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.

North Dakota’s First Movie Maker

1. Frithjof Holmboe (SHSND 00834-0003)

Frithjof Holmboe, the man who captured the early days of North Dakota on film. (SHSND 00834-0003)
* Photo of Frithjof Holmboe from 00834 Frithjof Holmboe Photo Collection

It was 1915, and the population of North Dakota was approximately 600,000 people and growing. To attract more immigrants to the state, the State Immigration Department hired Frithjof Holmboe, a Norwegian immigrant, to travel around North Dakota to produce promotional films showcasing the positive characteristics of several counties.  (We have not found any North Dakota winter footage from Holmboe.)  As the state began to fall into an economic depression in 1921, Holmboe closed up the Publicity Film Company studio in Bismarck and moved to California.

It was not until the 1970s that the State Historical Society of North Dakota (SHSND) found the films.  Tucked tightly away in a storage building at Fort Abraham Lincoln, the original 35mm nitrate films had visible signs of deterioration; many were oozing liquid and covered with dust. After the discovery, the SHSND, with the help of the American Revolution Bicentennial Commission, shipped the original 35mm films to a lab in New Jersey to convert the originals into 16mm safety film.  The lab was not able to save all of the film; some of it had almost completely deteriorated. The new 16mm safety film of Frithjof Holmboe’s work arrived back at the State Archives for preservation and was eventually placed in a freezer to halt deterioration.

Frithjof Holmboe’s original 35mm nitrate film

Left - Frithjof Holmboe’s original 35mm nitrate film after its discovery in a storage building at Fort Abraham Lincoln.
Right - Signs of deterioration on Holmboe’s original 35mm nitrate film before it was sent to New Jersey for transfer to 16mm safety film.
* Photos from 10782 Snyder Films Collection – Flickertail Flashbacks

Recently, we braved the -5°F temperature of the freezer and took the safety film out to re-digitize it in a less compressed format. Before re-digitizing the film, we cleaned it to remove any dust and debris that may compromise the picture quality. Cleaning also helps to preserve it, along with the low temperature and low humidity that is in the freezer.

To clean the film, we use a 91% rubbing alcohol and a lint free cloth. The higher the alcohol content the quicker the liquid dries, allowing us to digitize the film almost immediately after cleaning.

Left - Braving the freezer to retrieve the film from the Frithjof Holmboe Collection
Right - Cleaning the safety film with 91% rubbing alcohol and lint free cloth.

Digitizing Station

The equipment we use to digitize the film into a digital file.

We placed the 16mm Holmboe film onto our Tobin Video Transfer machine. This machine has a built-in video camera that can record sound and video at the same time. Our BlackMagic DeckLink then captures the film. The DeckLink records the footage in an Apple ProRes format. Originally, we digitized the film into mp4 format because it takes up less space and is a popular format; however, in order to use our historic film in the new expansion exhibits, we needed a less compressed format. After we digitized the film, we placed it back into the freezer. Since technology is always changing, there is no doubt we will be revisiting the Holmboe film again to re-digitize it into the next best format.

Although Frithjof Holmboe’s film is our oldest collection, it is only one of many film and video collections preserved at the State Archives. Our film and video collections include family films, commercial films, state agency films, and news films. If you have any questions about our collections or contributing to the collection, please contact Lindsay at

Enjoy a clip of Frithjof Holmboe’s films! We also show some Holmboe films as part of our free daily public movies showing in the Great Plains Theater at the ND Heritage Center & State Museum.

Thousands Have Invested in Expansion Efforts – Thank You!

Hosting a “Recognition and Thank You Event” is a lot of work – at best a marathon of activity and outreach efforts. But all that fades into the twilight when you walk into a ballroom filled with more than 550 people who have come to help celebrate success. It is an extraordinary sense of accomplishment and a source of immense thankfulness and humility. Donors and supporters from all over the state converged at the Ramkota Hotel on April 24, 2014 for a very special evening honoring our donors and supporters - Touchstone Energy Cooperatives of North Dakota, A Kirk and Janet Lanterman, Governor William and Jean Guy, USDA US Forest Service Dakota Prairie Grasslands and Tesoro for the passport project, and the North Dakota Legislature. Together we all celebrated the expansion of the North Dakota Heritage Center and State Museum – the “Smithsonian on the Plains” – a regional, international destination – an architectural wonder.

Planning for this event began four years ago when we selected which organizations and individuals we would honor in 2012 and then in 2014. We had to visit with corporate executives and families to see if the dates worked – and in a number of cases they did not causing us to move honorees from 2012 into 2014 and even on into 2016. Nothing is simple.

Personal visits with all donors two years before the event set in place times for individual interviews and photo and video sessions. A four day photography tour across the Touchstone Energy territory was planned more than a year ago, with 4-6 stops each day at plants, offices and customer farms and community buildings. Interviews were coordinated and filmed at Basin Electric in Bismarck and Minnkota Power in Grand Forks – and even a couple of trips out of state were necessary to do executive interviews. All of these interviews and photos were incorporated into a photo tribute gift book, recognition publications, and an 18-minute video on Touchstone’s history – all part of the recognition event happenings.

The wonderful part of this process is the opportunity to get to know your donors and supporters more intimately – seeing their worlds and coming to understand their career and giving motivations. It is all worth the effort. The 2014 event was a success because we have taken the time to know our donors and appreciate their desire to make a difference with their gifts. It becomes very obvious that thousands of people have invested in the expansion and we are grateful for each and every one of those generous individuals and organizations! Thank You!

Jon McMillan, Foundation Board President, addresses hundreds of supporters who gathered to celebrate the Heritage Center Expansion.