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.

A Dog Blog: 5 Things Shaped Like Dogs in the State Museum Collections

February is the month of love. Do you know what I love? Dogs! Here are some artifacts in our museum collections that make me say, “What a good boi!”

1. Doorstops

Shaped like Boston terriers, this set of cast-iron doorstops held open doors in the Devils Lake area around the 1930s. The Hubley Manufacturing Company is well-known for cast-iron toys, but they also created doorstops, bookends, and door knockers. These helpful pups were originally sold with a leather collar and a leash.

Two Boston terrier cast-iron doorstops

Sturdy silent types. SHSND 16695.1-2

2. Nutcracker

Everyone knows dogs love treats. Gustav and Bertha Helm used this cast-iron canine cruncher in their home three miles south of Mandan. Although its age is not known, the nutcracker was likely produced in the 1910s or 1920s.

A dog shaped nutcracker with the mouth being the part that opens and closes to crack the nut and the tail being the part that lifts to open and close the mouth

Ready to crack your toughest nuts. (Shown with a photoshopped nut for full effect.) SHSND 2007.80.95

3. Dachshund Woodcarving

Ben Ehreth of Mandan carved this little pal in March 2001. Ben first started carving in 1973. He was largely self-taught in the craft and gave away his creations as gifts. Ben’s son and daughter-in-law Mike and Linda Ehreth received their dachshund friend along with many other Ben Ehreth originals.

A wood carved figure of a Dachshund

So cute you can almost see his tail wag. SHSND 2018.6.2

4. Stuffed Animals

These two chunky puppies kept Hazel McCulloch company while growing up near Washburn in the early 1900s. The homemade hounds are stuffed with straw around a wire frame. Hazel became one of the first 12 faculty members at the Minot Normal School (now Minot State University). She served on the staff from 1913 to 1959 as a training school supervisor and history professor. Students can now stay in a residence hall named in her honor.

Two cream colored dog stuffed animals with very short tail

Loved so much, their eyes fell out. SHSND 15574.1-2

5. Salt and Pepper Shakers

The Wahpeton-based pottery company Rosemeade was well known for its eclectic salt and pepper shaker sets. You can get the spice of life from any number of flora and fauna: flickertail gophers, a prairie rose, pheasants, cacti, and 13 different breeds of dogs! Made sometime between 1953 and 1961, these disembodied cocker spaniel shakers are ready to add excitement to your meal. But they don’t seem happy about it.

Salt and pepper shakers that are the heads of brown cocker spaniels

They're making that face to let you know they also want to be eating your food. SHSND 2017.55.16

5 Guys With Beards Who Aren't Santa Claus in the State Museum Collection

Santa’s beard may be the most festive during the holiday season. But here are five other beards belonging to famous figures found in our museum collection that might just rival the big man’s.

1. The Swedish Tomte

SHSND 2017.78.10

The fabulous beard and red body might make you think it’s Santa Claus, but this Christmas ornament is a Swedish tomte. Like the Norwegian nisse or Finnish tonttu, the tomte is a Scandinavian spirit that resembles a gnome and cares for homes and farmsteads. According to some legends, leaving a bowl of Christmas porridge for your tomte will keep him happy and prevent mischief around the house. Christmas ornaments with a Nordic theme were used to decorate the tree in the North Dakota governor’s residence from 1985-90. The Three Crowns Swedish American Association provided the bearded tomte along with many other traditional Swedish holiday decorations.

2. William George Fargo

SHSND 1983.447.1

The beard of the city of Fargo’s namesake is looking stellar in this 1870s portrait by Lars Gustav Sellstedt. William Fargo and Henry Wells founded the famous Wells Fargo & Co. in 1852 as an express delivery service and later expanded into banking. Fargo also served as director of the Northern Pacific Railway, which established the city of Fargo in 1872.

3. Czar Nicholas II

SHSND 2017.84.6

Russian Czar Nicholas II’s beard may not be his most well-known feature, but it figures prominently in this wooden nesting doll. Standing 2.5 inches tall, this not-a-saint-Nicholas is sixth in a set of nine nesting dolls purchased by Kurt Peterson at a flea market in Izmailovo Park in Moscow, Russia, in 1990. Peterson, who hails from Mandan, served in the U.S. Army from 1980-96. He was attached to the U.S. State Department in the 1990s as a diplomatic courier, ferrying documents overland between Helsinki, Finland, and Moscow, Russia.

4. Grizzly Adams

SHSND 2013.102.26

If people call you “Grizzly,” you better have a great beard. The Eklund family of Reynolds must have been big fans of the 1977-78 TV show “The Life and Times of Grizzly Adams.” They kept this doll in pristine condition with its original box and all of Grizzly’s accessories. Just speculation, but they probably didn’t want to mess up the beard.

5. Kenny Rogers

SHSND 1995.21.74

This eight track does something to me that I can’t explain. “The Greatest” is probably how donor Glenn Dill of LaMoure would have described Kenny Rogers’ beard on the front of this 1976 eight-track tape. While Glenn was listening to Kenny croon about “Lucille” on a barstool in Toledo, the solo music career of “The Gambler” was taking off in a big way. Just seven years later, the world would sail away with Dolly and Kenny in “Islands in the Stream.” Glenn started his collection of eight tracks in 1957 when he purchased a blue 1950 Buick Roadmaster with an eight-track player installed. Tapes like this were his primary music source until the mid-1980s when he acquired a new cassette tape player.

These beards in our collection warm the face and heart. They may even have you wishing for your own luscious whiskers to keep you toasty this season. There's a reason why one of the most famous beards of all belongs to the guy at the North Pole.

Christmas pin, 1927. SHSND 1975.19.54

The Sitting Bull Robe Saga: Exploring the Lifecycle of an International Loan During a Pandemic

Part of museum work is loaning objects to other institutions. The State Museum currently has 22 active loans, most of which are in-state and straightforward. But when an international border and a pandemic are involved, the situation can get a bit more complicated. Here’s what happened when an art gallery in Canada requested a rare artifact for an exhibit a few years back.

Birth: In late 2018, the MacKenzie Art Gallery in Regina, Saskatchewan, requested the loan of a significant piece of our shared history: a buffalo robe painted by Hunkpapa Lakota leader Sitting Bull. Sitting Bull painted the robe between 1877 and 1881 while seeking asylum in what is now Saskatchewan. It is the only known buffalo hide painting by Sitting Bull in existence. The robe, which Sitting Bull initially gave to Canadian trader Gus Heddrich, entered the State Historical Society of North Dakota’s collection in 1945 after Heddrich and his wife died.

Buffalo robe painting by Sitting Bull. SHSND 10117

When institutions request loans from the state’s collection, some boring but important paperwork must be completed. Collections staff reviewed the reason for the loan, the MacKenzie Art Gallery’s exhibit plans for the painting, and details about the gallery’s light levels and climate control. The loan request noted: “This artwork could be considered one of the most significant Indigenous paintings completed within Saskatchewan but has never been exhibited in Saskatchewan. It would be of enormous interest to the descendants of Sitting Bull’s people as well as the larger community.” State Historical Society staff agreed—the loan was approved, and its journey began.

Transport: Some not-so-boring paperwork followed. Our registrars (aka paperwork gurus) exchanged over 100 emails with the gallery’s customs broker, U.S. and Canadian customs officials, and U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service personnel to complete all the forms required to transport the robe safely across the border. Due to the robe’s cultural and historical significance it required a courier, that is, a personal escort on its travels. Perhaps not surprisingly, the cost of international fine art couriers is a bit prohibitive, so State Historical Society staff decided to make the trek with the robe themselves. The robe was carefully packed in a large shipping crate, and in June 2019, two staff members made the six-hour drive from Bismarck to Regina, Canada.

All packed up and on the road.

Exhibit: From June 2019 to April 2020, Sitting Bull’s hide painting featured prominently in The Permanent Collection: Walking with Saskatchewan exhibition. The exhibit explored the diverse ways Indigenous and non-Indigenous artists in the province related to land, and how objects carry histories and stories. You can learn more about the exhibit on the MacKenzie’s website. Staff at the art gallery developed a variety of programming around the buffalo robe, including public talks with First Nations members. Artist and Knowledge Keeper Wayne Goodwill was at the gallery to welcome the robe on behalf of the Lakota people of Saskatchewan. He also shared some of the meanings behind the images on the hide painting in this video.

View of Sitting Bull’s robe in The Permanent Collection: Walking with Saskatchewan exhibit. Photo by Don Hall, courtesy MacKenzie Art Gallery

Opening event with Lakota Knowledge Keeper Wayne Goodwill on June 20, 2019. Photo by Don Hall, courtesy MacKenzie Art Gallery

Extension: The loan’s original end date was set for May 30, 2020. Agency staff had their passports ready, but the universe had other ideas. The U.S.-Canada border was closed to nonessential travel for nineteen months. Between March 2020 and November 2021, the State Historical Society and the MacKenzie signed two loan extensions. This additional time led to unique opportunities, including extra months for visitors to view the robe. During the robe’s extended stay, the gallery’s “Art and Concepts of Game Design for Youth” class used it as inspiration for a video game project that combined Indigenous oral storytelling with interactive design. From December 2020 to April 2021, the robe and the students’ work were showcased in the exhibit Travelling Memory: Sitting Bull’s Robe, The Mackenzie’s Art School, and the Art and Concepts of Game Design for Youth.

The Travelling Memory exhibit highlighted a video game project by eighth-grade students at the MacKenzie Art School. The project gave audience members an interactive way to experience the story of the Hunkpapa Lakota leader Sitting Bull. Photo by Don Hall, courtesy MacKenzie Art Gallery

Return: Since every North Dakotan and Canadian knows that safe travel in the winter (or even spring) is no guarantee, arrangements to pick up the robe were made for early June 2022. Once again, the registrars emailed and traded paperwork like crazy to ensure a pain-free border crossing.

Reunited, and it feels so good! The robe was patiently waiting for agency staff at the MacKenzie Art Gallery collections storage area.

Sitting Bull’s buffalo hide painting returned to Bismarck on June 4, 2022. Previously, it was exhibited at the ND Heritage Center & State Museum for over thirty years. But continuous display, exposure to light, and repeated handling is stressful on natural materials. So for the foreseeable future it will be resting in storage to help preserve the colored pigment and the condition of the hide.

How to Ruin a Perfectly Good Valentine’s Day: The Museum Edition

Gift giving can be hard work. Things that were once thoughtful gifts might seem like bad ideas today. Here are some examples from our museum collection of what not to give your special someone this Valentine’s Day.

1. A Sexist Greeting Card. Nothing screams romance like asking your valentine to repair your clothing. It is hard to say what Ellen Olstad of Galesburg might have thought about this card when she received it in the 1930s, but I bet you can do better.

An old Valentine's Day card of a dark haired boy with big, blue eyes who's trying to sew a button onto his blue and black checkered pants for his red suspenders. The card reads Now is the time for some good girl to come to the aid of this party.

I would let him figure it out himself. SHSND 1993.19.22

2. Hairy Accessories. Gifts that fit your valentine’s interests are always a good idea. But maybe don’t make an arts and crafts project out of your own hair. I’ve touched on the strangeness of hair art in a previous blog. And here is another example. Peter Davidson lived in Hatton and later in Arnegard with his wife, Hilda. By wearing this watch chain, Davidson displayed both his membership in the Modern Woodmen of America organization and his devotion to whoever braided it.

A braided necklace made of dark hair hair with a leaf charm hanging from the middle.

It would be hard to forget (or forgive) any gift made of hair. SHSND 1990.280.1

3. Lethal Irons. Unless specifically requested, housekeeping items make terrible gifts. Especially ones that can kill you. Asbestos sad irons were all the rage before the rise of the electric iron. These featured a removable asbestos-lined cover that fit over the heated metal iron. The asbestos cover worked great to keep the iron hot and the handle cool. Too bad asbestos is the leading cause of mesothelioma commercials in the United States. Ah, but the ease of housework! Laundry room equipment contained asbestos for decades. So, while the women in Jessie Hunter Lorenz’s family in Pembina pressed their clothes with the asbestos iron in the early 1900s, the Weinrebe family in Minot cooled their irons on this asbestos iron pad in the 1950s.

A metal iron and cover are shown next to a sign advertising the asbestos iron cover that reads No-Lift Iron Pad: Fireproof, asbestos, protects board and ironing cover, non-skid surface. Saves Time. Saves Energy. Just Slide it On.

Best to avoid giving cancer-causing household items this Valentine’s Day. SHSND 1995.37.55, 1993.33.106

I’ll leave you with this parting advice when it comes to last-minute gifts for your sweetie:

Doing the ironing for your valentine. Good gift.
Giving your valentine an iron. Bad gift.
Giving your valentine a deadly iron. Really bad gift.

But Why? 4 Artifacts in Our Museum Collection That Just Don’t Make Sense

The State Historical Society of North Dakota started its collection in 1895. Over the past 126 years, the museum collection has acquired many artifacts with a unique and important North Dakota story. But every now and then I come across something that really makes me scratch my head. Here are a few that left me asking, “But why?”

1. Samurai armor

Samurai armor, including a helmet, chest plate, and face shield

Samurai armor from Japan’s Bungo Province, 1775-1860. If you look closely under the nose (far left) you can see remnants of a hair mustache. Fearsome! SHSND 2015.59.1-10

What does a Japanese suit of armor have to do with North Dakota history? Not much. So why do we have it? The museum acquired the armor from Henry Horton of Bismarck in 1938. At that time, museums served as places where people who could not travel the world came to see rare and exotic things. Samurai armor is a prime example.

2. Poodle fur hat and scarf

A white hat and matching scarf made of poodle fur

This hat and scarf made of poodle fur are not nearly as cuddly as one would hope. SHSND 1982.139.2-3

This one needs no commentary. I think you will join me in asking, “Why?” In the spring of 1924 and 1925 Carrie Larson, a mother of five from Benson County, collected hair from her poodle and proceeded to wash, comb, card, spin, and knit it into a child’s hat and scarf. Below is a picture of the poodle.

A man in a long trenchcoat and hat stands next to a dark colored car with a white dog on the running board

Carrie’s son Otto Larson and their useful poodle. A very good dog.

3. A broken Thanksgiving turkey wishbone

A wishbone that has been broken in two just below the neck on one side. There is also a note attached to the other side.

I wonder if anyone recalls what they wished for? SHSND 2021.45.1

Museums sometimes have items that are called FICs or Found In Collections. These items have no paperwork, so we don’t know their history or who donated them. The oddest FIC I’ve seen so far is a broken turkey wishbone from 1921. Attached to it is a note that reads: “For Fraziers Turkey Nov. 24, 1921.” While trying to determine why someone would give a wishbone to the museum, I learned former North Dakota Gov. Lynn Frazier’s last year in office was 1921. Any connection between this wishbone and the Frazier’s Thanksgiving turkey is tenuous at best, but I found out some interesting tidbits about the former governor that I need you to know:

  • He was a member of the Nonpartisan League (NPL), a political movement which spurred the creation of the state-owned Bank of North Dakota and the State Mill and Elevator.
  • In 1921, he became the first U.S. governor removed from office by recall. The next successful gubernatorial recall wouldn’t be until 2003 when voters removed California Gov. Gray Davis from office.
  • Frazier named his twin daughters Unie and Versie. Frazier was a graduate of the University of North Dakota and felt his children’s names were a good way to show his school spirit.

4. Hair art

A framed case that displays flower art made out of hair

Yes, that is hair. SHSND 11668

Hair art is pretty common in museum collections, but that doesn’t make it any less baffling to me. When I asked Assistant Registrar Elise Dukart why making art out of human hair was so popular during the Victorian period, she aptly responded, “Victorians loved weird, slow activities. They must have had so much time and so much hair.” Rosetta Carroll made this wreath out of her family’s hair in around 1890. Rosetta and her husband, Fred, farmed near Ryder. Although it seems bizarre today, hair art was once a popular craft often used to memorialize loved ones.

These days we are a bit more choosey about what artifacts are added to the museum collection. Our primary focus is to ensure donations fit the State Historical Society’s mission: “To identify, preserve, interpret, and promote the heritage of North Dakota and its people.” We also look for key factors like the item’s condition, whether the donor provided a history of the item, the donation’s similarity to other artifacts already in the collection, and our ability to properly care for it. Still, I am sure we will acquire things that will make future generations ask, “Why?” But then again, asking why is half the fun of exploring the past.

Weird or Cute? Instagram Votes On 5 Quirky Artifacts From Our Museum Collection

In my first blog post about a year ago, I shared some of the weird and/or cool experiences of being a new employee. Now that I’ve gotten to know the State Museum’s collection, I want to share some of the artifacts that have made me look twice. These objects caught my eye and made me wonder, “Is this weird or cute?” I needed more input, so I polled the North Dakota Heritage Center & State Museum’s Instagram followers. Around 150 people voted, and here are the results:

1. Let’s start with an easy one. A rock collage sailboat titled “Aqua Cat.” How could this be anything but cute? North Dakota artist Ann Peters created this piece in the early 1970s for then-Gov. William Guy. The incongruence of the title and the subject matter is what really warms my heart. A boat named “Aqua Cat” must be 100% cute, and it looks like our followers agreed.

Aqua Cat - A rock collage. Weird or Cute? 58% Cute. 42% Really Cute. The image is of a shite, brown, and tan sailboat made out of rocks.

My phrasing of the question may have slightly skewed the results. SHSND 1984.207

2. Both amazing and slightly painful to behold, this squirrel-and-mushroom-patterned shirt is sure to make a splash at your next COVID-safe social gathering. Greg Machart’s brother-in-law Lee Matthiesen donated this spectacular shirt to the museum in 1992. Lee asserted Greg wore it throughout the 1970s. If this is true, we would like pictures. If it is not, I would like to congratulate Lee for pulling off one very well-preserved prank.

1970s squirrel and mushroom patterned shirt. Weird or Cute? 51% Weird. 49% Cute. The image is of a button up shirt with long sleeves and a collar that is purple with red and blue mushroms and circles with squirrel images in them.

Our followers were surprisingly tolerant of this bold and busy garment. SHSND 1991.76.6

3. A lively addition to any living room, these birds of paradise pillows were made by Christina Roemmech of Glen Ullin. Crafted out of carpet-like piling deep enough to lose your keys in, the pillows certainly garnered some “weird” votes. But the beautiful and comfy birds no doubt helped earn them a “cute!” from the majority.

These pillows - Weird or Cute? 32% Weird. 68% Cute. The two pilloes have a flamingo on them with yellow and pink flowers and green plants in a circle around the flamingo.

Birds of a feather flock together. SHSND 1992.52.1-2

4. Are you still cracking your walnuts with a boring old nutcracker? Or even worse … a creepy one? Then check out this one shaped like man’s best friend! The early 20th-century canine contraption once helped crack the toughest nuts in rural Mandan.

A nutcracker shaped like a dog! Weird or cute? 32% weird. 68% cute. The nutcracker is brown and shaped like a dog.

Thirty-two percent of our followers are weird. This guy is adorable. SHSND 2007.80.95

5. Twenty years ago, everyone wanted to get rid of their brightly hued porcelain thrones. Now the trend is making a comeback. Until it was donated in 2007, this 1950s gem graced what was arguably the most vital room in one Bismarck home. Toilets like this also came in other nostalgia-inducing shades including avocado green, powder blue, and canary yellow.

Classic 1950s pink toilet. Weird or cute? 50% Weird. 50% Cute. The pink toilet has a woodgrain seat and lid cover.

Our Instagram results showed an unexpected tie for this American Standard. SHSND 2007.86.2