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. We encourage dialogue, questions, and comments!

Put a coat on it? The Ins and Outs of Repainting Buildings at State Historic Sites

As a site supervisor, I am entrusted with the care of two historic state properties in Bismarck: the Former Governors’ Mansion and Camp Hancock. These two sites comprise four historic buildings, each with well over a century of paint on the exterior. Time, weather, and people all take their toll on surfaces, which need repainting from time to time. When this occurs, we do not necessarily match the color of paint on the surface because paint fades, and colors change with age. Instead, we strive to match the structure’s historical paint colors.

As supervisor of the Former Governors’ Mansion and Camp Hancock state historic sites, my job entails a lot of paint!

Chipped paint on the back porch of the Former Governors’ Mansion exposed the original 1884 maroon color.

In the case of the most recent repainting by professionals in 2012 of the Former Governors’ Mansion, we did our best to match the colors to those the state initially painted the house after it was purchased in 1893. To determine what the paint looked like over the years, we carefully sanded through the layers of accumulated paint using a process known as bullseye sampling. The sampling was carried out in multiple spots protected from the elements, with samples then matched to a color swatch or taken to the paint store and matched using a spectrophotometer.

Bullseye paint sampling inside the Former Governors’ Mansion revealed the color of the upstairs hall trim from 1884 through the 1960s.

Did we get it 100% right? Since exposure to the elements can cause colors to shift on even the most protected surfaces (and the underlying and overlying paint may also alter a color’s appearance), perfection is unattainable. In this and other instances, we do our best and hope the color endures well into the future. Still, we keep in mind that inevitably best practices will evolve as understanding of historic preservation and access to new technologies increases. Imagine a world with programmable paint that could change color on demand and show the Former Governors’ Mansion across different time periods. You could see what the mansion looked like in a variety of iterations, including the 1884 maroon and green, the 1893 green and green, the 1903 yellow and maroon, or even the post-1930 white and black. Now that’s what I’d call bringing history to life!

Today computer algorithms can analyze black-and-white photographs, such as this circa 1885 Former Governors’ Mansion image, and reproduce them in color. In this instance, the computer did a good job of guessing the maroon paint color but missed the dark green trim, which it rendered in grey. SHSND SA 2005-P-006-00001

In summer 2020, Former Governors’ Mansion staff spent hundreds of hours repainting the house, which appears here in its 1893 colors.

Taxidermy Critters and Wendy’s Napkin Art: Surprising Finds from the Inventory of the Lewis & Clark Interpretive Center

During the 2021 legislative session, management of the Lewis & Clark Interpretive Center and Fort Mandan in Washburn transferred from the North Dakota Parks and Recreation Department to the State Historical Society. To grasp the full extent of what the agency had just obtained, we needed to perform a complete inventory of the sites’ collections. With laptops, cameras, and steely resolve in tow, our collections staff descended on the Interpretive Center and got to work on a project that will entail multiple visits. During our initial trips, we came across some fun, quirky, and surprising items in storage. What follows is a sampling of some of our more interesting finds.

1. This box looked like many others in the Interpretive Center storage. Any guesses as to what could be inside?

The contents of this box were anything but ordinary.

Based on the wobble and weight of the box when removed from the top of a cabinet, we thought it might contain a piece of pottery with a bowling pin-style bottom. Imagine our surprise when we lifted the lid and saw the beady little eyes of three small taxidermy critters: a gopher (with a face that looked like it had run headlong into a brick wall), a weasel, and a mole. Lewis & Clark Interpretive Center only has a few natural history objects, so we were certainly not expecting to be greeted by these curious creatures

Some of our cute taxidermy friends. SHSND

2. In a box filled with Bismarck artist Vern Erickson’s sketchbooks, we found this scrapbook labeled “Napkin Art.” Like us you’re probably wondering, “What is napkin art?”

SHSND

It turns out napkin art is exactly what it sounds like. Attached to the pages of Erickson’s scrapbook were napkins from North Dakota restaurants filled with (mostly pen) sketches of Native Americans and horses, though he also included a few examples of place mat art. Napkins from Donutland and Wendy’s feature descriptions of what colors the artist would like to use in his painting of the sketch as well as other notes. Considering the medium, some sketches are very detailed, putting our doodles of fancy “S” and anime eyes to shame.

Artist Vern Erickson’s detailed sketches of American Indians on horseback adorn napkins and place mats found in one scrapbook. SHSND

3. A box of Altoids in a collections space? We all know food and drink is not allowed in collections spaces, right? So what could be in this tin?

SHSND

Given the Interpretive Center’s plethora of lead shot, it really shouldn’t have come as a surprise that the tin was full of tiny lead balls. Indeed, Lewis and Clark’s Corps of Discovery is a key collecting theme for both the Interpretive Center and Fort Mandan State Historic Site. These shot are in remarkably good condition compared to some of the other lead shot already inventoried and had not turned white due to oxidation.

Not exactly the “curiously strong” contents you might have expected. SHSND

The inventory is not yet complete, so we wouldn’t be surprised if additional interesting finds await us. Since there are many more objects at the Lewis & Clark Interpretive Center than we initially estimated, we look forward to other fun discoveries.


This blog was co-authored with Elise Dukart.

Fort Mandan’s Giant Newfoundland Puts North Dakota on the Map

The Midwest takes its mammoth roadside attractions seriously, and North Dakota is no exception. The Peace Garden State boasts supersized sculptures such as the world’s largest Holstein cow, sandhill crane, and buffalo—and those are just the ones along Interstate 94.

I hail from Idaho where our artificial megaflora and fauna include a giant traveling potato sculpture and Sweet Willy, the world’s biggest beagle. Little did I know when I first started working at the Lewis and Clark Interpretive Center in Washburn that another delightful giant (who I once had the honor of playing in my fourth-grade class’s Lewis and Clark musical) would be lurking nearby. That giant is local artist Tom Neary’s adorable statue of Seaman, the faithful Fido of none other than explorer Meriwether Lewis. The bronze Dog of Discovery was installed along the Missouri River near the Fort Mandan replica and visitor center in 2006. He obediently sits greeting visitors and looks as if he might be awaiting a juicy bison treat from Capt. Lewis himself.

Fort Mandan State Historic Site’s Seaman after April’s blizzard. Rain or shine, North Dakota artist Tom Neary’s bronze dog sculpture is a hit with visitors of all ages and their furry friends. In warmer months, visitors enjoy walking along the nearby river and nature trail.

Lewis never documented where or when he bought Seaman—many theorize he purchased the pooch in Pittsburgh during the summer of 1803 while equipping the expedition—but he does mention paying $20 of his own money for the dog. Seaman earned his keep as a hunter, retriever, sentry, and lifeguard. Other expedition members came to refer to him as “our dog.”

In the illustration “Sacagawea’s First Gift” by artist Michael Haynes, Seaman is pictured with expedition member Toussaint Charbonneau and his wife, Sacagawea, during their first visit to Fort Mandan. SHSND

Seaman will probably forever be represented as a modern-day black, chunky Newfoundland, but the breed in his era was almost universally black and white, what is known today as the Landseer Newfoundland after English painter Edwin Landseer. (Landseer famously captured the breed’s distinctive coat pattern on canvas during the 1800s.) Contemporaneous artwork and descriptions of the breed also indicate a sportier build than today’s Newfoundlands. No records remain of Seaman’s appearance beyond his impressive size.

Seaman’s coat likely resembled that of “Lion: A Newfoundland Dog” in this painting by English artist Edwin Henry Landseer. Wikimedia Commons

Lewis held his furry friend in such high regard he even named a creek in present-day Montana “Seaman’s Creek” in July 1806. Interestingly, a Masonic museum in Virginia at one time apparently housed a dog collar that may have been donated by William Clark in 1812, although the original is now lost. The inscription on the collar stated: “The greatest traveler of my species. My name is SEAMAN, the dog of captain Meriwether Lewis, whom I accompanied to the Pacifick (sic) ocean through the interior of the continent of North America.”

Besides the fact that this tail-wagging trailblazer was large, what does any of this have to do with giant roadside attractions? Recently it occurred to me that Fort Mandan State Historic Site just might have the world’s biggest Newfoundland dog. I reviewed my own photographs and scoured the internet for Newfoundlands in public art. Seaman is the most oft-sculpted member of his breed and certainly the greatest traveler of his species. St. John’s, Newfoundland and Labrador, in Canada only has a life-sized Newfoundland statue. Then there’s the salmon-eating incarnation of Seaman (part of the “End of the Trail” statue) I encountered during a 2002 family spring break trip to Seaside, Oregon. But that was no competition either. The closest in stature to the State Historical Society’s Seaman I could find is the one included on artist Pat Kennedy’s Lewis and Clark monument, which has duplicate casts at the Sioux City Lewis and Clark Interpretive Center in Iowa and at the Lewis & Clark Boathouse and Museum in St. Charles, Missouri. I contacted staff at both sites and requested measurements of their statues. That Seaman is approximately 6 feet, 3/16 inch tall, with a head circumference of 7 feet.

The apparent runner-up for “World’s Biggest Newfoundland” is artist Pat Kennedy’s Seaman in this Lewis and Clark monument, a cast of which stands in St. Charles, Missouri.

Armed with this knowledge, I drove from the Interpretive Center down to our own pup with a measuring tape and a step stool to determine dimensions. Our dog nosed ahead with a height of 7 feet and a head circumference of nearly 8 feet. I contacted the Newfoundland Club of America, which had been involved with the statue’s 2006 installation and reinstallation following the 2011 flood. The representative who responded was delighted. Our Seaman is on the map in the Newfoundland world! So come see what all the fuss is about, and snap a selfie with the great Dog of Discovery himself. Woof! Woof!

During North Dakota’s 2011 spring floods, Seaman was forklifted onto a truck and brought up to the Lewis and Clark Interpretive Center for a few months of quality time with Sheheke-shote and the captains.

History Nerds Showcase State Museum in Fun Ways

You might have read the title of this blog post and wondered who or what are the history nerds. It all started with a request for me to design a specialty T-shirt for the store at the North Dakota Heritage Center & State Museum.

A green t-shirt that reads North Dakota Heritage Center & State Museum - The Place for History Nerds with a pair of black rimmed glasses with tape in the middle below the text

After a few staff in my department bought the tees, we decided to do a photo shoot wearing the shirts to promote them. Why take a standard photo when we could dress up as nerds and showcase areas of the State Museum in fun and creative ways? Just like that, the history nerds were born.

To date, we have done photo shoots in many different areas of the building promoting exhibits, artifacts, holidays, and the Museum Store. Our initial photo shoot was in The Treehouse, a museum exhibit especially for young children that introduces them to the museum world. It seemed like the perfect place for our first photo shoot since the history nerds are really kids at heart.

Two women dressed as nerds sit on wooden horses and pretend to ride them

During each photo shoot, we start with a walk around the location to gather inspiration and see what clever ideas jump out at us. New Views of the Universe: Hubble Space Telescope, a traveling exhibition on loan from NASA in 2017, had a ton of opportunities!

Three women dressed as nerds look as if they're having troubles seeing as they stand in front of a sign that reads More Than the Eye Can See

Three women dressed as nerds stand in front of a sign and are pointing to Where Are We

My favorite photo shoot so far has to be the one with Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer. Each year around Christmastime, we set up a giant inflatable Rudolph in the Northern Lights Atrium. How could we pass up the opportunity to take photos with it? I like to call this one “History Nerd Got Run Over by a Reindeer.”

A woman dressed in a Santa hat and Santa slippers is getting stepped on by a large inflatable Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer while two others dressed in Christmas attire try to pull her out

If you come across people at the ND Heritage Center dressed as nerds and wearing the green T-shirts, now you know why. Maybe we’ll even venture out to some of our state historic sites one of these days. In the meantime, you can keep an eye out for the next history nerds post on our Facebook and Instagram accounts. Don’t forget to follow us @ndmuseum!

Until then, we leave you with the Miss America wave goodbye.

Three women dressed in nerd glasses with two of them in suspenders wave at the camera in front of a Miss America display

Top 3 Life Lessons Learned at My State Archives Work-Study Job

Since the 2021 fall semester, students at the University of Mary have been able to participate in a work-study program at the State Archives. Participating students have assisted with scanning photos and documents, compiling data on collections used, as well as pulling and putting away collections. They have also written history articles for “Dakota Datebook” through our partnership with Prairie Public Radio.


I have been a work-study student at the State Archives since October 2021, and already I have learned so much! As a history education major at the University of Mary, spending time in the Archives has been an amazing supplement to my education. While working at the Archives, I have gained so much knowledge, not only about the history of North Dakota but also about the effect working with historical documents can have on your perspective. So without further ado, I offer you my top three life lessons learned from working in the Archives:

A young woman sits at a desk leaning back in the char. On the desk are a computer monitor, keyboard, mouse, microfilm scanner, and a couple other scanners.

Here I am scanning negatives while on the job in the State Archives.

Lesson 1: History is made by people, which is a fact we often take for granted. At the Archives, I get to interact with these people in a small way by reading their stories in newspapers and probate files, and sometimes even writing about them. Two people I’ve had the privilege of researching and writing about for “Dakota Datebook” broadcasts are William Gray, the burglar with bad luck, and Elfrida Trinkler, the supposed Titanic survivor.

So many lives and stories went into making the world into what we know today. It isn’t just the big, flashy events or the famous characters that we all have come to know, either. Yes, those are important, but what we may fail to realize is that it is the everyday people that keep the world spinning–and they are often why we now know so much about many historical events.

Lesson 2: The Archives and the online resources available here are vastly underused. One of my favorite resources is Chronicling America, an online database of newspapers dating back to the late 1700s. If I had known the extent of the State Archives’ offerings in high school, my research papers would have been so much easier. This is why I plan to integrate resources like the ones I have used here at the North Dakota State Archives into my curriculum when I begin teaching.

Lesson 3: There is nothing quite as humbling as studying historical documents–for instance, the naturalization records of people that immigrated here before and after North Dakota became a state in 1889. The realization that every person I read about had a story–even if I never get to know the full details–is a valuable experience I am not sure I could have in many other fields.

These are lessons I am learning every day and will carry into the future. However, there is still one more lesson I need to learn—how to tell people what I do at work all day … other than have a good time!

The Linda Slaughter Painting and the Meaning of Conservation, Preservation, Restoration, and Repairs

As curator of collections management, I get asked from time to time if we ever restore artifacts at the State Historical Society of North Dakota. The easy answer to that is no. But then the visitor will point out the recent work carried out on the Linda Slaughter painting. This is when we have a little conversation about what we mean by conservation, preservation, restoration, and repairs.

A painted portrait of a woman with long, dark curls in her hair, an orange choker necklace with pearls forming a circle in the middle, a longer pearl nexklace, and an off the hsoulder dress or blouse with lacy fringe and a blue bow in the middle at chest level. The painting is framed in a light colored wood.

Portrait of Linda Slaughter before conservation. SHSND 2920

On the surface, conservation, preservation, restoration, and repairs all seem to imply the same thing, but in the museum world each is very different. Repairs mean fixing something that is broken or torn. For instance, if someone glues a vase back together or sews up a hole in a garment, they are repairing it.

Restoration is the process of taking an object back to a nearly new condition. Think about the person in the garage restoring a 1964 Mustang to how it looked coming off the factory floor. They usually have no issues repainting the body or getting the necessary new parts. This is why we don’t restore artifacts at the North Dakota Heritage Center & State Museum. Restoration erases the artifact’s signs of use. How an item was used is part of an object’s history, and we don’t want to destroy the history.

Preservation is preventing damage and reducing the rate of deterioration that all artifacts experience. This is what we strive for here at the State Museum and is in line with best practices at most other museums.

Finally, conservation aims to improve the condition of an artifact by stabilizing its physical problems and addressing surface disfigurement caused by deterioration and/or damage. Conservators strive to retain as much of the original materials as possible, but their work should always be reversable and not cause damage to the object in the long run. Conservators are highly trained individuals with advanced degrees, which include knowledge of art history, chemistry, and other sciences. They are also usually talented artists.

Occasionally, I will repair an object—this usually involves sewing a button that has fallen off a garment back on so it can be exhibited. Even then, the repair is documented with before-and-after photographs as well as a report of what was done, including all materials used. But most of the time what I do is preservation. I make sure that the artifacts’ environment is correct, that the lights are not too bright to cause fading, that there are no bugs or vermin to damage the artifacts, and that any materials we use around the artifacts are acid free, inert, or archivally safe.

Every so often, we will have a damaged artifact that requires the services of a trained conservator. The painting of Linda Slaughter—pioneer educator, author, and activist—is an example of such an item. In preparation for the 150th anniversary of Bismarck’s founding later this spring, we began thinking about what artifacts could be used to mark the occasion. We all know the significant role Slaughter played in the early years of Bismarck and North Dakota and thought her painting would be an excellent way to explore these important contributions. (For an excellent intro to Slaughter’s fascinating life and achievements, see this earlier blog post by Manuscript Archivist Emily Kubischta.)

But we had a problem. There was a large tear in the neck of the portrait, which had been badly repaired in the past. Also, the varnish had yellowed with age, and we would later find out there was other damage. I am not a trained conservator, and this kind of damage is well beyond anything I would attempt.

A close-up of the neck portion of a portrait painting showing a tear in the canvas.

Close-up of damage to neck.

The back of a framed painting showing a ton of dirt on the canvas

Previous repair to the tear in the neck included gluing a piece of fabric to the back to stabilize the edges. Courtesy MACC

In August 2018 we took the painting to the Midwest Art Conservation Center (MACC) in Minneapolis for an evaluation and cost estimate for the conservation.

Once the process began, Alexa Beller, a painting conservator at MACC, wrote to say, “I have consolidated the tears, punctures, and areas of loss with a stable adhesive to prevent additional loss of paint. I then cleaned the verso [back] of the canvas with a dry brush, vacuum, and soot sponges. There was a bulge running across the lower edge of the canvas caused by lots of dirt and debris trapped between the canvas and stretcher.”

The back of a framed painting showing a bunch of dirt on the canvas with dirty sponges sitting below

Back of painting with the dirty sponges used to clean it. Courtesy MACC

In her email Beller also noted, “After lots of testing, I then began to clean the recto [front] of the painting with a pH adjusted aqueous [water] solution to remove the accumulated grime. I reduced the discolored natural resin varnish with a solvent mixture after additional testing. This solution also reduced some spots of discolored overpaint across the surface. There was additional grime and dirt trapped underneath the old varnish, so I made a second pass with the same aqueous solution. ... Reduction of the varnish revealed clearer tonality and more details in the figure’s hair and face.”

A painted portrait of a woman with long, dark curls in her hair, an orange choker necklace with pearls forming a circle in the middle, a longer pearl nexklace, and an off the hsoulder dress or blouse with lacy fringe and a blue bow in the middle at chest level. The left half of the painting shows it as it was before being cleaned, and the right half shows it after being cleaned. It is much brighter after being cleaned.

Slaughter portrait showing the right half of the canvas after cleaning. Courtesy MACC

Beller also told us in her email: “After cleaning I began to remove the three patches on the verso and their adhesive residues with a scalpel. ... I then locally humidified these areas to relax the tears and punctures into alignment in preparation for mending tears and canvas inserts for the punctures.”

Beller put in weeks of work just on testing, observing, planning, and cleaning the painting. It then took months more to finish the work, as she needed to repair the tears and holes, apply a new varnish, and fill in the areas of paint loss. It is a slow process to let materials dry, settle, and cure.

Part of the process involved applying a new stable and non-yellowing synthetic resin varnish to the surface. Beller explained, “This allowed me to really see all the fully saturated colors and tones to begin filling the losses with a pigmented wax mixture and inpainting abrasions and losses with a conservation-grade synthetic resin medium. The inpainting materials we use are always selected to remain colorfast and fully reversible in solvents that will not adversely affect the original paint if my work ever needs to be removed.”

A woman with long, dark hair bulled back in a low ponytail wearing a dark blue shirt with a white shirt under it is touching up a painting of woman's portrait.

Conservator Alexa Beller works on inpainting areas of paint loss. Courtesy MACC

During the last stages of the conservation, Beller noticed some odd lines in the composition that seemed to be compositional changes. She wrote: “Sometimes this happens when an artist changes their sketch in the early stages of painting and continues on top of the older version. … With the grime and old varnish removed, the changes in this composition became slightly more visible to the naked eye.” Using an infrared camera that can detect underdrawings, Beller identified several changes to Slaughter’s necklace.

A grayscale infrared image of a painting of a woman shows pencil sketches where the artist orignially was going to place the necklaces the woman is wearing.

Infrared image showing the artist’s changes. Courtesy MACC

Our early records of the painting indicate that it arrived in the collection with a gilt frame. At some point the canvas was removed from the frame, and that frame was lost. While the current frame was nice, it wasn’t in a style typical of the late 1880s, and we decided that the portrait needed a new frame. We contacted Minneapolis-area framers for ideas and ultimately selected Andrew Webster of Master Framers to carry out the work. Webster and his team built a custom 1880s-style gilt-and-wood frame, which features current conservation techniques such as a lining on the inside of the frame to prevent future damage to the portrait. And since the frame was built specifically for this painting it provides a perfect and secure fit.

Before and after pictures of a painting of a woman. The left painting is darker and more dull witha  light wood frame. The right painting is brighter and has a very dark frame lined with a gold color around the painting.

The painting before (left) and after conservation.

The Slaughter painting is now ready for the State Historical Society to use in upcoming exhibits. And with proper handling and environmental conditions, the painting should continue to look great for a hundred years or more.