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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!

Inventory: A Historic Treasure Hunt

When you mention to most people that you are doing inventory, their eyes glaze over and they start thinking of their summer vacation. I am one of those odd museum people, when I think of doing inventory, I think of all the interesting possibilities the inventory might bring and “treasures” I might find. The museum collections are over 100 years in the making and contain more than 74,000 objects (with more added daily). Keeping track of these objects can be a daunting task, so we routinely conduct inventories. Many times we just check off a box saying any given object is in the right place. But every so often, something fun happens—we find a forgotten historical treasure.

One of the most exciting discoveries was the silver filigree lamp shades with pink fringe from the USS North Dakota silver service (SHSND 6068.40-53). Once thought to be missing, they are now on view in the Hall of Honors in the lower level of the North Dakota Heritage Center & State Museum.

Lamp Shade

Lamp shade, USS North Dakota silver service (6068.40)

That find, however, was recently eclipsed by the discovery of World War I–era surgical dressings made by the American Red Cross.

In preparation for our new WWI exhibits, I did an inventory of all the items donated by the American Red Cross. We have a collection of refugee clothing for men, women, and children, and we have “comfort” items made for the soldiers including knitted socks and a sleeveless sweater. We even have some hospital garments such as bed shirts (what we would now call hospital gowns) and a surgical gown, mask, and cap. These garments were made as models by the regional American Red Cross headquarters and then sent to chapters throughout the state. Along with the model garments, the local chapters received the cut pieces and directions for sewing. While we don’t have the pieces, we do have the model garments and many of the directions. But, I have to admit, I was a bit disappointed we didn’t have any of the iconic bandage rolls or surgical dressings I was reading about while researching the clothing items.

Digging deeper into our records, I found an entry for a “bandage” that came into our collections almost 20 years after the Red Cross garments. So with great anticipation and the help of a wonderful volunteer, we went looking for the bandage. We found a box with the artifact number we wanted, but inside we found only odd textile items and no obvious bandage roll near the top. Disappointed, I figured we might as well pull the whole box and clear up any discrepancies inside.

The first step was to search our paper files—but there was no file in the filing cabinet. Next, I checked the old card file. Prior to a computer database each artifact was given a 3x5” card with the artifact’s information, which hasn’t been updated since the 1980s. This card was the key to the treasure chest. It read, “Bandages, Red Cross, miscellaneous used during war. Received from Red Cross; October 15, 1937.” Instead of one bandage, we found 21 assorted bandages and surgical dressings that had never been properly cataloged. It was exciting as we found each piece nicely labeled: irrigation pad, gauze sponge, gauze wipe, shot bag, pneumonia jacket, and—YES!—a roll of gauze bandage! There is even a triangular bandage, a “many tailed” bandage, a “scultetus” bandage (a bandage used to protect, immobilize, compress, or support a wound or injured body part), and, one of my favorites, a “Paper-backed Irrigation Pad” (SHSND 5991.5).

The paper-backed irrigation pad was a wealth of information. The original catalog card had the phrase “used during war,” and the donation date of 1937 suggested these might be WWI-era items. They could have been from the Spanish-American War or the Mexican Border Conflict, as North Dakota troops served in both conflicts. As the name suggests, the paper-backed irrigation pad has paper as a backing material. But this is not just any kind of paper—it is a newspaper! Lucky for us, it was the front page of the Fargo Forum. While the full date was missing, enough of the headlines and one obituary made it possible for our State Archives team to find the date: Wednesday, June 5, 1918. YES, these are WWI-era items! We also learned the pad was made in or near Fargo, North Dakota, sometime between June 6 and November 11, 1918, but probably closer to the June date. Historic treasure indeed.

Paper-backed Irrigation Pad

Front and back of Paper-backed Irrigation Pad (5991.5)

Seeing all of these medical dressings makes me grateful for modern medicine and sterile conditions, and it makes me appreciate even more the homefront efforts that went into the Great War. The patriotic fervor that swept the nation had young and old men and women knitting scarves, sweaters, and socks for soldiers. But most of all I appreciate the legions of women who worked tirelessly to make hundreds of thousands of items to meet the needs of soldiers and refugees throughout Europe.


Guest Blogger: Jenny Yearous

Edna Kelly, ca 1918, Jenny Yearous' maternal grandmother, born 1900.Jenny Yearous is the Curator of Collections Management. Her main duty is to take care of the “stuff” that is held in the collections of the State Historical Society of North Dakota. She is especially interest in the many textiles held in the collections.

Three Mysterious Folktales Spark Curiosity about the Former Governors' Mansion

Since Halloween is just around the corner, I thought I’d share three mysterious—and a little bit creepy folktales that have been shared about the Former Governors' Mansion State Historic Site, which housed 20 chief executives between 1893 and 1960. Folktales are one of those things that both confound and delight historic house interpreters when their visitors engage them with a statement or question that they believe with all their heart to be true.

1. Buried in the basement?
Having a group of 4th graders ask you “Who was the little girl who is buried in the mansion basement?” can be rather off-putting the first time it is asked, but having multiple groups of 4th graders from different schools, and over the course of years, ask is downright confounding. The easy answer is to tell them the truth – no one is buried in the basement, and then we move on. The harder part is to research and find the source, and give the next group of children asking the question a historically accurate answer.

A little research into the deaths of governors’ children turns up the most likely explanation of how this question formed. Governor Briggs’ daughter Estella died of tuberculosis on his inauguration day in 1898. She is definitely not buried in the basement, but in Howard Lake, Minnesota. After I started explaining to the groups what the basis of this folklore likely was, the question of the little girl buried in the basement stopped being asked after a couple years. Sometimes the truth isn’t as engaging as a juicy rumor, but we try to interpret history as accurately as possible.

2. Murder at the Mansion?
Last spring a new bit of folklore popped up at the mansion. A number of children starting asking about how many governors had been killed while living in the mansion. The answer was, of course, none. Two governors died while in office, but murder was not the culprit.

I asked one young boy where he heard that. Like most folklore stories, he heard it from a friend who heard it from a friend. After pondering this for a while it occurred to me that I was the likely source of the tale. In fall of 2016 Marilyn Snyder with the Bismarck Historical Society supplied me with a copy of the Bismarck Police Log from May 9, 1927, which described a “shooting” at the mansion. Certainly an interesting historical tidbit, and it solved a riddle about what appeared to be a bullet hole in an inner pane of glass in the south parlor of the mansion. How did the story go from being an obscure historical tidbit to becoming folklore? I shared the police record on Facebook. Not long after, friends were telling friends about the murder in the mansion. It will be interesting to see how long this bit of folklore stays around.

Call log 1: Call from Gov. Sorlie about somebody shooting through one of his windows with a 22 rifle.  Call log 2: Call from St. Paul press wanted to know how the Governor was, heard that he got shot. Told them there was nothing to it. Some boys were shooting birds and a shot hit the window.

The Bismarck Police Log, May 9, 1927

3. Paranormal activity in the parlor?
A variety of ghost stories and paranormal activities are commonly talked about by visitors at the mansion. Quite a few historic homes have similar stories. From curtains moving to footsteps on the stairs to doors mysteriously closing by themselves, these mansion stories have been publicized locally and on national websites. Over the years numerous paranormal groups have tested the mansion for paranormal activity at night and for the most part all have found nothing, except for one group that detected an electromagnetic signature that traveled at a slow walking pace back and forth from the piano in the parlor to the back entry. Searching in the basement turned up no plumbing, electrical lines, or other item that could produce such a phenomenon, and later attempts to locate it all failed.

There are of course, many additional folktales concerning the mansion--some come up on a regular basis, and some only get mentioned during a certain spooky holiday. Most of the stories have some basis in fact, but that fact is often less intriguing than the folktale. Whether true or not, these types of myths and folklore help spark curiosity and create interesting research and learning opportunities for both the visitor and for me.