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.

Time Traveling at Historic Sites

I love historic sites. These are the places where important things happened, where important things were done, where the world changed. It’s how I time travel. Science fiction has its allure, but it has nothing on historic sites. Each site has a power of place unique to it. I can visit any of the 56 historic sites that the State Historical Society manages and go back in time. A visit can give me a better perspective on what is happening in my own time.

A visit to one of our sites is very fun. We have programs such as History Alive, where you can meet a real person from the past (for 20 minutes or so). We also have film series, tours, guest speakers, demonstrations, concerts, and hands-on activities for kids. At many of our sites we have programs through the fall and winter, too. Wondering what to do on the weekend? Check out the events at our sites,

You may not notice all that goes into preparing for your visit. We mow and trim the site, which can be quite a challenge during a rainy year or just a rainy month. We have the buildings repaired as best we can with time and budget constraints. We provide entertaining and educational programs for various audiences. All of these things take planning, time, and people to make sure your visit is enjoyable. When we are successful, all you notice is that your visit is great!

Most of the planning is done during the winter months when visitation to the sites is lower. We plan for new programs such as concerts and speakers, we update our operating plans, and do some long range planning. If needed, we plan for and do some maintenance and repair work. In the fall of 2012 and early spring 2013 we did a bank stabilization project on the Red River of the North at Fort Abercrombie.

We have a lot of sites that have only a marker and no staff. These sites are more difficult for the average visitor to understand. We have sites related to General Sibley’s and General Sully’s expeditions into Dakota Territory between 1863 and 1865.We have sites that recognize prehistoric villages and Native American culture, historic townsites, and the role of North Dakota in the early explorations and mapping of the American West, among others.

At sites such as these, you have to bring knowledge with you. We have looked at trying to do something with technology at some of these marker sites, like QR codes. Unfortunately, some of them are remote enough that technology can’t help us. We keep looking for new ways to share the stories of these sites, too. Soon, the 3rd edition of the Traveler’s Companion to North Dakota’s Historic Sites will be published. This book will give brief histories of all of our historic sites and their significance in the greater story of North Dakota.

How to Move a Mastodon

If you had visited the Heritage Center museum prior to October 2012 you might remember a mastodon skeleton – 12’ high at the shoulder, 16’ from tusk to tail, and 13,000 years old. Fast-forward 18 months and the same mastodon now has a place of honor in the expanded ND Heritage Center & State Museum. Unlike in the movies, he didn’t come alive at night and take a walk, so how did he get there? Well, let’s start on how he came to be here.

Mastodon in the ND Heritage Center & State Museum

On a spring day in 1890, while digging a ditch on his uncle’s farm near Highgate, Ontario, William Reycraft unearths the massive bones of a mastodon. The Regcrafts sell the bones and rights to excavate to partners William Hillhouse and John Jelly. The amazing moment is captured by a local photographer. 

Mastodon - Gambles Photo - Grassick Papers

State Archives 0899-01

Hillhouse and Jelly display the bones around Ontario, charging a nickel or dime for a viewing. Hoping to further cash in on the public’s interest, they contract with R.A. Essury to travel the bones across the West. Unfortunately, Essury dies while on tour and Hillhouse and Jelly lose track of the bones!

State Archives 10117

Three years later the bones surface in Minneapolis, Minn., when they are sold to re-coup unpaid storage bills. For the next few years the new owners again tour the bones, this time around Minnesota, South Dakota, and North Dakota. In 1902 the bones are sold to the University of North Dakota, who in turn give the bones to the State Historical Society of North Dakota in 1947.

In 1991-1992 the bones are assessed by museum curators and the state paleontologist.

Mastodon Bones

The skeleton is found to be 95 percent complete and remarkably well-preserved. A modern reconstruction is undertaken with the goals of minimum damage to the bones and scientifically accurate posture. The majority of the skeleton is supported by a flexible rod suspended from the ceiling that runs the length of the spinal column. The feet and legs are mounted individually and don’t support any of the body’s weight.

Mastodon - First Peoples

Now it’s 20 years later and the ND Heritage Center is in the midst of a major expansion. The mastodon occupies a new central space in the new building. There was a very small window in which to move the enormous and delicate skeleton. There was not time to take it apart bone by bone. Exhibits staff and paleontologists had to figure out a way to efficiently but safely move the mastodon. The eventual solution was to suspend the majority of the skeleton from a moveable gantry that could be wheeled into place. This left only the legs, tail, shoulder blades, and lower jaw to be moved individually. Instead of weeks, it only took days to move.

We hope you’ll come and visit the mastodon in its new home!