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.

How to Ruin a Perfectly Good Valentine’s Day: The Museum Edition

Gift giving can be hard work. Things that were once thoughtful gifts might seem like bad ideas today. Here are some examples from our museum collection of what not to give your special someone this Valentine’s Day.

1. A Sexist Greeting Card. Nothing screams romance like asking your valentine to repair your clothing. It is hard to say what Ellen Olstad of Galesburg might have thought about this card when she received it in the 1930s, but I bet you can do better.

An old Valentine's Day card of a dark haired boy with big, blue eyes who's trying to sew a button onto his blue and black checkered pants for his red suspenders. The card reads Now is the time for some good girl to come to the aid of this party.

I would let him figure it out himself. SHSND 1993.19.22

2. Hairy Accessories. Gifts that fit your valentine’s interests are always a good idea. But maybe don’t make an arts and crafts project out of your own hair. I’ve touched on the strangeness of hair art in a previous blog. And here is another example. Peter Davidson lived in Hatton and later in Arnegard with his wife, Hilda. By wearing this watch chain, Davidson displayed both his membership in the Modern Woodmen of America organization and his devotion to whoever braided it.

A braided necklace made of dark hair hair with a leaf charm hanging from the middle.

It would be hard to forget (or forgive) any gift made of hair. SHSND 1990.280.1

3. Lethal Irons. Unless specifically requested, housekeeping items make terrible gifts. Especially ones that can kill you. Asbestos sad irons were all the rage before the rise of the electric iron. These featured a removable asbestos-lined cover that fit over the heated metal iron. The asbestos cover worked great to keep the iron hot and the handle cool. Too bad asbestos is the leading cause of mesothelioma commercials in the United States. Ah, but the ease of housework! Laundry room equipment contained asbestos for decades. So, while the women in Jessie Hunter Lorenz’s family in Pembina pressed their clothes with the asbestos iron in the early 1900s, the Weinrebe family in Minot cooled their irons on this asbestos iron pad in the 1950s.

A metal iron and cover are shown next to a sign advertising the asbestos iron cover that reads No-Lift Iron Pad: Fireproof, asbestos, protects board and ironing cover, non-skid surface. Saves Time. Saves Energy. Just Slide it On.

Best to avoid giving cancer-causing household items this Valentine’s Day. SHSND 1995.37.55, 1993.33.106

I’ll leave you with this parting advice when it comes to last-minute gifts for your sweetie:

Doing the ironing for your valentine. Good gift.
Giving your valentine an iron. Bad gift.
Giving your valentine a deadly iron. Really bad gift.

Offseason Provides Opportunity for State Historic Site Improvements

At this time of year, I often get asked about what I do since the majority of the state historic sites I oversee are closed. One of the best parts of working with sites is that no two days are ever the same. I know that sounds a bit cliché, but there is a lot of truth in the statement. During the offseason, I find myself working on various projects for different sites. Each project offers new and unique challenges and allows me to work with our excellent site staff.

One of the projects nearing completion is an upgrade to the playground equipment at Writing Rock State Historic Site, which we undertook in partnership with the Divide County Job Development Authority. You might wonder why we have a playground at a historic site. The playground equipment was installed at the site when it was initially created as a state park in 1936. The State Historical Society of North Dakota operated both state parks and historic sites until the mid-1960s when parks were moved to a separate agency.

The original equipment at Writing Rock was outdated and no longer safe to use. Playground equipment has a lifespan of 20 years. Grondahl Construction installed the new equipment in November. All I have left to do on the project is finish up some grant reporting and install a sign recognizing the contributions of all involved. I have never worked on a project like this before, and it allowed for some great learning opportunities. Plus, I can now amaze my friends with my knowledge of the cost of playground equipment.

Playground equipment with green slides and brown poles and roofs

New playground equipment at Writing Rock State Historic Site.

Another project on my plate this offseason is writing interpretive panels for Fort Dilts State Historic Site. Fort Dilts has long been on our list of sites that need interpretive panels. After its inclusion in the North Dakota Passport, we felt it was time to move it to the top of the list. For the past month, I have been researching the history surrounding the site and have begun to write the panels.

I metal sign reading Fort Dilts 1864 stands outsinde among frosted ground with windmills in the background. There are also 5 gravestones on the right side of the image in the middleground.

Fort Dilts State Historic Site

One project that has been on my list for a long time is creating a video tour of the upstairs of the Chateau de Morès in Medora. Currently, guests who cannot climb the interior staircase have no way of experiencing the Chateau’s upstairs. This past fall, Assistant Site Supervisor Ed Sahlstrom and I recorded a tour of the upstairs. I am currently editing the video, and hopefully, it will be available at the site this summer for guests.

An older man with wihte hair and dark glasses wearing a black and white plaid shirt stands indoor in a house with two open doorways behind him.

Screen capture of a video of Assistant Site Supervisor Ed Sahlstrom describing the upstairs nursery at the Chateau de Morès State Historic Site.

If you are a regular blog reader, you may have seen my post about the Ask-an-Expert program. We continue to work on that program, but we are also expanding our virtual offerings in other ways. We are working with several of our sites to develop virtual tours. We are doing test tours and looking at lighting and sound quality. We are also trying to work with our site staff to make the tour fit within a 45-minute time limit. I am excited for our site staff to share these tours with schools, civics groups, and other museums.

An older gentleman with glasses, long white gray hair and beard, black hat, and denim shirt is shown on the left side of the screenshot while a younger man in khaki pants, green button up shirt, with red hair a beard stands showing the underground capsule at a missile site..

Ronald Reagan Minuteman Missile State Historic Site Supervisor Rob Branting shows off one of the underground capsules as part of a trial run of a virtual tour to 1883 Stutsman County Courthouse State Historic Site Supervisor Steve Reidburn and Historic Sites Manager Chris Dorfschmidt.

In addition to offseason projects, I often help answer questions for the general public about sites. Sometimes these questions require research. For example, a gentleman from the Twin Cities recently contacted me with questions about sites related to the 1863 punitive campaign led by Brig. Gen. Henry H. Sibley against the Dakota for the 1862 uprising. He wanted to know the exact location of several of the campsites. Thanks to some help from the friendly folks up in the State Archives, I was able to answer his questions.

An empty room with peach colored walls, a bluish gray ceiling, wood floors, one light on the ceiling, two windows with white shades pulled down, and a door on the adjacent wall that is the same color of the walls

The north wing of the hospital building at Fort Totten State Historic Site will eventually house a hands-on exhibition geared toward children.

The projects listed above are a small taste of all of the ones I am currently working on this winter. I could go on about other projects like the children’s exhibit for the north wing of the hospital building at Fort Totten State Historic Site, getting replacement signs made for various historic sites, or making some slight updates to site cards. Then there are all of the other responsibilities that come with being a manager—budgeting, staff development, and hiring. As much as others might think that winter is my quiet time, it can be one of the busiest times of the year. But that said, I enjoy working on all of these projects, making every day different and enjoyable.