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.

Trimming Leaves the OLD Fashioned Way

Or is that fashionably trimming old leaves? When we (paleo) go out to collect fossils, generally what we bring back is not ready to be put on display. A lot of work goes into repairing, cleaning, and making the bits and pieces into something presentable. In this case, we collected blocks and blocks of fossil leaves on a soft sandstone matrix (the surrounding rock). The blocks were large, unwieldy, heavy, and UGLY. We needed to find the best method of trimming down the extra rock, while at the same time “leafing” the fossil intact for cleaning at a later date.

Thankfully, the sandstone matrix was soft and relatively easy to work with. Sadly, the sandstone matrix was soft, and crumbled easily! We ended up using keyhole saws to trim the sides of each fossil block – the rough teeth were much more useful in this case than the smaller-toothed hacksaw. The bottom was trimmed or flattened using a wire-mesh screen – essentially metal sandpaper for sandstone. Everything was balanced over buckets to catch most of the residual fine sand. Once carefully trimmed, butvar (plastic dissolved in acetone) was brushed onto the bottom and sides to help stabilize the sand. This left the top with the fossil leaf untouched, accessible, and ready to be properly cleaned later. In the end, we prepared a couple hundred leaves. It was quite the project, but it’s great to be able to have these fossils ready to share today and for generations to come!

Leaf-trimming setup

Becky with her leaf-trimming setup. Wire-mesh screen, keyhole saw (in hand), and a "Liriodendrites" leaf.

Liriodendrites leaf

Close-up of the "Liriodendrites" leaf

Bakken Oral History Project (MSS 11249)

I remember not long ago someone asking, “What is the Historical Society doing about the Bakken oil boom that is going on? Are you documenting it? This is history in the making, you know.”  I don’t recall my response at the time, but I’m sure I said something about how it would be great if we could send people out to the oil patch and everywhere else in the state and take pictures, video, and interview everyone in sight. But that is simply not possible. 

Our role as an archive is a little different. We collect and preserve materials that document the history of our state. So what does that mean? What documents the state’s history? My short and simple response to this question is anything that may help us understand how people lived - what they did for work, for play, their food, shelter, and clothing. Another important aspect of history is how we govern ourselves. Learning how and why our laws are made and changed throughout history can help us understand society in the past, which will hopefully help us make good decisions as we go forward.  Okay…that’s enough…I could go on and on. Now, back to the Bakken!

In 2014 I was contacted by the Dr. Bruce Braun, a professor in the Department of Geography, Environment and Society at the University of Minnesota. He and his team of researchers were planning to go to the Williston area to interview people about their lives and what impact the oil boom has had on them. The State Historical Society agreed to partner with the University of Minnesota in this endeavor by providing promotion and archiving the interviews once they were completed. The project, titled “Life and Labor in the Bakken Oilfields,” resulted in interviews with 27 people. The people interviewed vary in background. There are life-long residents, people born in the area, people who moved away and recently returned, and others from all over the country who moved there for work.

This collection provides a good snapshot of people living in the heart of an oil boom. The diverse backgrounds of the interviewees can help the listener understand the effects of the boom from different perspectives. I have listened to portions of the interviews, and there are some fantastic firsthand accounts of real life. Here is a link to the description/finding aid -

The link below is a sound bite of Johnny Gonzales discussing the boom when he arrived in Williston. To listen to any of the interviews on the inventory, please visit or contact the State Archives at 701.328.2091 or at The interviews have not been transcribed.

Johnny Gonzales audio clip