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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!

Understanding the Importance of Tinware Production throughout History

Although tin as a metal has been used for thousands of years, its use as a coating for metal plate dates only to the 16th century. Historical records suggest the first manufacture and use of tinplate was in Bohemia (now a part of the Czech Republic) and parts of southern Germany. A coating of tin on thin metal plate provides a rust inhibitor. Because it’s non-toxic and food-safe, tinplate is a useful material for making cups, bowls, and plates.

Tin, which is contained in an ore called cassiterite, was mined in various places historically, including perhaps most famously in the British county of Cornwall. Cornish mines provided tin to the ancient Romans when they occupied what they called ‘Britannia’; later, Cornish tin was exported to Bohemia and other centers of tinplate production as a raw material. But the secret of how tin was made to coat very thin iron plates was kept a secret for many decades, until a bit of early industrial espionage made the secret available to the English in the third quarter of the 17th century. The impetus for covertly acquiring this knowledge was declining tinplate availability in England. The English (like many others) had been importing finished tinplate from the Bohemians and other producers for many decades. A shortage of tinplate, however, made them want to discover the secret of making it for themselves. An Englishman named Andrew Yarranton traveled to Germany in 1665-1667 with the express purpose of touring facilities and learning the process of making tinplate. Having learned the manufacturing process, Yarranton brought that knowledge back to England. Combining Cornish tin with thin iron sheets milled in Wales, British tinplate manufacturing took off rapidly.

The first tinsmiths came to the American colonies from England in the mid-17th century and began producing tinware for the colonial market. Tinware proved popular, and the few tinsmiths found themselves with more work than they could handle. This situation led to the training of new tinsmiths and to the creation of new foundries to produce tinsmith’s stakes and other tools. By the US Civil War, much tinware was being made in factories, although nearly every town across the country still had a working tinsmith who produced tinware for sale and made repairs.

Tinware remained popular until the 1920s and 1930s, when it began to be replaced with aluminum and stainless steel and later, plastics.

Karl and Nadine Schmidt in front of their Tinsmithing stand at Fort Abercrombie

Karl and Nadine Schmidt tinsmithing at Fort Abercrombie, June, 2016

A friend of the Fort Abercrombie State Historic Site, Karl Schmidt developed an interest in tinsmithing after he met a working historical tinsmith at the Brookings Summer Arts Festival in South Dakota some 12 years ago. Karl was fascinated by how the tinsmith turned flat sheets of tinplate into useful items. In spring 2014, Karl learned that the resident tinsmith at the Stuhr Museum of the Prairie Pioneer, Loren Miller, was offering a weekend in Nebraska. Karl and his family signed up. For Karl, this was the beginning of a new adventure.

Historical tinsmithing tools

Historical Tinsmithing tools

By spring 2015, Karl decided to become a working historical tinsmith (one who makes primarily historical tinware reproductions and uses primarily antique tinsmith’s tools). He found tools and hand-crank machines on Ebay. Some tools, like the tinner’s stakes, were ready to use, but some items, particularly the tinner’s machines, needed careful restoration work, which Karl did himself.

horse and pig tinware molds

Tinware by Karl Schmidt

In June 2015, Karl met William McMillen, arguably the best-known and most accomplished historical tinsmith in the country. Two months later, he attended McMillen’s week-long tinsmithing workshop, learning the fine points of historical tinsmithing, and making a variety of projects.

Tinsmith Karl Schmidt working

Tinsmith Karl Schmidt working with period tools

With excellent training under his belt and a tin shop full of tools, Karl began to make tinware and demonstrate his craft. Karl first demonstrated tinsmithing Fort Abercrombie State Historic Site for the Living History Weekend in June 2016.He continues to demonstrate his craft each summer in historical dress, using his 19th century tools.

Lantern made by tinsmith Karl Schmidt

Lanterns by Karl Schmidt

If you are interested in meeting Karl and watching the art of tinsmithing, join us for Fort Abercrombie State Historic Site’s opening day on Saturday, May 26, 2018. Karl and his family will be demonstrating and having wares for sale at this event and at Fort Abercrombie Living History Weekend, June 9 – 10.


Photos and history summary courtesy of Karl Schmidt.

Guest Blogger: Lenny Krueger

Lenny KruegerLenny has been employed by the State Historical Society of North Dakota for the past 6 years at Fort Abercrombie. He has enjoyed the role of site supervisor for the past 4 years. He has many roles as the site supervisor at Fort Abercrombie as the team leader, historical interpreter, custodian, store clerk, programming, publicity ,and community relations coordinator. He has the perfect summer job as site supervisor, as he is employed at Richland 44 School District as a Title I reading and math elementary teacher during the school year.

Behind the Scenes of Our Second Dance-Off Video!

Sarah and Lindsay dancing through Inspiration Gallery: Yesterday and Today

It’s time for the international museum dance-off! Electronic Records Archivist Lindsay Schott and Reference Specialist Sarah Walker dance through the State Historical Society of North Dakota.

Faithful readers of this blog may recall my post from last year, about our first entry into the Museum Dance off hosted annually by the blog "When You Work At A Museum."

Well—it’s back!

This, the fifth year, is a bittersweet year for the competition. It marks the “last dance”—a final hurrah for the author of the “When You Work at A Museum” blog to host the international dance-off she created. It is silly, yes, but that’s what makes it fun—and it has allowed museum communities to show off their talents, and how awesome their staff, patrons, and collections are.

Last year, we were pretty ramped up for our music video take on “Stereo Hearts,” by Gym Class Heroes and Adam Levine. Our entry is here, if you’ve forgotten it.

This year, our dance-off mastermind director, New Media Specialist Jessica Rockeman, decided to take a different tack—a one-take wonder (more or less). The idea was this—we’d basically dance our way from one end of the building through to the other. No cuts, or as few as possible, would occur.

Sarah and Lindsay at end of hallway waiting to dance

The beginning of the video, filled with drama and electricity. Actually, we decided on this opening pose just before we shot the scene.

Lindsay and I were once again ready and willing. A song, date, time, and place were picked. I set up some simple choreography for everyone to do together at the end. Other staff from our multiple divisions showed up to help us. And a movie was born.

Okay, it wasn’t quite as simple as that. But it did take less time, this time around.

Jess and I did several walk-throughs of the building, scouting out how we would move with the camera and each other. This was conducted sans camera, so any staff walking along saw Jess holding a phone and walking backwards, her head swiveling back and forth constantly, with me essentially skipping in front of her and stopping occasionally at different spots to dance around. Then Lindsay came with, and we repeated it all again. And again. And again.

Our goal was to cover as much ground as possible, and include as many people as we could. We started in the far end of our staff area and plotted to make our way up into the State Archives, through our three permanent galleries and ended in our grand and beautiful atrium. However, no matter what we tried, we ended up just flat-out running from one end to the other.

The following conversation is mostly true, but is slightly dramatized.

“Jess,” I gasped, “We can’t just run! We need to be able to dance!”

“Yes,” Lindsay wheezed, “we’re running the whole thing!”

“True,” Jess replied, panting. “And I’m running backwards. But we need to move from here to there. Shall we try again?”

Sarah and Lindsay ready to go through door

This was our cheat. This door actually opens up into more museum, but we cut and opened in the State Archives Division—we got to take a little breather, but not for long. We probably had a minute and a half rather than half a minute, this way!

So I’ll let you in on a secret. We cheated—just a little bit! We snipped some of the employee area, and we used one cut to skip some dead hallway. Technically, we walked through one door and appeared in a different section of the building than we should have. We raced through a few other areas, and we somehow made it in time to do the dance at the end in the atrium. Our one-take, no-cut video became a one-take, one-cut video. But this way, we were able to survive the song, still dance (it is a dance-off, after all), and achieve it mostly without running. (Please note, this video or blog does not endorse running in the galleries! We have strict no-running policies. But when you work at a historical society, and you are shooting a dance-off video with caution and alacrity, it may at times appear that you are slightly bending the rules. I guess we can just call it a perk of being in this specialized field.)

Sarah and Lindsay dancing through hallway with person dancing behind window

We hope everyone caught the staff cameos, especially in the first few scenes! Here is one of our museum preparators, Andrew Kerr, rocking out in the Paleo lab

Really, that was it. Lots of run-throughs and crossing of fingers for extra staff, and then the grand number that you can view on our YouTube page. It was all very different from last year’s, but it had its ups and downs. In fact, Lindsay and I felt there were several pros and cons with the video.

Sarah and Lindsay dancing through hallway with girl dancing behind window

More cameos - Archaeology Collections Assistants Meagan Schoenfelder and Brooke Morgan returned to add their flair in the Archaeology lab


  • We spent a lot less time filming this video and felt less pressure.
  • We enjoyed the making of a one-cut/one-take wonder!
  • We covered a lot of ground and showcased a lot of our workplace.
  • I love dancing in the atrium. We should have more reasons to do this on a regular basis.
  • We got to dance with a friendly dinosaur.
  • Actually, we had a good group of staff come along for the ride. Also, we had an awesome group number at the end.
  • We laughed. A lot.

Sarah and Lindsay dancing in hallway

The collision happened fairly early on, and only once—pretty good, considering how many times we had made this run by then!


  • The camera moved a bit more than we could help. You know, what with the running backwards and forwards, and all.
  • We wanted to post more staff in our employee staff area than we were able to do.
  • We did several practice rounds before shooting the actual one-take/one cut wonder, and many of us were out of steam by the end, with several choosing to enjoy cooling off in the sub-zero temps we had outside on that day.
  • Lindsay and I almost took each other out at the beginning of the video and were gasping by the end.

Sarah and Lindsay dancing down Corridor of History

We were almost done at the point this scene was shot! The finale was soon to follow.

It was fun to do this video again, and to try something different. We greatly enjoyed it! From the dancing dinosaur to the cameos of staff from beginning to end, we have a video we are pleased to share. Watch it in all of its glory, here and now!

We need your help to get out of the first round, this year! On Tuesday, May 1, at 7 a.m. CST, through Wednesday, May 2, at 6:59 a.m. CST, you can vote as many times as you want for our video. All you have to do is go to www.whenyouworkatamuseum.com and find our submission. The link will be shared again via our social media pages.

Share our video. Share our passion. Enjoy our work. And don’t forget to vote!

Group dancing, including a t. rex

We made it! Jess decided early on that we needed a dinosaur in the filmed footage, and paleontologist Becky Barnes kindly helped us out—you can see her in the midst of our group in this picture. Because, who wouldn’t want to dance with a dinosaur?

Group dancing, including a t. rex

This was our final group shot, where we did our moves together and then cut loose.