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.

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!

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