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.

Holes in History

When presenting the history of our historic sites, it can be difficult to cover everything that happened over the course of the site. Oftentimes significant events that occurred in the last 50 years or less get reduced to a couple words at the end of an interpretive sign that discusses a longer, older history. The Former Governors’ Mansion State Historic Site was built in 1884 for Bismarck Businessman Asa Fisher, who sold the building to the state in 1893 for use as the executive mansion. The interpretive history displayed at the site focuses on the years from 1893 to 1960, when it was occupied by 20 different governors and their families. If the Former Governors’ Mansion was opening as a historic site today, would the introduction to the history of the building be written differently? What if?

The North Dakota Psychiatric Clinic

In the post-World War II United States, a movement was gaining ground to end the incarceration of the mentally ill in state psychiatric hospitals. In 1946 President Harry Truman passed the National Mental Health Act, which paved the way for states to find ways to help the mentally ill cope, recover, and live positive lives.

The state of North Dakota was a progressive leader in the development of ways to help the mentally ill beyond locking them away for their own safety and that of the community. Legislative action in the 1950s led to the development of outpatient care at the State Hospital in Jamestown and to the opening of the State Psychiatric Clinic in Bismarck in 1960.

The clinic opened in the recently vacated Executive Mansion at 320 East Ave. B. Located in the heart of the residential section of Bismarck, the residence was an ideal, friendly, home-like environment to help those in need.

In 1963 the clinic was part of a national pilot program to develop standards of care and treatment for mental illnesses under President John Kennedy’s Community Mental Health Act., which officially ended the practice of incarcerating the mentally ill without due cause in the United States.

Oral histories collected from many of the professionals that worked at the clinic through-out the ‘60s show that the care provided at the clinic was one of a nurturing, respectable nature every bit as modern in its approach as today’s widely available talk therapy. While it varied over the course of the decade, the clinic generally had two psychiatrists, a psychologist, a couple of social workers, and support staff.

James Sperry exposing plywood

SHSND Superintendent James Sperry exposing the plywood separating the psychiatrist offices. (SHSND0071-009)

Those who utilized the clinic were not limited to what we would consider classic mental illness (e.g., schizophrenia), but what we would consider by modern standards to be general mental health. Common clientele would have included couples seeking marriage counseling, addiction counseling, children with behavioral issues, speech therapy, and developmental disabilities, etc. While many of the people at the clinic were voluntarily seeking help, many of them were court ordered to receive treatment. Prison inmates and children involved in delinquency cases were commonly evaluated for signs of mental illness and provided with treatment options.

In 1966 the clinic became one of eight state-run mental health clinics in North Dakota. To this day those eight clinics continue to serve the people of North Dakota’s mental health needs. In 1972 the clinic moved to the Liberty Memorial Building in downtown Bismarck. The Former Governors’ Mansion was then occupied by the Department of Health Administration offices until 1975, when the building was turned over to the State Historical Society of North Dakota as a state historic site, which now highlights the years it served as the Governors’ Mansion.

State Health Department

State Health Department Administration Office Building, circa 1975. (BPL41_12072007)

When visiting the Former Governors’ Mansion State Historic Site, or any historic site for that matter, keep in mind the history you see presented may be incomplete.The name of the site may only be an introduction to part of a longer history.

Guest Blogger: Johnathan Campbell

Johnathan CampbellJohnathan Campbell has been around the SHSND for around a quarter of a century. He has been the site supervisor for both the Former Governors’ Mansion, and Camp Hancock State Historic Sites for over a decade, and previous to that was the fossil preparator for the North Dakota State Fossil collection.

The Impact of Research

Every month, we receive hundreds of historical and genealogical requests in the State Archives – in fact, more than 6,000 each year. However, only three of us deal with the majority of this inflow. Jim Davis, head of reference staff, started working here when the North Dakota Heritage Center was built in 1981. He was originally hired to unpack collections moved from the Liberty Memorial Building, where the State Historical Society used to be, to the new Archives wing. Luckily for us, he stayed. Greg Wysk has been here for just over 13 years. Greg is really involved with the family history side of research and has presented at quite a few family research workshops on the subject. I am the third and have been here for almost seven years.

Newspapers in The Archives

Remember this image from my explanation of what an Archives is and holds from my first post? We have long been the official state repository for newspapers, and though the collection is not complete for many of those earlier years, we have most issues from most areas. Older ones are on microfilm.

We all deal with different types of requests. Some are straightforward, but some are not. Some stick with you. I’ve helped a woman create a shadow box with artifacts about her family member’s sporty past; helped a couple find the location of where their relative was buried so they could place a tombstone there; helped a man find his step-siblings through an obituary search; and just recently, helped a researcher who was looking for a divorce record determine that the couple in question never actually divorced.

One of the most memorable requests, however, was one that Jim and I worked on together. The researcher involved was interested in a tragedy that had occurred in New Salem in the early 1950s concerning a man who had shot and killed the chief of police of New Salem. He had tried to get information on the trial, but was told repeatedly that the records were closed. When he came to us at the Archives, we turned to the local newspapers, a public source, and found his answer.

The New Salem Journal

The Chief of Police who was shot is shown in this paper from New Salem.

As it turns out, the man charged with murder had been passing through the area with his wife and kids, looking for work. The kids had bought some pop at a local soda shop. When they were charged a penny’s tax on the pop, they protested and departed; then their father came in to protest as well. As the situation escalated, the chief of police was called. He picked the man up—but then the man turned on him, shot him, hijacked a car, and took his family down toward the border of South Dakota before he was finally caught.

Mandan Daily Pioneer

Bullets Missed Cafe

This was big news, and many newspapers in the area reported on the tragedy. In this image, the owner of the café points to bullet holes that were shot through her front window during the incident.

The researcher looking into this case was a family member of the accused party, and he wanted to find out what had happened. Knowing this made me uneasy. What do you do when you discover information that shows someone’s relative to be a murderer? I was still pretty new at the time, but even then, I had seen what people experience when they find out anything about their relations. It can be very emotional working here. I’ve seen people cry with joy at finding a solitary picture, and I’ve seen people walk away in total surprise and even disbelief when they’ve unearthed someone’s checkered past.

However, as Jim reminded me when I expressed this, nobody can change the past. We can only find what our records show us and provide that information.

Luckily, in this case, there was no need for unease. The researcher was elated to learn what we had found and contacted us several times more for follow-ups and additional information.

I was talking to a woman recently about her own request, and when I told her that I finished it, she said, excitedly, “What a great job. You help people find their past. You help people find themselves.”

Not every research request, historical or genealogical, is easy to deal with, and every one comes in with its own set of challenges and constraints—but then again, every bit whops an impact.