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.

Why We Save Them

As a Historic Sites Manager for the State Historical Society, it is easy for me to recognize why historic buildings are worth saving. I appreciate all of the historic sites we have in North Dakota, but I have a certain soft spot for the Stutsman County Courthouse State Historic Site in Jamestown. The courthouse, while certainly beautiful and filled with the ornate details that make people fall in love with old buildings, has captured my heart for a completely different reason.

This is the story of a building…

In 1883, the Stutsman County Courthouse was completed in what was set to be the capital of North Dakota. Built atop the tallest hill in Jamestown, she is three stories high with one large courtroom flanked by two circular stained glass windows. It is a building meant to inspire and impress.

Jamestown Alert Article

When I was hired to manage this site (among others), I dove headlong into its history. The courthouse was operational for almost a century, housing not only the courtroom, but the county auditor, school superintendent, and treasurer’s offices. But no historical building exists without strife. Since the birth of architecture, as long as a building stands, there also stands someone who wants to tear it down. In 1983, a new courthouse was completed for Stutsman County and the 1883 building was abandoned. At this time, Stutsman County commissioners voted to demolish the historic courthouse in favor of a parking lot to accommodate the new building.

In the years that followed, the city of Jamestown was divided, and the battle for the courthouse played out in the media. During this contentious time, a group of local citizens, known as the 1883 Courthouse Committee, vowed to save the historic building. Due to their heroic efforts, the building was placed on the National Register of Historic Places by the State Historical Society of North Dakota. Since the courthouse was state property, the North Dakota Century Code required approval of the State Historical Board prior to destroying historically significant state property. The board did not approve the demolition of the courthouse.

But the wrecking ball still loomed. Shortly afterwards, the county challenged the board’s ruling and the case ultimately reached the State Supreme Court. After a lengthy court battle, the Supreme Court ruled in favor of the Board and the courthouse was saved. We acquired the building in 1985 and immediately got to work.

What work, you may be asking? Well, imagine what would happen if you left your home standing for a four-year period—the length of time it took the courts to decide the building’s fate. During that time, it stood unheated as pigeons gained access through broken windows, rain gutters remained clogged, and water carried down the walls of the building, causing further degradation of the soft brick and mortar.

Courthouse in rough shape

The Stutsman County Courthouse was left vacant for several years, while a court battle decided her fate. During this time the building deteriorated greatly.

In the years that followed, we began to implement a rehabilitation plan for the building, and the Courthouse Committee began an ambitious fundraising campaign.

In the 1990s almost one million dollars were raised to repair the exterior of the courthouse. In recent years, we have invested $400,000 into the interior rehabilitation. The project is nearing completion. Still left to complete are plumbing and electrical upgrades—crucial elements to a working, usable building.

Courthouse then and now

The courthouse stands today as it was built in 1883. (Image courtesy of the State Historical Society of North Dakota Archives, 1005-0002)

So why did we save it?

It has value.

The Stutsman County Courthouse has great historical significance. It is not only the oldest courthouse in North Dakota—it is the oldest public building in North and South Dakota. Meetings were held there in preparation for the creation of the state of North Dakota. The courthouse truly is the birthplace of statehood. 

It has purpose.

Once restored, the courthouse will be a beautiful addition to the city of Jamestown and state of North Dakota. It will operate as a historic site, educational facility and community center. As a historic site, it will tell the story of Dakota Territory, local government and how courthouses play an integral role in communities and families. As a community center, it will house weddings, concerts, meetings, and area events.

Courthouse interior

The courtroom of the Historic Stutsman County Courthouse will be a great location for community events.

It is our heritage.

Walking into this building, it feels like 1883. The walls are tin, the old wood floors are scuffed and the stair treads worn. One can feel the presence of early North Dakotans—and the significant decisions that were made within those walls. More importantly, you can feel a connection to a building that has fought to stay relevant in a world that wants to tear it down.

Woodwork and jury chairs

Left: Much of the hand carved wood remains at the historic courthouse.
Right: The original jury chairs in the courtroom—note the springs on the front two legs.

In September 2014, we held an open house to invite the community of Jamestown back to the courthouse.   The 1883 Courthouse Committee and State Historical Society ambitiously planned for 200 people. At the end of the day, over 1,000 people came through the doors in just four hours. We were completely overwhelmed and surprised by the community’s support for the old building. People told us stories of adopting their children in the courtroom, obtaining their marriage and driver’s licenses there, and shared with us a plethora of other great memories. Most people had never set foot inside the building, while for several others, it had been at least three decades.

There is much work yet to be done. It will take time and many hands. For 30 years, the Stutsman County Courthouse has waited. She will soon have her day.

Learning from Trees

While writing the new curriculum for 8th grade North Dakota Studies (, I browsed the archives for “good stuff.” “Browse the archives” should also be in quotation marks because one does NOT browse the archives as one browses the shelves in the public library. Archival materials are carefully stored in locked rooms where the controlled environment prevents the documents from being harmed by mold and other threats. The locked doors also prevent interested bystanders from acquiring important documents for their own libraries.

The “good stuff” I was looking for was, ideally, brief explanatory documents and photographs that could explain how life unfolded for those who lived in North Dakota in the past. The documents had to be interesting enough to hold the attention of eighth-graders. I wanted students to view the past through events that were fun or had a youthful perspective.

To find documents, I searched the online catalog (ODIN). Since I often started my search with only a vague idea of my goal, it actually was a little like browsing. I kept my fingers crossed that my search terms were appropriate to my wish list. When luck was with me, I was rewarded with some lovely gems from the archival collections.

One of my favorites is a collection of papers and photographs documenting the tree claim of Nels Wold of Traill County (A. N. Wold Papers, Mss 20375). Tree claims were made under the Timber Culture Act (1872). Planting several acres of trees and keeping them alive for several years entitled the claimant to 160 acres in addition to other claims such as a Homestead Act (1862) claim.

The collection includes the official forms Wold filled out to establish and prove his claim, a map of Traill County, and a hand-drawn map of the Wold farmstead showing where the trees had been planted. Bringing these documents to life are several photographs showing the trees on the date of his proof in 1891 and in 1898. In the twenty years since they were planted, the trees had grown to shelter the house and barns from the winds.

Wold farm in 1891

The Wold farm in 1891. The trees behind the house were planted under the Timber Culture Act in 1878. SHSND 20375-B375-A

Another photograph brings a stronger historical view to the Wold Papers. In this photo, Nels Wold’s son, A. N. Wold, stands with his two children next to a 50-year-old tree. The cottonwood tree appears to hold in a fond embrace the descendants of the man who planted it.

A.N. Wold and children

Nels Wold’s son, A. N. Wold and his two sons stand in front of a 50-year-old cottonwood tree on the Wold farm. SHSND-B375-F

These documents and photographs will help students understand how the federal government distributed land in the 19th century and the challenges the claimants faced in keeping those trees alive. Reading these documents, along with other lessons on rainfall and drought, the students will understand why tree claims were successful only in the eastern part of North Dakota. Perhaps students will also gain an appreciation for North Dakota’s great variety of climates and soils, the hard work of settlement farmers, and the beauty of a tree.