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.

You’re a State Historic Site Supervisor - What Does That Mean?

Supervising a state historic site takes an understanding of many different disciplines—an extensive knowledge of history and the history of the site are just the most important. Historic site supervision means I must be ready for anything. When I started as supervisor of the Ft. Totten State Historic Site, I never thought I would soon be fluent in running a Bobcat or using my limited experience (3 weeks) as a temporary assistant for a boiler repairman to fix plumbing in the visitor’s center. Caring for a historic site requires constant vigilance and a willingness to get your hands dirty.

Plumbing repair at Ft. Totten

Repairing bathroom plumbing at Ft. Totten

Currently, I am supervising the restoration and rehabilitation of the hospital, one of 16 historic buildings at Ft. Totten. This summer, we hope to complete the tuck pointing of the masonry as well as repairing and replacing several windows.

In addition to the maintenance of an ever changing historic site, I also spend time planning events and educational programming for the site. We are always challenging ourselves to come up with new ideas to interpret the site, and to hopefully better tell the story of Ft. Totten. We are presently planning the annual Living History Field Day for September. Each year, area students come to the site to learn about frontier military activities, boarding school trades and American Indian culture.

On any given day, I can be found opening the gift shop, removing gophers from the parade ground, or answering a phone call about a relative who may have gone to school here in the 1920s. It certainly sounds hectic, but I wouldn’t change it for anything. The excitement and unpredictability I find out here at Ft. Totten, on the shores of Devils Lake, makes it one of the most exciting and worthwhile jobs to have.

Taking phone calls at Ft. Totten

Taking phone calls at Ft. Totten

One of the best parts of being a site supervisor is doing research. In my next blog entry, I plan to provide an in-depth look at what research goes into answering some of the fascinating questions on the history of the site. Until then, explore your surroundings.

Researching Ft. Totten

Researching the site history of Ft. Totten

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.