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!

Put a coat on it? The Ins and Outs of Repainting Buildings at State Historic Sites

As a site supervisor, I am entrusted with the care of two historic state properties in Bismarck: the Former Governors’ Mansion and Camp Hancock. These two sites comprise four historic buildings, each with well over a century of paint on the exterior. Time, weather, and people all take their toll on surfaces, which need repainting from time to time. When this occurs, we do not necessarily match the color of paint on the surface because paint fades, and colors change with age. Instead, we strive to match the structure’s historical paint colors.

As supervisor of the Former Governors’ Mansion and Camp Hancock state historic sites, my job entails a lot of paint!

Chipped paint on the back porch of the Former Governors’ Mansion exposed the original 1884 maroon color.

In the case of the most recent repainting by professionals in 2012 of the Former Governors’ Mansion, we did our best to match the colors to those the state initially painted the house after it was purchased in 1893. To determine what the paint looked like over the years, we carefully sanded through the layers of accumulated paint using a process known as bullseye sampling. The sampling was carried out in multiple spots protected from the elements, with samples then matched to a color swatch or taken to the paint store and matched using a spectrophotometer.

Bullseye paint sampling inside the Former Governors’ Mansion revealed the color of the upstairs hall trim from 1884 through the 1960s.

Did we get it 100% right? Since exposure to the elements can cause colors to shift on even the most protected surfaces (and the underlying and overlying paint may also alter a color’s appearance), perfection is unattainable. In this and other instances, we do our best and hope the color endures well into the future. Still, we keep in mind that inevitably best practices will evolve as understanding of historic preservation and access to new technologies increases. Imagine a world with programmable paint that could change color on demand and show the Former Governors’ Mansion across different time periods. You could see what the mansion looked like in a variety of iterations, including the 1884 maroon and green, the 1893 green and green, the 1903 yellow and maroon, or even the post-1930 white and black. Now that’s what I’d call bringing history to life!

Today computer algorithms can analyze black-and-white photographs, such as this circa 1885 Former Governors’ Mansion image, and reproduce them in color. In this instance, the computer did a good job of guessing the maroon paint color but missed the dark green trim, which it rendered in grey. SHSND SA 2005-P-006-00001

In summer 2020, Former Governors’ Mansion staff spent hundreds of hours repainting the house, which appears here in its 1893 colors.

Taxidermy Critters and Wendy’s Napkin Art: Surprising Finds from the Inventory of the Lewis & Clark Interpretive Center

During the 2021 legislative session, management of the Lewis & Clark Interpretive Center and Fort Mandan in Washburn transferred from the North Dakota Parks and Recreation Department to the State Historical Society. To grasp the full extent of what the agency had just obtained, we needed to perform a complete inventory of the sites’ collections. With laptops, cameras, and steely resolve in tow, our collections staff descended on the Interpretive Center and got to work on a project that will entail multiple visits. During our initial trips, we came across some fun, quirky, and surprising items in storage. What follows is a sampling of some of our more interesting finds.

1. This box looked like many others in the Interpretive Center storage. Any guesses as to what could be inside?

The contents of this box were anything but ordinary.

Based on the wobble and weight of the box when removed from the top of a cabinet, we thought it might contain a piece of pottery with a bowling pin-style bottom. Imagine our surprise when we lifted the lid and saw the beady little eyes of three small taxidermy critters: a gopher (with a face that looked like it had run headlong into a brick wall), a weasel, and a mole. Lewis & Clark Interpretive Center only has a few natural history objects, so we were certainly not expecting to be greeted by these curious creatures

Some of our cute taxidermy friends. SHSND

2. In a box filled with Bismarck artist Vern Erickson’s sketchbooks, we found this scrapbook labeled “Napkin Art.” Like us you’re probably wondering, “What is napkin art?”

SHSND

It turns out napkin art is exactly what it sounds like. Attached to the pages of Erickson’s scrapbook were napkins from North Dakota restaurants filled with (mostly pen) sketches of Native Americans and horses, though he also included a few examples of place mat art. Napkins from Donutland and Wendy’s feature descriptions of what colors the artist would like to use in his painting of the sketch as well as other notes. Considering the medium, some sketches are very detailed, putting our doodles of fancy “S” and anime eyes to shame.

Artist Vern Erickson’s detailed sketches of American Indians on horseback adorn napkins and place mats found in one scrapbook. SHSND

3. A box of Altoids in a collections space? We all know food and drink is not allowed in collections spaces, right? So what could be in this tin?

SHSND

Given the Interpretive Center’s plethora of lead shot, it really shouldn’t have come as a surprise that the tin was full of tiny lead balls. Indeed, Lewis and Clark’s Corps of Discovery is a key collecting theme for both the Interpretive Center and Fort Mandan State Historic Site. These shot are in remarkably good condition compared to some of the other lead shot already inventoried and had not turned white due to oxidation.

Not exactly the “curiously strong” contents you might have expected. SHSND

The inventory is not yet complete, so we wouldn’t be surprised if additional interesting finds await us. Since there are many more objects at the Lewis & Clark Interpretive Center than we initially estimated, we look forward to other fun discoveries.


This blog was co-authored with Elise Dukart.