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.

Historic Masonry Bingo: Time to Hit the Bricks!

It’s autumn and a delightful time to wander the urban centers of North Dakota and beyond. In urban landscapes we find a variety of brick patterns and stone work that over time have lent much of the historic character to downtown areas. Below is a historic masonry bingo card that you can print out and take along to identify some of the fascinating details found in common buildings. It includes brickwork details, stone masonry, and concrete masonry units (CMUs).

See if you and your friends can bingo in your walk around town by finding matching examples in your area.1 Check off the examples you see and try to get a straight line of four spaces across, down, or diagonally, and the first one to do so wins.

Brats, beer, bricks, and bingo anyone?

Bingo card with different styles of bricks

Buttered Joint – A thin masonry joint made by applying a thin layer or mortar to four sides of a brick.

Common Brick – Softer bricks, which are less uniform and regular than stock bricks. Stock bricks resist weathering better than common brick.

Concrete Masonry Unit (CMU) – Concrete blocks were introduced in the early 1900s with presses that could manufacture a single CMU when the operator was able to exert significant pressure on the press bar. A rusticated (with uneven texture made to simulate rock) version was popular by about 1916, was mass-produced, and used in foundations.

Brick Bonds

American or Common Bond – A pattern or brickwork in which every third, fifth, sixth, or seventh course consists of headers (short end of brick exposed), and the other courses.

Herringbone Bond – A variety of ways of assembling bricks in diagonal zigzag fashion.

Running or Stretcher Bond – A bond in which all bricks are laid lengthwise.

Quoin – A hard stone or brick used to reinforce an external corner or edge of a wall, often of a contrasting color to other stones or bricks.

Spalling – The flaking of brickwork due to frost, chemical action, or movement of the building structure.

Historic Masonry at State Historic Sites

Fort Totten State Historic Site

four men making bricks

Workers making bricks at Fort Totten, Dakota Territory. SHSND 0670-024

Ceramic bricks have been manufactured in what is now North Dakota since 1868 at Fort Totten. Suitable clay was near the shore of Devils Lake, and workers employed by the US Army placed mud by hand into wooden forms. These green bricks were carefully stacked to allow air to circulate, and then previously burnt bricks surrounded those to be fired. The burnt bricks were covered with clay, and a fire was meticulously maintained to bake the bricks. The structure was a scove kiln and the method very primitive. Many of the buildings still standing at Fort Totten are of the common or soft brick produced under basic conditions and completed in the late 1860s or early 1870s.2

Building with trees around it

Commanding Officers Quarters, Fort Totten. SHSND 00137 0046

Stutsman County Courthouse State Historic Site, Jamestown

exterior of a building

Stutsman County Courthouse line drawing detail by N.C. Koch and Company, Milwaukee, Wisconsin, found in A&HP Site 32SN0045.

The Stutsman County Courthouse, built in 1883, is an imposing example of Gothic Revival architecture with massive masonry walls on an ashlar granite foundation. “Father of Jamestown” Anton Klaus started a large brick-making plant in 1882, and the dark, cranberry-colored bricks came from his facility on the east side of the James River about 1.5 miles east of Jamestown. The manufactured bricks are still soft by modern standards, but much more durable than those at Fort Totten.3

De Morès Memorial Park, Medora

sandstone fountain

Photo by Lorna Meidinger.

De Morès Memorial Park is in the City of Medora. Sandstone is the featured material in the walls, paving blocks, fountain, seats, and small shed. Constructed in the 1940s, the park was a Civilian Conservation Corps project led by National Park Service landscape architect Weldon Gratton. The sandstone came from a quarry near Sentinel Butte.

1 Many thanks to Colorado Preservation Inc. and the Masonry Restoration and Identification Workshop held in Denver on July 26, 2019, for the masonry bingo idea.

2 Frank E. Vyzralek, “Brick Making in North Dakota, 1868–1998,” p. 1, MSS 10553 sub-series III Brickmaking, North Dakota State Archives, State Historical Society of North Dakota, Bismarck.

3 Ibid., p. 3.

The Persistent Myth of the Flat Earth and Why Historical Research Matters

In 1828 Washington Irving published A History of the Life and Voyages of Christopher Columbus, in which the story’s hero audaciously proves to medieval Europeans the world is not flat. American school children ever since have learned the story of how Columbus “proved” Earth is round. Unfortunately for critical thinkers everywhere, Irving, famous for stories like “Rip Van Winkle” and “The Legend of Sleepy Hollow,” exercised a great deal of artistic license. He was more interested in telling an electrifying story than an accurate history.

The truth is, Columbus’s peers generally believed Earth was round. In fact, the awareness of a round Earth dates back at least to Pythagoras during the 6th century BC. It is unfair to generations of students to mislead them with an unnecessary story that is debunked with some basic fact checking and historical thinking.

A boat going off the edge of water with a sea monster waiting for it

The edge of the (flat) Earth: Here There Be Monsters. Image courtesy of

Historical thinking involves repeatedly asking, “How do we know?” It is important to be skeptical and verify information using the same methods historians use to evaluate sources. Every day we encounter and process information that needs to be evaluated and analyzed for accuracy, perspective, and potential bias. We consume a great deal of content through social media, websites, newspapers, books, movies, television, and countless other media. It is crucial for society that citizens learn how to apply historical thinking skills to this material, especially when so much, like Irving’s, might have more in common with an article from The Onion instead of an encyclopedia entry. How is a person supposed to navigate all this material and trust what they read?

Earth as viewed from space

A photo of Earth from space looks pretty convincing to me. NASA image courtesy of the DSCOVR EPIC team.

Guiding people through historical thinking methods is part of my job as a museum educator. This requires a reader to understand the context of an issue, and consider multiple perspectives. When a historian sits down to read a book, reading the main text is not likely the first thing she does. A historian first focuses on the introduction to understand the point the author is trying to convey. They study the bibliography to get an idea of what sources the historian used and the breadth of their research. They also evaluate whether an author’s interpretation is supported by evidence from a variety of sources.

Before digging into the main content, we might also do a little bit of digging to learn more about the author. What are their credentials? Are they an expert on the topic? What overarching point, the thesis, are they trying to make?

Historical reading and thinking is a critical skill for readers of all ages to develop. By thinking historically and critically, we can catch Washington Irving’s mistake of playing fast and loose with the facts. We can also avoid the mistake of teaching false and misleading history. Let’s all practice thinking more like a historian and think critically about the media we are exposed to.

Historical Thinking Chart

Ask these questions of images, text, and other media to avoid falling for Washington Irving–style whoppers. Image courtesy of Stanford History Education Group.