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.

Hiding in Plain View at North Dakota’s State Historic Sites: A 19th-century Design Fad’s Signature Style

Submitted by Rob Hanna on

During my first months as an historic sites manager, I was struck by some similarities in furniture and decor at many of our 19th-century sites. Examples include geometric or flattened floral patterns, folksy surface carvings, fluted parallel trim lines ending with rosettes, and daisy and sunburst motifs. At some of these state historic sites, just a couple of pieces of furniture had the look, while at others it permeated nearly the entire building. Then I also noticed these features in dozens of furniture pieces in the agency’s artifact collection. These features are representative of Eastlake style, a 19th-century design craze inspired by Charles Locke Eastlake’s 1868 book, “Hints on Household Taste in Furniture, Upholstery, and Other Details.”

Wilver pitcher and two cups. Each have a floral pattern border around the top and bottom and square designs between the borders. The wallpaper in the background is blue with tan and darker blue designs in circles.

Original silverware and reproduction wallpaper at the Chateau de Morès State Historic Site represent an American take on Eastlake style. Note the abstract and geometric patterns, as well as the medieval and Asian influences.

I’ve been a fan of architecture and interior design since childhood. Some of my earliest memories are of different buildings and how their designs shaped my emotions. So it should come as no surprise that I read “Hints on Household Taste” when I was a teenager. It’s stuck with me ever since.

A door knob and hinge with very intricate leaf looking designs

American Eastlake style is known for its sumptuous hardware. The Former Governors’ Mansion State Historic Site in Bismarck is blessed with many examples.

Eventually I realized there’s a simple reason why Eastlake style is so common at our sites and in our collections: Its popularity coincided with the completion of the Northern Pacific Railway. In the 1880s, this railway would bring in thousands of new settlers and facilitate the shipment of furniture, fancy-cut millwork, hardware, and wallpaper throughout Dakota Territory. Although Eastlake, the man, was British, his book had been a huge hit in the United States, going through six editions by 1881, and American manufacturers copied the look with gusto. Since the 1880s, most Eastlake influences in North Dakota have been torn down, thrown away, or remodeled, but numerous traces survive at state historic sites, including at the Chateau de Morès (1883), Stutsman County Courthouse (1883), Former Governors’ Mansion (1884), and Bread of Life Church (1880-1885) at Camp Hancock.

Railing banisters are shown with a more square shape in the middle and a cross shape carved into it. Above and below the square shape, the banisters are more cyllindrical with wider and narrower parts and rings

The 1883 Stutsman County Courthouse in Jamestown preserves several Eastlake features, including the original courtroom bar. Its turned spindles, parallel grooves along the upper railing, and chamfered (beveled) corners are typical of the Eastlake movement. As with most American Eastlake woodwork, the abstract star patterns were probably not handcarved but stamped with a press.

Eastlake had grabbed Victorians’ attention with a bold claim: Their homes were filled with lies. Gilding, metal plating, surface veneers, as well as imitation wood and stone made their possessions look more expensive than they really were. Likewise, new machines tried to make mass-produced objects appear as if they had been handcarved, embroidered, woven, painted, or forged by artisans. People had grown so accustomed to trickery, he wrote, that they no longer questioned why a chair should have lion’s paws as if it could scurry away, or why rugs should be covered in lifelike flowers when we would never step on flowers in real life. He believed that living among dishonest design was stressful and uneasy.

A judge's wooden bench sits rear center. To the left of it is a smaller desk. In front of it are three desks with the middle one being smaller and lighter in color. The American flag and North Dakota flag stand on either side of the judge's desk.

The judge’s bench, rear center, and the desks in the front left and right are other textbook examples of American Eastlake style preserved in the 1883 Stutsman County Courthouse. The court recorder’s desk, front center, with its neoclassical pilasters is a different style and was probably purchased years later.

To illustrate his point, Eastlake identified the wooden mop bucket as a truly beautiful object. Though simple, its design honesty reflected how it was made and what it was used for. Eastlake was so dedicated to the honesty of materials that he believed wood shouldn’t even be stained a different color. His philosophy significantly influenced modernist design during the 20th century.

The left photo is a black and white view of a parlor with many chairs and little tables, a piano and bench, chandelier, and a shelving system with mirror on the far side.

At left, a circa 1890 photograph of the parlor of what would become the Former Governors’ Mansion State Historic Site reflects an eclectic blend of Eastlake, Asian, Empire, and Rococo styles. The flat floral design of the original wallpaper specimen, right, had a lustrous metallic gold background but is now faded and barely visible. We hope to recreate its original appearance the next time we wallpaper the room. SHSND SA 00071-00040

Today, Charles Eastlake is remembered, along with art critic John Ruskin and designer William Morris, as a leader of the Arts and Crafts movement, which celebrated old-fashioned handcraftsmanship during an age of increasing machine production. The movement valued workers taking pride in objects they made themselves, with any resulting flaws in their creations reflecting the real human effort that had produced the objects. Much to Eastlake’s chagrin, however, American manufacturers who used his name weren’t interested in handcraftsmanship. They simply used industrial machinery to copy the looks seen in his book. Hence, the Eastlake furnishings you’ll see at our sites include plenty of machine-stamped “carving,” gold foil, wood stain, metal plating, and imitation materials.

The left image is a silk-screened leaded glass wondow with a floral pattern and a brownish-red background. The image to the right snows wodden pillars that look like crosses.

The Bread of Life Church at Camp Hancock State Historic Site blends Gothic Revival, Stick, and Eastlake styles—all of which drew inspiration from the Middle Ages. Note the chamfered corners on the pillars, in this instance highlighted with silver paint. Only a portion of the original silk-screened leaded glass windows survived intact like the beautiful detail seen here, but the Bismarck Historical Society is currently fundraising to restore the rest.

It’s fitting that Eastlake style is evident in so many of Dakota Territory’s earliest buildings. After all, the territory represented a sort of tension between individual work and industrial might—the hand labor of homesteaders and the power of railroads and grain mills on which they depended. Next time you visit, I hope these insights will help you enjoy our sites on a new level. You never know what you’ll find hiding in plain sight!

Good News from 2020: Or, What Historic Sites Did During COVID-19

Submitted by Rob Hanna on

One day when he was a 15-year-old North Dakota farm boy, Lawrence Welk’s plow hit a rock, jerking him headlong onto the ground. When he got up, he realized his left arm was broken. He later told his biographer, Mary Coakley, that he wept, not from the pain, but because he feared he might never play the accordion again. Of course, we know that didn’t happen. Before his arm had even recovered, he figured out how to run a sling around his left knee, tie it to the accordion, pump with his knee, and play the instrument with just his right hand.

This year has felt a little like playing the accordion with one hand. Everyone has dealt with exceptional stress and uncertainty, and many, including several of my friends and acquaintances, have faced personal tragedy and loss. It’s been a tough year by any measure.

But at times like these, we need encouragement the most. Looking back on this year, I’m incredibly proud of our team at the state historic sites. Like Lawrence Welk strapping an accordion to one knee, staff worked with tenacity to make sure 2020 was anything but a lost year. Though many of the sites had fewer visitors, staff at these sites took advantage of the quieter season to achieve restoration and maintenance goals. Here are a few of the highlights from five sites I manage.

At the Former Governors' Mansion State Historic Site, Site Supervisor Johnathan Campbell achieved a long-term goal of restoring the front vestibule. Because the circa 1980 wallpaper was starting to peel, he did some investigation and found a small area of original textured plaster finish from the early 20th century that had survived intact behind a row of coat hooks. He then carefully recreated this brocade finish throughout the rest of the vestibule, including texturing, sanding, color-matching, painting, and applying a contrasting wash. Additionally, he repainted the radiator its original gold color and replaced the modern light switch with a historically accurate push-button switch made of brass and mother-of-pearl. This often-overlooked room is now a gem of skilled restoration.

Entryway of a house with yellow wallpaper, dark wood trim, double dark wood doors with a large window in each and a windown spanning the top of both doors. There are also four coat hangers on one of the walls.

Site Supervisor Johnathan Campbell recreated this historic brocade finish in the Former Governors’ Mansion vestibule.

At Whitestone Hill State Historic Site, our new site supervisor, Stewart Lefevre, began removing lichen growth from the soldiers’ headstones. Marble, given the conditions on the North Dakota prairies, is not nearly as permanent as one might think. Overly powerful chemicals or abrasive tools can easily damage the surface. With advice from staff in Bismarck who have done similar cleaning projects, Stewart tested incrementally more powerful tools to ensure there were no adverse effects. He eventually found a combination that removed the lichens without harming the stone. He hopes to continue this work next summer.

An offwhite headstone is shown two different ways, before and after it was cleaned. The first shot shows the headstone with brownish orange spots all over it. The second shot shows the brownish orange spots removed, but the off white color is darker in those spots.

Stewart Lefevre, site supervisor at Whitestone Hill State Historic Site, was able to remove the lichens on this headstone, left. The remaining discoloration, right, will diminish naturally over the winter, but we will apply additional cleaners next season if necessary.

Meanwhile, we started a new mowing pattern at Whitestone. We let more of the prairie grasses grow, but mowed meandering paths through them. This more naturalistic approach still required Stewart to make sure that noxious weeds did not have a chance to take root and spread. We were soon stunned with the results as we watched hundreds of native wildflowers bloom across the site.

A pink flower with a yellow middle sits among green leaves and grass

North Dakota’s state flower, the wild prairie rose, has thrived at Whitestone Hill State Historic Site following our new mowing regimen.

At Pembina State Museum, Site Supervisor Jeff Blanchard and his team removed dead, non-native landscaping from the front entrance area and began research on native replacements. Soon an ethnobotany garden will greet visitors. Each plant in the garden will illustrate the many purposes that Ojibwe, Métis, French-Canadian, and other people of the region found, including plant names in their various languages.

Green leafy bushes with some yellow and brown are shown between sidewalks

Pembina State Museum staff removed dead plants and hundreds of pounds of landscaping rock to make room for an ethnobotany garden, which will be planted in the spring.

At Stutsman County Courthouse State Historic Site, the site supervisor, Steve Reidburn, applied one of his great skills and hobbies—woodworking—to the new civics exhibit. He created display case bases that protect original courthouse objects while mimicking the look of historical office desks. The results speak for themselves.

A glass or plastic case is sitting atop a desk with books, papers, and old desk gadgets, possibly adding machines, in it. There is a chair sitting in front of the desk.

One of the display bases Site Supervisor Steve Reidburn made for the 1883 Stutsman County Courthouse State Historic Site.

At Welk Homestead State Historic Site, Site Supervisor Brian Grove, his staff, and local volunteers managed to repaint the blacksmith shop, granary, and garage, using a high-tech primer that should last for many years, if not decades. They also established a Gemüsegarten (vegetable garden), which included heirloom varietals of popular German-Russian crops, among many other improvements to the grounds.

A man stands outside painting the trim of a door blue. The rest of the door and the building is white.

A volunteer helps us repaint the granary at Welk Homestead State Historic Site.

This short list of highlights doesn’t even touch on the many capital improvement projects that also took place at sites (most of which were done by professional contractors), or the numerous other projects at those sites managed by my colleagues Fern Swenson and Chris Dorfschmidt.

Although many staffed sites saw fewer visitors due to cancelled events and reduced travel, we were surprised to learn that total visitation at our sites actually went up 44% in 2020. The increase in socially distanced visits to our quieter unstaffed sites, especially Double Ditch Indian Village State Historic Site, more than made up for the decrease in foot traffic elsewhere.

We’re glad our historic places, which have seen hundreds of years of tragedy and joy and have even survived other pandemics, were able to help ground people during uncertain times. When you do visit again, we hope you’ll be encouraged by the hard work our staff has done.

Why I Believe in Historic Sites Tourism

Submitted by Rob Hanna on

When I was a kid growing up in North Dakota, I didn’t get to travel much, but I dreamed of going to Europe and seeing its historic sites and cities. So you can imagine my delight when, as a grad student, I got to move to Germany for a few years and visit Paris, London, Florence, and even less-traveled places like Bulgaria and Cyprus. This led me to reflect on historic sites, both in Europe and at home, and how their popularity often has more to do with location than significance. In particular, I came to appreciate the historic places I knew and loved back home. Childhood me could never have guessed that I would get to live in a 16th-century German half-timbered house, but while there I also yearned to be back at On-a-Slant Village in Mandan. To my own surprise, I found myself trying to remember exactly how the prairie grasses smelled there when their scent was carried on the springtime wind.

St Olavs Church

St. Olav’s Church, a beautiful building I first learned about on a visit to Tallinn, Estonia, in 2010, may have been the world’s tallest building in the late 1500s to early 1600s. It taught me that often the fame of a historic site has more to do with its location than its actual merits.

Like so much else in this world, people give too much attention to just a few things. Just as there are celebrities among people, there are celebrities among places. It leads to a serious imbalance in global tourism. I’m just one of millions of people who want to—and do—visit Tuscany, the Rhein Valley, and so forth. But these incredible numbers of visitors are doing lasting harm to hotspots like Venice, Florence, Amsterdam, New Orleans, and Yellowstone. Meanwhile, North Dakota remains the least-visited state in the United States.

A healthy number of interested tourists incentivizes locals to preserve their historic places, as well as the music, art, languages, food, architecture, and landscape that go with them. The incentives may be financial. At the Etâr Ethnographic Open Air Museum in Bulgaria, for example (highly recommended, by the way), people are hired to make traditional arts and crafts, many of which are also sold to visitors. The incentives may also simply be inspirational—seeing visitors’ excitement reminds locals of the value of their own heritage. Frankfurt, Germany, for example, which receives moderate visitation, recently reconstructed several streets of their historic old town that had been destroyed in World War II.

The world’s superstar attractions need fewer visitors, while places like North Dakota need more. Last December, the Netherlands announced a rebranding effort aimed in part at attracting fewer but higher-quality tourists. Maybe someday we’ll convince them to sponsor Travel ND ads to lure some visitors away from them and toward us!

Over 15 summers working at various historic sites in North Dakota, I’ve been fortunate to meet thousands of tourists, and I’m happy to report that they’re exactly the kind of visitors the Netherlands dreams of. Because North Dakota is far away from major population centers and transportation routes, those who come here do so with intention. They ask thoughtful questions and want to enjoy everything North Dakota has to offer.

You’d be shocked to learn, however, how many only came here because they want to visit all 50 states, and usually I hear that this is their last one. Sadly, most hadn’t heard what’s unique about North Dakota—things that might attract many more people. Just some examples:

  • Traditional dishes like rØmmegrØt, knoephla, wojape, and the taste bud-defying lutefisk.

bowl of knoephla

Comfort food for North Dakotans may be a memorable cultural experience for visitors. This knoepfle soup was made for a special event by the Road Hawg Café in Hazelton.

  • Dozens of unique corn varietals with different flavors bred over centuries by North Dakota tribes.
  • Earthlodges—an American Indian style of architecture uniquely adapted to the Plains.
  • Radio in French or Native American languages that can still be heard in different parts of the state.
  • This is the original homeland of the tipi, or that their familiar shapes are actually a masterpiece of thermodynamics.
  • The corners of the state, being in the middle of North America, resemble microcosms of the continent, such as yucca and prickly pear in the southwest Badlands to aspen and birch forests in Pembina County.
  • The unique Métis nation that arose from the Red River fur trade.
  • Many North Dakota towns beginning as settlement colonies of a specific village in Europe, each mirroring the dialect, religion, and family names of its mother village in the old country.
  • North Dakota’s unique state-owned grain elevator, selling popular flour, bread mix, and pancake mix you can buy at most grocery stores.
  • Games like Dakota and Arikara doubleball or German-Russian horse knucklebones (bunnock), which are as entertaining to watch or play as any modern sport.
  • Lakota winter counts that preserve tribal historic records stretching back long before European contact.
  • Stunning fields of flax, sunflowers, and canola in bloom.
  • Coal mines where you can visit the pit and see the actual wood grain of ancient jungles preserved in lignite.

But when I share these things, they’re almost always fascinated and want to learn more. Many only planned to spend a day in North Dakota and told me they wished they had known to plan more time.

Historic sites both attract these visitors and share this culture. You can’t (and shouldn’t) walk into a modern German-Russian or Mandan home, but you can visit Welk Homestead or Double Ditch Indian Village. We can and do share the music, stories, food, clothing, and games of North Dakota’s unique heritage, being careful, of course, not to misuse culture that is sacred or proprietary. We are delighted to direct visitors to the families, communities, businesses, and tribes who know this culture best. That’s how sustainable tourism works.

This work is urgent. Since I started working at North Dakota historic sites in 2005, it has become harder and harder to find artists, artisans, language speakers, and other cultural experts who can recreate a historical object for us or appear as a guest speaker. Many have passed away before the next generation recognized the value of what they knew. It would be amazing if many more North Dakotans could make a career teaching Lakota, forging German-Russian cemetery crosses, serving potato klubb, making birch baskets, weaving Métis sashes, and more.

North Dakota has all the culture it needs to rival Boston, Santa Fe, or Albuquerque. It’s not so wild a dream. New Mexico at the end of World War II was even more remote than North Dakota, yet they preserved or rebuilt their historic structures, carried on their cultural traditions, and made the rest of the world aware of how many unique things they had to see and do. That’s the vision that I and many other North Dakotans who love historic places see. Let’s work towards balance. Let’s give people a reason to give touristy cities a break and come visit us. We’d be doing everyone a favor.

The Stutsman County Courthouse Civics Exhibit: 5-Month Update

Submitted by Rob Hanna on

Remington Typewriter

A Remington No. 7 typewriter is on the auditor’s desk.

It’s been five very busy months for the new civics exhibit in Jamestown. Time for an update!

Back in November, I wrote that we had received a $24,000 grant from Jamestown Tourism to develop the interior of the 1883 Stutsman County Courthouse State Historic Site as a museum about American civics.

Of course, the current COVID-19 pandemic adds significant complication to the project. We’re hoping we can open as scheduled on May 23—and indeed that all our sites and museums can open by then—but only time will tell. Exhibit design involves work with people of all kinds of professions, both locally and around the country. It has been so uplifting to see how many of them love what they do and want to figure out creative ways to do what they can under challenging conditions. Of course, their safety comes first, and if a project has to stop to protect their health, they know we can wait.

Ceiling with scaffolding

The courtroom walls and ceiling are being restored to their original colors.

We had one very good piece of news this year. Our historic sites budget permitted us to repaint the courtroom and install historically appropriate brass chandeliers. This room with its soaring pressed-tin ceiling must have been inspiring to look at in its day. Soon we’ll see that again.

Adding Machine detail

Local art fabricator Jonah Eslinger volunteered to install warm yellow LED lighting in the Burroughs adding machine, which will help visitors see how this ancestor of modern computers worked.

One of the joys of this project has been finding and fixing up functional antiques. We’ve purchased surveyor’s tools, a stenotype machine, a coin sorter, wall clocks, and more. The one that’s captured everyone’s hearts is the circa 1908 Burroughs adding machine, an 80-pound mechanical calculator that was state-of-the-art in its day. It has glass sides to show off its elaborate mechanical interior.

Stenotype machine

It was very satisfying to figure out how to press “chords” with the stenotype machine and type a basic sentence in shorthand—a satisfaction I hope many visitors will feel as well.

I was surprised by the stenotype machine, which we found easily at a local antique store. To write instructions on how to use it, of course, I had to first learn the basics myself. I really had no concept of how amazing this little device is, nor did I realize that it may be more relevant today than ever. Modern stenotype machines with automated shorthand-to-English text outputs are not only still used in courtrooms, but they are also used to close caption live broadcasting.

Ballot box

One of the original Emmons County ballot boxes was donated by Allan Burke.

We were also fortunate to have several items donated to the project. For example, Allan Burke, editor of the Emmons County Record, donated five actual ballot boxes that had been used in Emmons County, probably during the first half of the 20th century. One will be used for our voting activity, in which visitors can express their opinions on some of the most interesting and intriguing issues to ever appear on North Dakota ballots.

Writing the exhibit texts has been made a joy by the incredible outpouring of support from our reviewers, many of whom have been volunteers. While I ultimately accept responsibility for any inaccuracies that may sneak past into the final exhibit, the texts have been made vastly stronger by these individuals’ diverse areas of expertise. An incomplete list includes historians Barbara-Handy Marcello, Tom Isern, and Mark Joy; attorney Tory Jackson; former public service commissioner Susan Wefald; Dakota and Lakota knowledge keepers Kevin Locke and Lisa Rainbow; political scientist Tom Johnson; exhibit designers David Newell and Allison Limke; former North Dakota Studies coordinator Neil Howe; agency editor Pam Berreth Smokey, and 1883 Courthouse Committee members Barb Lang, Art Todd, and Jackie Tarpinian.

Emboss stamp and sample bookmarks

Visitors will be able to stamp their own Courthouse bookmark with a seal press, certifying that yes, the Courthouse officially supports reading.

I’ll close with some favorite facts I’ve learned while researching this project.

In 1908, Stutsman County established a poor farm. I had basically never heard of a poor farm, but it turns out that many counties across the state and around the country had them up to about the mid-20th century. Citizens who needed shelter and food received them in exchange for farm labor, at least to the extent that they were physically able. It’s an institution that raises a lot of questions and provokes a lot of thought.

Room with bookkeepers desk

I had initially assumed this was a service counter, but it may have been considered a bookkeeper’s desk in its day.

Standing desks are nothing new. The courthouse has a built-in bookkeeper’s desk over 20 feet long and spanning two rooms. It was considered convenient to place the most commonly used ledgers and spreadsheets in accustomed places on such a standing desk and let the clerks walk from one ledger to another as they referenced and wrote down data. It would be as if, instead of having one or two widescreen computer monitors, you had a 20-foot one—that you shared with a half dozen colleagues.

gavel closeup detail

A gavel was more likely to have been used in the 1880s than the 1980s.

There were very few years when you would have seen a gavel, robes, and courtroom flag used together. What could be more iconic than a judge in black robes, wielding a gavel, with an American flag behind the bench? Well, it turns out that you didn’t get all three of these for most of North Dakota history. I learned that judges seldom if ever use gavels anymore. They may have been more common in the 19th century, when many members of the public considered trials to be a form of free entertainment (the ultimate reality show, I suppose), but apparently actual outbursts in court today are considered so rare that the only gavels many judges own are screwed to a commemorative plaque in their offices. Robes and flags, meanwhile, have had the opposite trajectory, becoming more common over time. Newspaper searches suggest that early North Dakotans associated judges’ robes with European (read: undemocratic) courts, and accordingly I’ve barely found any photos of North Dakota judges in robes before about World War II. Likewise, photographs in the State Archives indicate that although US flags were common throughout courthouse interiors, the classic floor-standing flag behind the judge’s bench only gradually became common between the 1950s and the 1980s. Before 1950, you were far more likely to see a wall clock behind the bench than a flag.

This museum will be one of the first of its kind—a historic courthouse filled with objects and activities that illustrate multiple aspects of American citizenship. It would be wonderful if this project inspires people to establish civics museums in other historic courthouses, too. But either way, I think we’ll have a very rewarding experience for our visitors in Jamestown.

Developing a New Citizenship Exhibit at Stutsman County Courthouse

Submitted by Rob Hanna on

a room with antique office furniture

This photo set loose a chain of thoughts about exhibits at the Courthouse that are about to become reality.

As I write this, the beautiful Stutsman County Courthouse State Historic Site in Jamestown is only partially furnished. But this photo, taken by my one-time colleague Guinn Hinman, caused me to see the place in a whole new light. She concentrated some of the historic paperwork, office equipment, and books in one room to stage this historic vignette. Don’t you want to step into that room? You just know you’d be immersed in another time. It makes you want to walk from room to room and see the different tools of an auditor, recorder, treasurer, sheriff, clerk of court. There would be typewriters, ballot boxes, mechanical calculators, seal presses, globes, fountain pens, prison keys and handcuffs, gavels, and robes.

Then I reflected on how badly voters, myself included, need to better understand these jobs. Several of them are elected positions. Do most of us know enough about the work of a county auditor or treasurer to make an informed vote?

black and white photo of a woman in an office chair at a desk

Marion Bond, acting superintendent of schools in Slope County Courthouse, 1918. Historic photos prove that North Dakota courthouses were not just workplaces for men. Even before passage of the 19th Amendment, women could vote in school elections in North Dakota, and many women were elected as superintendents of public instruction. SHSND SA 00392-000176

Thinking along these lines, what if the Courthouse could become a beautiful, immersive exhibit, where every room illustrates different aspects of local government and citizenship? The rooms and everyday objects of a historic courthouse would illustrate the Bill of Rights (jury room, warrants, newspapers), the expansion of civil rights over time (ballot boxes, secret ballots), government accountability (auditor’s office, treasurer’s office), the protection of private property (deeds and wills), law enforcement (sheriff’s office, jail), the role of public education in a democracy (superintendent of schools), and on and on. Indeed, if you had set out to make the most engaging museum about citizenship imaginable, could you possibly do better than this?

Stutsman County Auditors office with 4 employees

Office interior in McHenry County Courthouse, March 1906. Archival photos like this are helping us find historically accurate objects. SHSND SA 00226-000104

Naturally, this made me wonder what other museums, historic sites, or interpretive centers focused on citizenship are out there. I found some that address becoming a citizen, like Ellis Island. I found several that focus on aspects of citizenship like civil rights or military service. But much to my surprise, I couldn’t find one about being a citizen writ large. What rights do citizens in America have? What responsibilities? I found websites and even one or two exhibits, but not a single complete interpretive facility about being a citizen. If I’ve missed something, please let me know! But even if these sites exist, clearly there’s a need out there for more.

So when I learned that a grant was available through Jamestown Tourism to create unique local experiences that would draw people to the city, I knew we had to apply! The 1883 Courthouse Committee, who played a key role in saving the Courthouse and continue raising money for its ongoing restoration, were excited about this, too. As a group that cares deeply about both the Courthouse and community involvement, it was a natural fit. We were delighted when we heard that we got the grant.

antique black Remington Standard typewriter

A vintage Remington typewriter. Early technology like this is cool again. Why not use it to create memorable exhibit experiences?

Visitors to historic sites tend to come as groups — couples, families with children, school groups, friends. We want this exhibit to support fun, meaningful interactions among them. There will be functional devices like candlestick telephones, typewriters, mechanical calculators, and surveyors’ equipment. Visitors can cast votes on issues from early North Dakota history. They can type their answer to a thought-provoking question on a Remington typewriter, then post it to the wall for other visitors to consider and add to the conversation. There will be games for small children and a research library for the curious. You can see what we’ve done when we reopen for the season next Memorial Day weekend!

Outside of the Stutsman Courthouse building a red brick building with a blue sky behind

“Jamestown may well be proud of her court house for no better or more beautiful one was ever erected in all the land,” wrote the Jamestown Weekly Alert on July 6, 1883. More than an office building, the Courthouse reflected the pride Stutsman County citizens felt in the government they helped establish.

The Courthouse is a beautiful place, and a powerful one. You can feel it when you’re in the building. This is the monument that a founding generation built to democracy. This was 1883, after all, when many residents of Jamestown had been born in other countries as the subjects of hereditary monarchs. Many could remember having no say in taxation, war, or education. Where they came from, the highest hill around was frequently crested with a castle or palace for the ruler. But in Jamestown, they covered the highest hill with a palace for the citizens, the true rulers in America. This Courthouse was a celebration of American citizenship. I hope this exhibit is a fitting tribute to their legacy.

Hands-on History: The Do’s and Don’ts

Submitted by Rob Hanna on

We’re starting a project, called Hands-on History, to make history more immersive and multisensory at our staffed state historic sites. We want to give visitors more opportunities to learn by doing historically accurate activities, like trying on unique historic clothing, playing games, or using period technology.

It’s funny, though. Year after year I see articles, books, and conference presenters urging us to offer more interactive learning, but precious little advice about how to do it. I have received a ton of training on how to give tours, research history, write exhibit panels . . . so why is there so little out there about hands-on experiences? This means that over the last decade or so, I’ve had to just try things and see what worked. Here’s a little summary of what I’ve learned:

Soon numerous state historic sites will have stereoscopes, a 19th-century 3-D viewer, with images from the State Archives.

1. Do start with research.
This is where the most interesting and historically accurate ideas come from.

2. Do make your objects as close to original as possible.
You want the closest replica of the historic object you can get, within the limits of durability, repairability, or replaceability.

3. Do be excited.
If you’re offering an experience you’re excited about, your visitors will be, too.

Two people shooting off foam rockets from PVC pipe launcher

At the Ronald Reagan Minuteman Missile State Historic Site, Addilyn Groven got to launch her own (non-nuclear) rocket.

4. Do connect your object to an important idea.
Ideally the experience helps people understand the significance of your historic site. Since the visitor should have new insights from the experience, we can ask thought-provoking questions. (Was it possible to write with your left hand using an inkwell and a quill pen? If you were a schoolteacher at the time, how would you teach your left-handed students how to write?)

It must be said, though, that sometimes it’s okay to just offer a fun, historically-accurate experience that makes people feel more at home at your site.

5. Don’t think of hands-on history as an add-on to your “more important work” of conversing about history.
This attitude often causes us to treat visitors who may seem less interested, such as children, as if they are less important than the visitor who is already engaged and asking lots of questions. We have to serve the needs of all our visitors.

Science toys are nothing new. In the 19th century, a zoetrope helped kids learn about optics and moving images.

6. Don’t just give visitors something to touch.
Maybe you’ve observed this strange tendency, but the minute you give people permission to touch something at a historic site, their desire to touch it goes way down. The real fun starts with doing something. And not just anything. Which leads me to . . .

7. Don’t give your visitors historic work to do.
If it wasn’t fun in the past, it isn’t fun now.

Two adults posing in old time clothing while a man takes their picture

It may seem like a cheesy photo op, but clothing illustrates a lot about cultural values, social roles, and the work different people had to do.

8. Don’t make assumptions about who will or won’t try an experience.
I googled “why I hate museums” once, just to see what I might learn. One reason came up in multiple articles and really surprised me: people hate it when all the fun experiences are just for kids.

9. Don’t waste too much effort on experiences you can only offer at special events.
You can provide far more experiences — ones that require lots of set-up and clean-up, or a guest expert, etc. — if you offer them as special events. And that’s not necessarily a bad thing. But you’ll reach far more people if you develop experiences that visitors can try every day.

A young girl plays with blocks

In the Attic Playroom at the Former Governors’ Mansion State Historic Site, kids can play with toys typical of the years 1901–1960, the same time period the room was used by several governors’ children.

10. Don’t always expect your visitors to initiate the experience.
There’s so much confusion these days about what you can and can’t touch and do in any given historic site or museum. Visitors may need some active encouragement to try out new activities.

11. Do help visitors succeed when trying a new skill.
Make sure you know how to accomplish the task yourself, and look for opportunities to improve the experience so visitors succeed in their attempts to try it.

Three kids roll hoops with sticks

Kids used old steel wagon tires and later wooden or cane hoops for a wide variety of games called hoop trundling. These hoops eventually evolved into the hula hoop.

12. Do understand that there can be risks.
I’ve actually seen more injuries, such as heat exhaustion and passing out, on tours than during hands-on history experiences. Still we have to design these experiences to be reasonably safe and sometimes guide visitors to perform activities a certain way.

13. Do be appropriate.
It would not be culturally appropriate for visitors to try experiences that one must earn the right to perform in the original culture or context. We won’t be offering visitors the chance to try on warbonnets or medals of honor. Likewise, it’s disrespectful and wrong to try to replicate traumatic experiences. And yet . . .

14. Don’t pass over important cultures or communities.
It takes time, effort, and engagement to learn how to represent a group fairly, accurately, and appropriately, but it’s also essential to telling a balanced story.

An adult man holds up a young girl while she helps assemble a tipi

Sophia, like countless young girls stretching back centuries in North Dakota, learned how to lace up a tipi with wooden pins.

There are so many great reasons to do hands-on history. It makes history more enjoyable. It’s more accessible to children, people with disabilities, people who don’t speak your language, and people who otherwise might not visit historic sites and museums. Visitors learn more by involving multiple senses (taste, feel, smell, sound, sight, texture, temperature, etc.). They remember more, too. They’re more likely to take pictures of their awesome experience and share them with their friends. It gives them a reason to visit in person rather than only learn online.

I’m excited to watch this area grow, especially right here in North Dakota. Some of our Hands-on History experiences are already available at staffed state historic sites around North Dakota, and we will be adding more and more as time goes by. We hope you come try them out!