation is the hours spent gaining technical knowledge. In the short time I’ve been here I’ve repeatedly been amazed by the incredible amounts of research our historic site staff do. They find the answers to seemingly impossible questions using plat maps, photographs, artifacts, unpublished texts, information from descendants, eyewitnesses, or even physically trying historic processes. But like a filmmaker with hundreds of hours of raw footage, the challenge is to figure out how to pare, sort, and organize a wealth of content into something the public can enjoy. In CIG, interpreters develop techniques to hone their content into one cohesive story.

Beads being added to string

Interpreters know that enjoyable learning is the most powerful. Photo credit Rob Hanna

Enjoyable. Written and spoken words are an incredibly efficient way to consolidate information (I’m using written words right now, after all!) But they don’t always work for young children, people who don’t speak the language, or people with certain disabilities. CIG trainees discuss and explore creative ways to communicate with smells, images, video, flavors, music, textures, and more. Very often we think of these as supplements to the written word, but in fact these “learning modalities” can sometimes communicate even more than the written word and live longer in the visitor’s memory. For instance, a person who reads about how to set up a tipi doesn’t know more about it than the children who set one up a few weeks ago at an event at Whitestone Hill.

Red sun over Oscar-Zero

Interpreters show how their resource fits into “the big picture.” Photo credit: Rob Branting

Thematic. Thematic interpretation ties the entire message to one “big idea.” Every state historic site we have has a “big idea”—the reason that place matters. Welk Homestead shows how an immigrant family achieved the American Dream. The Chateau de Mòres shows what happened when an aristocrat tried to make it in cattle country, one of the least aristocratic places on earth. Ronald Reagan Minuteman Missile shows how rival superpowers with the power to destroy the world made uneasy peace instead. Effective interpretation ties what the visitor is learning to that big idea. And the big idea ties to the purpose referenced above.

Relevant. We explore how to better understand our visitors and tailor their experiences to their needs. Over time, it becomes easy to adapt our interpretation to the average of every visitor we meet, when in fact each visitor is incredibly different. Our visitors include children, elders, international travelers, passionate researchers, guests at an on-site wedding, and descendants of people who lived or died at our sites. In CIG, we discuss and develop ways of learning more about our visitors early on. If we can do that, it’s usually possible to delight a visitor with knowledge or an experience they didn’t even know they wanted!

You. Recent research by Robert Powell and Marc Stern shows that the passion of the interpreter is likely the single biggest factor in interpretive success. This is one of the best things about CIG training. Guided discussion among a diverse group of interpreters, each with their own experience and point of view, sheds new light on ideas they thought they already knew and validates ideas they weren’t yet ready to try. Interpreters leave inspired to try these out.

I will also be tailoring the course content to some of the unique needs I’ve seen in the Northern Plains region. Because we have many smaller institutions and organizations where formal sit-down programs and scheduled tours are impractical, we’ll practice techniques for offering visitors spontaneous experiences that still achieve all six elements of the POETRY model. We’ll also discuss Northern Plains Native American educational traditions, because following those practices help to portray Native history and culture appropriately.

We are opening these trainings to the public as well. Anyone who practices some form of heritage interpretation may find this course of interest. It will soon be listed on NAI’s course calendar. Having multiple points of view in the room only makes the course better, so if this is for you, we would love to have you join us!

The Construction of the 1917 Wabek Consolidated School

Wabek Colsolidated School

1917 Wabek Consolidated School Photograph by Hunter Andes, August 2018

Wabek School, located about three miles south of Plaza in Mountrail County, is a unique two-room schoolhouse constructed from two separate one-room schools. The school comprised the Charipar School building (originally located six miles to the east) and Worsley School building (originally located five miles to the south). These buildings were both moved to Wabek School’s current location in May 1917 and joined by a central addition, including a bell tower. Construction was completed in October 1917.1 The consolidation of small, rural schools into larger ones like Wabek School was a key component of education policy in North Dakota during the early twentieth century.

By this time, educators in North Dakota--as well as those in many other states--realized that rural one-room school houses could not offer the educational opportunities that town and city schools provided, and that rural school children had poor educations compared to town and city children. The disparity between rural educational opportunities and those afforded to town and city children was alarming. In North Dakota by 1915, “less than 25% of farm children finished the eighth grade, while more than 75% of the city children completed this grade; less than 10% of the farm children of high school age did high school work, while more than 60% of this class of city children were so enrolled . . .”2 Professional educators, such as Neil C. Macdonald, found that the school term in one-room rural schools was less than seven-and-a --half months, while city children were attending for nine months. Country boys in particular lost many days of schooling because their labor was needed on farms. In North Dakota, Macdonald won the state superintendent of Public Instruction position under the banner “A Square Deal for the Country Boy.” He and other educators saw the consolidated school as the best solution for providing better education to rural youngsters.3

Map of Chosolidated Schools in North Dakota

Financial aid from the State Board of Education and its continuing promotional campaign encouraged school consolidation in the early 1900s. This map shows that by 1916 there were 401 consolidated Schools in North Dakota with 151 of them open schools, which are schools built in the country and not in railroad towns. From N. C. Macdonald’s “The Problem of Rural School Betterment” May, 1917, p. 16.

Professional educators in the early 1900s had several other reasons for promoting consolidated schools, including the expense of educating students in isolated schools having less than 10 pupils, the inability to pay teachers enough so that they could better their training, the lack of social opportunities, and poor sanitation, ventilation, lighting, and heating in the school buildings. Many believed that these schools did not equip students with the knowledge needed to function in a rapidly changing democratic society.4 By 1911 the State Board of Education had begun to reward school districts that chose to consolidate with payments at a higher rate. Town and city school districts also took advantage of the financial opportunity and consolidated.

More than five hundred children had spelling bees, played basketball, and performed in school pageants at Wabek School from 1917 - 1960. For example, during the 1936 – 1937 school year, Wabek School hosted a Playday event in which students from Wright, Banner, and Mountrail Schools attended. After 1960 the community used it as a meeting hall, until it eventually fell into disuse.

For its unique construction and its representation of the consolidated school movement in North Dakota, the local township community hopes to forestall the demolition of the Wabek School building and is seeking to nominate it to the National Register of Historic Places.


1 Geo. A. Ogle & Co., Mountrail County Atlas, Plaza Township, 1917. Also Hazel A. Frye, Wabek Reunion, Wabek, North Dakota, copied transcript, 1977.
2 N. C. Macdonald, “The Consolidated School in North Dakota,” December 1915, p. 6. State Archives
3 Janice Lookhart Ginger, Neil C. Macdonald: Schoolman, North Dakota Mini-Biography Series, (Bismarck, 1986), p. 13.
4 N. C. Macdonald, “The Consolidated School in North Dakota,” December 1915, p. 8. State Archives.