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.

Archives Adventures During Telecommuting

Summer is here, and there have been several changes of late. The biggest change has been the COVID-19 pandemic and adjusting to working from home for two months. As a reference specialist, I assist researchers in accessing the materials they need to answer their diverse questions. Being unable to access our physical materials because of the closure limited me in how quickly I could respond to requests, but our amazing patrons have been very understanding. That said, this situation presented me with opportunities as well. I entered data on a couple record groups when not handling the requests that could be answered with our online resources.

The first group of records I worked with were marriage records from Oliver County dating from 1896 to 1925. Marriage records are a popular request among our patrons, as genealogical research represents a sizable amount of our research requests. Most such requests revolve around naturalization records, marriage records, and obituaries.

You can learn much about an area from a group of marriage licenses. Seeing several licenses of the same last name for the groom or bride indicates a fairly large family lived in that area, and the children were settling down. Since these licenses spanned 1896-1925 with most being in the 1905-1920 time frame, which coincided with a sizable wave of immigration into North Dakota, several folks applying for licenses were possibly either new immigrants themselves, or the children of immigrants to the area. One interesting pattern appeared in that men with the same last name, who are assumed to be brothers, seemed to marry sisters of a family. This likely relates to immigration patterns, where several families from a community overseas will migrate to a specific location in the United States.

scan of a marriage license

Marriage licenses from this time also note locations that are now memories in a county. Several unique locations were noted on the licenses for the place of marriage, with many being, according to Doug Wick’s book North Dakota Place Names, rural post offices in the various townships. In addition, they clue us into the differences in society at that time, especially the fragility of life, as there were a few licenses that have the same man marrying more than once. While divorce is a possibility for why the first marriage ended, life expectancy was much shorter at that time. With events like the Spanish Flu pandemic, other diseases, and the risks of death in childbirth, an untimely death for the spouse is also a possibility. Seeing these licenses made me wonder about the situation that caused the groom to remarry so soon after seeing an initial license bearing his name. Did he leave his wife, did she leave him, or did she die in an unfortunate situation? As the data entry was paramount on the group of licenses, this question could only be pondered for a moment.

scan of a marriage license

One unique challenge to these licenses is those filling them out had handwriting that left much to be desired. This is one of the challenges when transcribing older documents and records for data entry, or to just understand the document better. Several times during the data entry for these licenses, consulting Census records via Ancestry was necessary to try to decipher a name, especially in circumstances where initials were used (usually the husband’s) instead of the full first name. This was a minor issue, but one that is worth noting. Overall, the addition of the data on these licenses will enhance ease of access to these records for our patrons in the future, as such records are quite popular.

The other group of records I am working with during this time away from the office is the facsimile files. These binders contain photocopies that allowed patrons to look at our photograph holdings before we began the digitization process. Information about the photo, including collection number, item number, a description of the photo, and, if known, the donor is noted. I am working with photos of schools arranged by county. Most are of rural schools and are roughly 100 years old.

There are some cool photos in these binders. The most unique was a photo from Valley City High School in 1905 described as “Boys Toilet Room.” Yes, someone took a photo of the interior of the boys restroom in Valley City High School in 1905. Fortunately, it appears it may be either related to the construction of the school or done at a time when nobody was in the building. It made me chuckle though and think of the popular rock song “Smokin’ in the Boys Room.”

While working from home has been an adjustment during these unique times, data entry on both the marriage records and facsimile files will provide greater access to our materials in the future. It will be nice to return to the North Dakota Heritage Center more often to catch up on requests and to help the public with their research questions. Someday, archivists will preserve and process material related to this time and helping researchers to answer questions about 2020, and there will be many. Have a safe and happy summer.

Painting Patina: Aging items for Stutsman County Courthouse Civics Exhibit

Disclaimer: No antiques or artifacts were harmed in the making of this project.

When I am not working at my job of helping our amazing state historic sites, I like to spend my time engaging in my hobby of painting. I don’t paint on canvas, nor do I consider myself an artist. I build and paint models, miniatures, and dioramas. It is a challenging hobby where you attempt to paint a chunk of plastic, metal, or resin to make it appear as a realistic representation of an actual item or person. Occasionally, I even get the opportunity to apply my hobby skills to my job. If you follow the 1883 Stutsman County Courthouse Facebook page, you might recall a post about my repainting the label on a Burrow’s Adding Machine that is part of the new civics exhibit. I also painted the handle on some surveyor’s tape and the finial on a couple of flag poles. My colleague and fellow Historic Sites Manager Rob Hanna had one more challenge for me. One of the pieces he purchased for the Stutsman Courthouse civics exhibit was a double inkwell. When it came in the mail, it did not look that great. It was shiny, full of flashing (remnants of the casting process) and some of the detail was missing. While the flashing was easy to remove with a metal file, adding a patina to it would require some thought.

silver artifact

This is the inkwell after the flashing is removed and before weathering.

When trying to paint a part of a miniature that represents metal, there are two techniques used: true metallic metal (TMM) and non-metallic metal (NMM). TMM is when you use a paint that has metallic flake in it. Thanks to the flake in the paint, it has a reflective look that mimics metal. It tends to be an easier technique to learn. NMM is using paint that lacks the metallic flake, so the painter has to create gradients, shading, and highlights with multiple thin layers that create the illusion of reflective metal. It can be a hard concept to wrap your mind around.


The knight is an example of TMM, and the thief is an example of NMM. Photo from the Bird with a Brush blog.

I bring up these techniques to explain what comes next. A couple of years ago, I learned a new recipe to add shading to my TMM painting. It is about creating a wash---paint thinned down to a watery consistency and painted over the figure to pool in the cracks and crevices---and then using it to weather the metal to make it look old and used. To make my wash, I am using several different paints that each have a specific purpose. Blue liner is the main ingredient in this recipe. Painters use liner paints to separate different colors on a model and have a specific consistency that fits that purpose.

ink bottles

For this recipe, the blue and brown liners add color to wash. I need to add a metallic paint to mix to help maintain the appearance of metal. I tried to find one in my collection that would match the metal of the inkwell, and I settled on polished silver. The last component is a gloss varnish that is an acrylic resin. Once the wash dries, it strengthens it so that it can stand up to cleaning and helps preserve the luminosity of the metal. Once I have these paints mixed, I add drops of water until the paint has the right consistency.

ink pallet

If you look at the lip of the pallet, you can see how the paint flowing back into the well is thin and translucent. That is the consistency that I want.

With my wash complete, I did a simple test to see how it would work on the inkwell. I chose a spot that was small and hidden away on the back of the inkwell. I applied the wash on a section, and then used a paper towel to wipe off the excess. What is left behind is a shaded metal where the raised portions pop out from the darker crevices.

inkwell closeup

I tested a section on the back of the inkwell.

After the success of the test, I began applying the process on the rest of the inkwell. I started at the bottom and worked my way to the top.

inkwell closeup

I applied the wash in small sections. Using a large brush, I slopped it on as I tried to make sure that if filled all the cracks and crevices.

inkwell closeup w ink

I then used a paper towel to wipe the wash off the raised areas.

I continued this around the entire inkwell. Most places required two coats. In areas where I wanted to emphasize the shadow, I would wipe off less of the wash.

inkwell wide

In-progress photo where you can see that the base of the inkwell now has a slight blueish tone, and the details stand out better than the upper parts of the inkwell.

Completed inkwell patina

Completed progress on the inkwell.

Overall, I am thrilled with how this turned out. If you want to get a closer look at this inkwell, you can find it amongst the other beautiful items in the new civics exhibit at the Stutsman County Courthouse.

final product