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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!

Curating the Decorative History of the North Dakota Governor’s Residence

The 1955 North Dakota Legislative Assembly appropriated $200,000 to build a new, brick, one-story Governor’s Residence. Construction on the residence was completed in the Spring of 1960. Governor John Davis and his family were first to occupy the residence. Since then, the building has been the official residence of Governors William Guy, Arthur Link, Allen Olson, George Sinner, Edward Schafer, John Hoeven, Jack Dalrymple, Doug Burgum and their families. The Governor’s Residence is slated for demolition this fall to make room for the new Governor’s Residence being constructed next door.

Throughout the occupancy of the Governor’s Residence, there have been several renovations of both public (State) and private rooms. The State Historical Society of North Dakota has eight collections from the Governor’s Residence totaling about 800 objects including furniture, decorative objects, silver, china, and building material from the various eras. The State Archives has also collected materials including photographs, blueprints, and pamphlets.

Governor's Residence living room in 1989

Governor Edward Schafer and First Lady Nancy Schafer sitting in the State living room

In 1989 the State Living Room was renovated. This photograph was in a collection of Governor’s Residence photos transferred to the State Archives and shows Governor Edward Schafer and First Lady Nancy Schafer sitting in the State living room prior to the renovation. The couch, two blue chairs, two striped chairs, valance and drapery, and the table upon which the Schafers are sitting have been a part of the SHSND collection since 1998.

State guest bathroom

The State Guest Bathroom, as it appeared in 1985. The agency collected a sample of the wallpaper, silver soap holder from the shower, and the yellow tile appearing in the photo, as well as a silver tissue box holder, toilet paper holder, and toothbrush holder collected in 2000. We recently acquired samples of the shower tile, floor tile, and wallpaper from the 1998 renovation of this bathroom.

China with gold wheat center design

The Gold Wheat Center Design china is Wheat by Lenox, R-442. The sterling silver dinnerware, made by Gorham, features a gold Wheat design on handle, and “ND” is carved into the bottom of each handle. Originally purchased by Governor Brunsdale in 1951-1957, more pieces were added in 1966. The items were used during dinner parties at the Governor's Residence and the Former Governor’s Mansion at 320 E. Ave. B in Bismarck. The placemats and napkins were purchased from Macy’s and monogramed with the “ND.” The placemats and napkins are new acquisitions to the SHSND collection, while the china and the silver were received as part of a complete set from the Governor of North Dakota in June 2004.

State guest bedroom

The State Guest Bedroom went through many furniture changes throughout the years. There were two futon-like pieces of furniture, two single beds, and finally this double bed. The room as pictured was decorated by First Lady Jane Sinner in 1989.

We were recently provided with samples of the wallpaper pictured and of the wallpaper currently in the bedroom. The quilt on the bed is called "Waving Wheat," designed by Carol Kelly and constructed by the North Dakota Quilters in 1988. Sewn into a corner of the quilt are a brief history of the quilt and a list of the people who helped construct it.

While the structure itself will no longer stand in a few months, and Governor Doug Burgum and First Lady Kathryn Helgaas Burgum will occupy a new residence, the Governor’s Residence of 1960-2017 is well documented at the State Historical Society of North Dakota.

We would like to extend a sincere thank you to Steve Sharkey, the Residence Manager for 30-plus years, for having the foresight and love of history to continue offering the State Historical Society these objects throughout the years.

Like a Rock: Lithic Comparative Collection of the State Historical Society of North Dakota

Artifact identification and analysis is central to what we do in the archaeology lab. But most of us do not always know exactly what we are looking at – and we would not be very good scientists if we pretended we did! So how do we figure it out? What do we do when we do not know, for instance, what kind of lithic (stone) material was used to make a projectile point, or what kind of shell was used to make a bead? That is where our reference collections come in.

Lithic comparative collection

One drawer of many in our lithic comparative collection. The loose tags inside are for use in photography.

A reference collection is a grouping of specimens that have been thoroughly researched and identified by an expert in that field and labeled accordingly. Think of it as a 3D encyclopedia. With anything I can’t identify on my own (or maybe I just want to be more confident about my identification), I could compare to examples in the reference collection until I find the match Okay, it doesn’t always work that tidily, but you get the idea. Over the past few months, I have been working with my co-worker, Amy Bleier, and some of our volunteers to get the lithic comparative collection organized and ready for use by researchers and contractors. But you may be wondering… why would archaeologists find a collection of different types of stone useful?

Lithic raw materials have unique mineralogical signatures that allow you to trace them back to their source (e.g., an outcrop of rock in eastern Montana). So if you know that someone at a hunting camp in eastern North Dakota was making tools from a stone that originates in Colorado, then it tells us something about human mobility during that time, and/or trade relationships between those hunters and groups in distant areas. We can also find patterns – for instance, the raw material that people use may change over time (directing us to look for changes in other behaviors, such as subsistence or settlement). Or people may only use a certain material for particular classes of tools – this helps better understand tool technology and specialized knowledge relating to flintknapping.

Lithic raw material sources map

A map of lithic raw material sources in the North Dakota region. Note the concentration of sources west of the Missouri River.

Physically assembling a collection likes this is the most difficult and time-consuming part. We were fortunate to receive a donation of a completely assembled lithic comparative collection from the late Stanley A. Ahler, Ph.D., whose work in the region laid the foundations for the last thirty or so years of archaeology in North Dakota. Over many years, Ahler, with help from his colleagues and acquaintances, collected more than 280 lithic samples from across the United States. We regularly rely on this collection for lithic analysis. But now we want it to be useful to people who can’t come to our office when they need to compare different types of raw materials.

With the help of SHSND volunteers Doug Wurtz and David Nix, we have taken high-resolution photos of all specimens, written narratives on their origins and characteristics, created finding aids, and compiled a bibliography for the 16 most commonly found materials in North Dakota. The next step will be to create an app for mobile devices so archaeologists and other researchers can take advantage of the collection while they are in the field or doing analysis in their own labs.

Antelope chert

Antelope chert is silicified peat that occurs primarily in non-glaciated areas southwest of the Missouri River. It comprises woody plant materials and can contain whole or fragmented gastropod shells. The type site (and quarry) is in McKenzie County, North Dakota.


Porcellanite is vitrified claystone and shale that forms around burned lignite seams. The source area is concentrated in southeastern Montana, northeastern Wyoming, and western North Dakota.

Knife River flint

Knife River flint originates in Dunn and Mercer Counties, North Dakota, though cobbles can also be found in gravel deposits in the southwestern part of the state. It is typically brown, fine-grained, and develops a yellowish-white patina on exposed surfaces.

Because there can be a lot of color and texture variability in one lithic type, we will include multiple images when necessary to depict variations. Feel free to make suggestions as to how we can make the app useful to you. We will let you know when it goes live.