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.

How Fun Are These? Historical Facts From the State Archives, Part II

Fun Fact: The State Archives team can’t get enough fun facts! In celebration of American Archives Month, our staff is sharing interesting and unique stories they have learned about North Dakota. Read on for part two of our favorite fun facts about the state! (View part one here.)

Sarah Walker, Head of Reference Services

Did you know that Laura Eisenhuth was the first woman in the United States elected to a statewide office? Eisenhuth, who was living in Foster County at the time, was elected state superintendent of public instruction in 1892. She had been first nominated to run for this office in 1890 but was initially unsuccessful. Eisenhuth served a single term, which lasted through 1894. She was then succeeded by another woman, Emma F. Bates. 

All of this is extraordinary to me, especially since North Dakota continued to struggle with the idea of woman suffrage for many years. The topic recurred in much early legislation in both Dakota Territory and the state of North Dakota, including at the Constitutional Convention. North Dakota women did gain more agency in their lives and were able to vote for president just prior to the passage of the 19th Amendment, which granted women across the country the right to vote. How interesting that these early women were still eligible to hold these offices and helped others break through the glass ceiling!

Laura J. Eisenhuth, superintendent of public instruction, circa 1894. SHSND SA A1591-00001

Greta Beck, Audiovisual Archivist

I have always heard stories from my grandparents who farmed near Sawyer that Black Butte used to be home to a ski lift and jump. Black Butte rises from the prairie at 1,716 feet and overlooks the Mouse/Souris River Valley, dominating the landscape for miles. With the help of the State Archives newspaper collections, I was able to find articles confirming that Black Butte was used as a ski hill in the 1930s. Prior to becoming a ski hill, Black Butte was used as a meeting and camping place for Dakota and Métis bison hunters.

Emily Kubischta, Manuscript Archivist

In the early 1930s, teacher Gertrude Evart’s history class at Bismarck High School created a model of the four blocks from First Street to Fifth Street on Main Avenue, as they appeared in Edwinton, Dakota Territory, in 1873. Each student handmade one or more of the street features, which included businesses, Camp Hancock, people, fences, flagpoles, a railroad depot, train, sidewalks, signs, a stagecoach, houses, chimneys, windows, wagons, Red River carts, barber poles, and an eagle. Even soldiers were molded and painted for the display. Unfortunately, the model was destroyed while moving it into the newly constructed Bismarck High School in 1935. However, a typed layout of the businesses and list detailing which students created which aspects survives in the George F. Bird Papers (MSS 10216). Both documents tell us a lot about Bismarck’s Main Avenue in the early days.

Edwinton’s Main Avenue, 1873. This photograph shows some of the buildings likely depicted in a model of the street made by Bismarck High School students in the 1930s. SHSND SA C0529-00004

State Capitol Building Light Displays: An Early History

A state Capitol light display announces the new year, 1963. SHSND SA 30878-00540

Most people in North Dakota have seen the face of the state Capitol building lit up in various designs, either in pictures or in person. Some instances include a green and red tree at Christmas; the date of the upcoming year on New Year’s Eve; “ND 125” to mark the 125th anniversary of statehood; and other displays for various celebrations and remembrances.

The Capitol building displayed the number five and the blue lines in honor of North Dakota Attorney General Wayne Stenehjem after his death in January 2022.

However, there seems to be some confusion about the history of this tradition. For example, I’ve found many secondary sources stating that the Christmas tree was first displayed on the side of the Capitol building starting in the 1940s. Actually, use of these light displays, including the tree, began earlier than that. I think this misconception stemmed from people guessing at specifics while reminiscing and was compounded by the difficulty determining how and where to find the exact information. Then, the false information was perpetuated by sharing. Having found the information on a reputable site, I, too, shared this in the past without realizing it was inaccurate. (This is a good lesson it’s important to always check your sources!)

The North Dakota Capitol on July 4, 2022.

While I was using one of our free, word-searchable newspaper sites, Chronicling America (which you can learn more about using here), I stumbled on some truths about the interesting history of these light displays. Decorating the state Capitol building dates to the construction and completion of the current structure in 1934. In fact, it seems the architects and superintendent of the Capitol Commission had discussed means for using the tall tower to show various designs. The first display occurred in December that year. By 1935, this new space was being actively used, and honestly, it began to resemble a rotating advertising board.

Pictures capturing the new Capitol building, which was completed in 1934. SHSND SA 2010-P-024-00024, 00012-00110

Since this chance discovery, I have learned quite a bit about the topic. The brand-new Capitol tower and its many windows were certainly noteworthy, and the local newspapers were happy to report on this feature. (Articles on cleaning those windows alone are blog worthy!) In no particular order, here are the top six most interesting early displays of Capitol building lights I have come across.

1. ND (surrounded by a square)
In 1935, a series of three “Third House” dances, a social event that was traditionally held in conjunction with the state Legislature, began in February. On March 1, 1935, the third of these “Third House” parties was held at the Capitol building in the Memorial Hall. The Bismarck Tribune stated that North Dakota Gov. Walter Welford, his sister Ethel, and Adjutant General Frayne Baker and his wife, Ruth, “headed the receiving line” as a reported 550 guests attended. The newspaper also noted that “in honor of the occasion, a special lighting effect was created by lighting the windows of the Capitol while the dance was in progress from 9:30 to 1:30. … Two giant letters, N and D, were surrounded by a frame, making a brilliant display which was visible for many miles.”

2. A cross
Described as a “burning cross,” this spectacle of light first appeared at the end of March 1935. The Bismarck Tribune detailed this effect in a brief article, noting, “The emblem extended from the top to the bottom of the tower structure and the cross-arm extended its full length.” The superintendent of the Capitol Commission was credited with the idea and how it was enacted. The windows of the Capitol building were blacked out “by blanketing all but two windows on many floors to make the vertical section of the cross and turning on all the lights in the floor … to represent the cross-arm.” This was intended as a display for the Easter season.

3. Giant letter “K”
Sunday, August 25, 1935, was the first day of a three-day district Kiwanis convention hosted in Bismarck. That evening, the Capitol windows were lit up in the shape of a giant “K,” which of course stood for Kiwanis. The Bismarck Tribune noted that the letter was displayed the first evening, “bespeaking a silent welcome.”

4. A double-barred cross (yes, it’s different!)
The National Anti-Tuberculosis Association used a double-barred cross as its insignia, and on November 29, 1935, this cross was “duplicated in special lighting” on the Capitol building. Notably, the Bismarck Tribune also reported that the insignia was partially red in color. This was probably the first time color was used in the light display. It marked the opening of the Christmas seal drive, stayed up until Christmas Day, and continued to be used for this purpose for a number of years.
5. Christmas tree
The oldest design still in use on the Capitol building, albeit slightly changed, is the Christmas tree. This design first appeared on the Capitol building in December 1935. In fact, according to the Bismarck Tribune, when the Junior Association of Commerce in Bismarck tried to revive “interest in home decorations” by sponsoring a Christmas lighting contest, the president of the organization noted that “the lighting effects on the capitol building,” as well as efforts put forth by “merchants in decorating the business district,” should inspire residents to beautify their homes. There may not have been color in the tree in 1935, but there was in 1936. That year, the tree was also outlined, as you can see in this image below published in the Bismarck Tribune. At that point, the tree was described as being in a red and green pattern.

This image from the front page of the December 19, 1936, edition of the Bismarck Tribune is the earliest I have found of the tree on the Capitol building.

6. Christmas star … and first display!
We couldn’t talk about all of these cool displays without mentioning the very first display, at least that I can locate. The talk around town on December 20, 1934—and in the Bismarck Tribune—was of a Christmas star. Technically, this was not an effect created by use of the windows. This original five-pointed star was placed on top of the structure by Capitol workmen. The Tribune described it as “16 feet in diameter at the inner circle” with “120 electric lights.” While this star is the focus (the article is even titled “‘Star of Bethlehem’ shines on Bismarck”), it is worth noting there is also mention of what I believe was the first design used on the face of the Capitol building. “[The star] surmounted what appeared to be a Gothic cathedral, outlined on the face of the capitol tower by permitting light to shine only through certain windows.” I wish we had a photo of this!

The Capitol building displays a more familiar Christmas tree and star in 1962. SHSND SA 00884-00001

We don’t have many photos of the earliest exhibits of these lights in our collections, but luckily the reports in the newspapers are descriptive, and we have many later images. In the meantime, I sure enjoy imagining what those in the area thought of their new Capitol building and its rotating displays.

Celebrating Archives Month: Memorable Finds in Archives

Working with archives collections, that is, with books, papers, photos, and other two-dimensional records, is a gift unto itself. These are the actual documents interacted with by people of the past and are a part of our history! We learn cool facts as we process and use these collections. We also often see items of interest. Whether that means uncovering a surprising historical event or discovering something unexpected, our memorable finds fuel conversations and entertain us. However, these finds also provide us with a more personal insight into the history we are working with and the people who used these records.

Below you’ll find some unforgettable items our staff has come upon over the years while working in archives and libraries.

Keeping Track(s)

The most memorable thing I have found was in the Great Northern Railway Company, Minot Division, Engineering Department Records (MSS 10104). The collection consists of field notebooks, which I rehoused. During this process, I discovered what looked like a piece of railroad track being used as a spacer to keep notebooks upright in a box. I worked with this collection prior to being hired on full-time, so I also consider this item a neat memory of my days as a volunteer.

—Matt Ely, Photo Archivist

Hidden Behind the Frame

The most memorable finds in collections for me have been risqué photos. I have happened upon these several times, hidden behind framed photos or just loose among papers. I wonder about the circumstances that led to these materials being left in a collection donated to a public institution. Whether to keep these items as part of the collection sparks lively debate among our staff, harking back to our ethics lessons in school; that is a topic for another blog post.

—Emily Kubischta, Manuscript Archivist

A Personalized Stamp

Personal stamp of Joseph E. Kenney. SHSND SA 11371-00018

One find that stands out for me is an example of a personal stamp used by Joseph Edwin Kenney, a soldier in the 4th Minnesota Infantry Regiment during the Civil War. The impression, as shown in this image, is part of the Kenney Family Papers (MSS 11371) at the State Archives. The stamp itself is not part of the collection. I have worked with manuscripts of Civil War soldiers for years as part of my academic research, and I have never encountered something of this nature. Possible uses for the stamp include marking his clothing, equipment, and personal items. Joseph gave his life in defense of the Union during the Vicksburg campaign in May 1863.

—Daniel Sauerwein, Reference Specialist

Empty Drug Sampling Containers in a Case File

We received some urine sample collection holders from a state agency as part of a human resources termination case. The State Archives was not supposed to receive the containers, and they were returned for proper disposal. One wonders why the containers were kept once the proceedings were over. Thankfully, they were empty!

—Larissa Harrison, State Government Archivist

A North Dakota Connection to a Film Set in Africa

This still frame from Arch Oboler's unfinished travel film "Alice in Africa" depicts a Masaai tribesman in British Kenya. Red editing marks are visible throughout the footage.

The most memorable item I have discovered at the State Archives is an unfinished, unreleased film entitled “Alice in Africa” (MSS 10782, Bill Snyder Films Collection) produced and directed by Arch Oboler. North Dakota filmmaker Bill Snyder worked for Oboler in Africa during the late 1940s, which is how the film made its way from the continent to North Dakota. “Alice in Africa” centers on a white American woman (played by Oboler’s wife, Eleanor Oboler) who travels through Kenya, Uganda, and the Congo. While the film, which depicts activities and ceremonies of the Maasai, Kamba, and Tutsi tribes, does portray East Africa and its peoples from a white, colonial perspective, it is nonetheless a visually stunning work and an important piece of motion picture history. It represents an early example of a Kodachrome color reversal film of East Africa shot by Westerners.

—Anne Loos, Audiovisual Archivist

Literal Fingerprints

It’s hard to pin down just one memorable find. However, I would be remiss if I did not mention a recent surprise. While researching a collection, I discovered folders full of copies of fingerprints! Not a lot of paperwork accompanied them, but it was cool to see some old-school sleuthing kept in our Archives.

—Sarah Walker, Head of Reference Services

Funky Bookplates

Some of the most memorable things I have found come from my time processing new book acquisitions at a previous job in the Department of Special Collections at the University of Wisconsin-Madison Libraries. My favorite part was checking to see if the book had a bookplate. A bookplate is a decorative label inside the front cover of a book showing who owns it. While printing your name would suffice, why wouldn’t you choose to design a bookplate that reflects your unique personal style and interests? Above is one of my favorites. I hope to find more weird and wonderful bookplates here at the State Archives.

—Ashley Thronson, Reference Specialist

Clippings and Trim

This is the reason why archivists need up-to-date tetanus shots! I keep this box of paperclips (usually of the sharp or questionable variety) beside my desk and, as you can see, use it regularly to collect the many varied things used as fasteners I find while going through collections.

—Megan Steele, Local Government Records Archivist

From Fiction to Fact: Family History Shapes Our Lives and Culture

Frequently, I tell my friends, coworkers, and family that I have one of the most important jobs in the world. As head of reference services at the State Archives, I help connect people to the past, historically and also genealogically.

You may know a genealogist. They may have even been a regular person at one point in their life. Then they tasted that sweet drink of knowing their own roots, finding family secrets, and unlocking their own (and everyone else’s) direct past through the use of obituaries, photographs, census records, biographies, and more. They are the person who drags their family to archives, libraries, and cemeteries whenever they go anywhere on vacation. After tasting that drink, they can’t go back, so now they are the keeper of secrets for their family (and any other family they get interested in).

My family’s genealogist is my mother, and because of her I know all sorts of things about my family and every person who happens to accidentally fall into one of our large ancestral families, which, by the way, is all-consuming in North Dakota. It’s a big state, so I’m probably only connected to half of it. The Germans from Russia half, of course.

A woman in a red dress and black leggings stands in front of wall lined with 5 rows of books and is holding a light blue book with dark blue writing in front of her.

Despite my best efforts, I have inherited my mother’s insidious genealogy genes. I use this interest in family history to help others do their own family history research.

When I was younger, I never thought that I would end up helping others fall down the rabbit hole of family history research—but I did, and I love it. Because, again, this is one of the most important jobs in the world. And if you don’t believe me, look at the evidence! Family is all around us—from Luke Skywalker learning that his father is Darth Vader in “Star Wars” to people begetting people in the Bible to King Henry VIII and all the royals. Our families define us, our culture, and our history.

I recently revisited one of my favorite fictional accounts of the importance of family history: “A Swiftly Tilting Planet” by Madeleine L’Engle. After taking a brief, limited survey of some of the people I know, I feel confident in stating that you likely haven’t heard of this book, part of L’Engle’s Time Quintet series, but I am sure you have heard of the first in the series, “A Wrinkle in Time.” I read “A Wrinkle in Time” in elementary school, and I absolutely loved it. Much later in life when I learned that there were sequels, I was excited to read them as well. All are in the fantasy/science fiction genre.

In “A Swiftly Tilting Planet,” Meg Murry, who was the slightly unconfident, ugly duckling lead character in “A Wrinkle in Time,” has matured and married her childhood sweetheart Calvin O’Keefe, who also starred in the first book and who does not get enough “airtime” in this book.

Readers of the first book will already know that Calvin’s family life as a child was not the best. He was kind and smart, but the rest of his siblings were hard and constantly in trouble. His father was mean and his mother detached. Calvin was an outlier. Meg’s scientifically minded family is quirky, fun, and different; her mother is known for cooking meals in her lab over her Bunsen burner, her father studies the science of time, and she and her siblings are all smart in their own way and all very loved.

While Calvin is presenting at a conference in Britain, a very pregnant Meg is celebrating Thanksgiving with her family. Calvin’s mother, Mrs. O’Keefe, has joined the family and is there when the president of the United States calls (it makes sense in the book) and tells Meg’s father that a dictator, Mad Dog Branzillo, is threatening nuclear war.

At this news, surprisingly, Mrs. O’Keefe lays a charge on Charles Wallace, Meg’s youngest brother who is also the most intuitive, to save the world.

After this, Charles Wallace ends up meeting a unicorn (again, it makes sense) who allows him to travel through time, despite mainly staying in one location, in one “where.” In this way, Charles Wallace is able to experience the struggles, connections, and history of multiple generations of one family as he attempts to prevent war by changing the timeline.

I don’t want to ruin the ending, since you will all want to go and read this book immediately, but ancestry is very important to this story. So is the journey to learning this interconnected family history, despite being rife with hardships.

Charles Wallace does not get to look up names in a computer to easily discover who is connected to whom, or what is about to happen to these families. However, he does learn through first-hand experiences. He also eventually gets access to letters from the family (discovered in somebody’s attic, of course) as well as a book that tells important details about the history of the family.

A tree with nametags on it that says Family Tree underneath it with a couple scrolls and ink and quill

Oh, the places a little genealogical research can take you.

Though his fantastic journey is probably a genealogist’s dream come true (who wouldn’t want to travel through time with a unicorn?), it is also (much like genealogical research) fraught with unknowing, anguish, and frustrations. Our patrons can’t just come into the State Archives and find everything they want by entering a family name into some amazing, magical database. Researchers must pick through whatever they can find to learn the details of a family’s history, which sometimes are very limited. A marriage license here, a death notice there, and a lot of luck may lead them to their quarry.

In the end, Charles Wallace does save the world (sorry to ruin that portion of the ending for you) by finding the “correct” timeline for one family to trace down. We will ignore the nature versus nurture discussions that could occur here and jump right into the crux of the situation—Charles Wallace has discovered how connected we all are through his journey through time.

Our tagline at the State Historical Society of North Dakota is “History for everyone.” I think we can also add, “Everyone’s history matters.” Genealogy may not be of interest to everyone—and I’ll say it—not knowing your ancestry does not mean that you are necessarily lost in this world. But everyone has a story, and that story interacts with everyone else’s story, and we are all more connected than we even realize. Every person, every place, every “where,” and every “when” connects in our shared history.

Genealogy. It matters!

“Archives in Action” Video Series Spotlights Our Passion for Preserving ND History

I know I’m biased but working in the State Archives is super cool.

Every day I get to learn about the happenings of the past and the stories of people in this state—not just the famous ones like Peggy Lee and Lawrence Welk but people like you and me who lived, worked, and played here through good and bad times. I get to see how our history connects to the rest of the country and world. On a daily basis, I am privileged to view the past through newspapers, documents from state agencies, manuscript collections from private donors, books, yearbooks, and oral histories.

Now we get to share a little bit of what life is like in the Archives with you.

In October 2020, during American Archives Month, we launched an online program of videos to take you into our world. If you pay attention on our social media platforms, you’ve probably already seen these. The “Archives in Action” video series gives you a taste of the ins and outs of working in the Archives, highlights our collections, and shows some of our processes in around 5 minutes or less.

Screenshot of YouTube with a man standing in between rows of shelves full of boxes

State Archivist Shane Molander shared a video on preserving newspapers in the State Archives.

You can watch these videos when they premiere on our agency Facebook page, but they are also easily viewable on our YouTube playlist. You’ll be able to “visit” our stacks area, learn about digitizing newspapers and donating to the Archives, see how state agency records are transferred to us, and more. We add new content all the time—so check it out. We love to share our passion for what we do and the history of this state!

Screenshot of YouTube Playlist called North Dakota State Archives

Our YouTube playlist is your go-to source for “Archives in Action” videos.

In the Archives: Remembering 40 Years at the North Dakota Heritage Center

This year, the State Historical Society of North Dakota is celebrating an anniversary—40 years since the North Dakota Heritage Center first opened its doors to the public.

This anniversary affects all of us who work here, but today I want to focus on the archival side of this story. Of course, as faithful readers know, the State Archives collections, which consist of two-dimensional objects such as photographs, papers, and books, document the history of the state, including our own history.

Much of this history is described in the first chapter of the “North Dakota Blue Book 2015-2017.” The State Historical Society got its start in the guise of a Ladies Historical Society, formed in 1889, which became our current organization soon thereafter. Initially, the State Historical Society resided in a single room in the basement of the North Dakota Capitol building. In 1919, the state Legislature authorized the construction of the Liberty Memorial Building honoring the veterans of World War I. When the memorial building was ready for occupants in 1924, the State Historical Society moved over, taking up multiple rooms. (Today the North Dakota State Library is located in the Liberty Memorial Building.)

More space was eventually needed, however, and in the 1970s, initial funding was provided for the State Historical Society’s new building, which broke ground in 1976.

Jim Davis, former head of reference services in the State Archives, often shared stories of this history with me. He was first hired to help move Archives collections into the new building, as well as to sort items. He stuck around, and by July 1981 became a full-time employee. So, I invited Jim to share some of his memories in a brief interview, which I have transcribed, edited, and condensed below. He recalls:

I was hired on October 14 [of 1980] to move books and sort. There were stacks and stacks of boxes up in the Archives. … We were still working on all that when we opened up. We were still putting out the microfilm, which was all behind the desk. There was no self-serve for anything but county history books. As we were opening, they were still putting the finishing touches on the Archives. I had to move my typewriter as they finished putting the glass up [around the desk]. … It was February 2 of 1981 that we opened the Archives. I opened the doors [of the Orin G. Libby Memorial Reading Room] to the public—May was the actual grand opening. … It took some getting used to. The building was so much bigger. We had a lot of space to deal with. The meeting rooms, the auditorium. We were really scrambling to get the auditorium ready before the big opening.

The grand opening of the North Dakota Heritage Center in 1981 drew large crowds to see the new building and exhibits.

Bundles of wheat are tiled across an orange background. On the right side is a yellow box with brown border that has text in brown that reads North Dakota Heritage Center

A light yellow, three panel brochure. The left side lists a program schedule and grand opening events. The middle has an image of the outside of a building with people walking up to it and also has text underneath it that lists the North Dakota Heritage Commission and North Dakota Heritage Foundation members. The right panel has a white and blue sticker that reads Hello my name is Terry Rockstad. Under the sticker is a bunch of text about the North Dakota Heritage Center.

Front cover, above, and interior view, below, of the program from the grand opening of the North Dakota Heritage Center in 1981. It details a range of celebratory events held to mark the occasion. SHSND SA 32435

A pink Plains Talk newsletter, Volume 12, No. 3, Summer 1981. The article is about the Heritage Center Grand Opening being highly successful.

In the summer 1981 issue of Plains Talk, our agency newsletter, we wrote of the successful opening of the North Dakota Heritage Center. SHSND SA 1605600

Now, 40 years later, we have worked through two additional expansions. In 2007, the Archives storage areas and offices were expanded, and in 2014, 97,000 square feet were added to the Heritage Center building, which became known as the North Dakota Heritage Center & State Museum. And we are still going strong! These photos, stored and accessible in the State Archives, show how the Historical Society’s exhibits have changed over time.

An exhibit with display cases lining the walls and glass tables in the middle. Many artifacts are displayed. Above the cases is a canoe and bull boat and other artifacts.

Here is the Historical Society’s first exhibit space in the basement of the North Dakota Capitol building. SHSND SA A5113-00001

An exhibit display with ox pulling a wooden cart

This Red River cart and ox was on exhibit in the 1950s when the Historical Society was housed in the Liberty Memorial Building. SHSND SA 00239-00101

Two men look at an exhibit about forts with a section of a log cabin and a bed in it. Above them are signs that read Forts and Fighting Boredom, Not Indians.

Here, two men take in an exhibit at the new North Dakota Heritage Center in 1980s.
SHSND SA 2012-P-061-00008

A trex skeleton towers above an exhibit

This photo was taken in the Adaptation Gallery: Geologic Time, one of the new galleries created in the North Dakota Heritage Center & State Museum as part of the 2014 expansion. SHSND SA 32141

For more information on the agency’s history and state record series holdings, check out the Archives website. And don’t forget to glance through our photo collections on Digital Horizons and SHSND Photobook for Historical Society (and other) images!