Backstage Pass to North Dakota History

This blog takes you behind the scenes of the State Historical Society of North Dakota. Get a glimpse at a day-in-the-life of the staff, volunteers, and partners who make it all possible. Discover what it takes to preserve North Dakota's natural and cultural history. We encourage dialogue, questions, and comments!

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

North Dakota State Historic Site Staff Bring Diverse Skill Sets to Job

Historic site supervisors are a varied lot. We have backgrounds not only in history but also in museums, construction, art, and science to name a few. We tend to be quite attached to our historic sites, putting our heart and soul into educating the public about them and ensuring their preservation for future generations. It is not uncommon for visitors to the Former Governors’ Mansion State Historic Site, where I am the site supervisor, to ask if I live in the house since I seem so attached to it. No, I do not live in the house, though I live so close I can see my 1890 Victorian house from my office window.

Our hobbies and other occupations tend to intermingle and impact the work we do for our various sites and for the State Historical Society of North Dakota more generally. For instance, multiple state historic site staffers are also teachers and bring the skill of working with young people to their State Historical Society roles. Many staff also have hobbies that benefit their state historic sites with skills in carpentry, model making and textile arts to name a few.

When I’m not at the Former Governors’ Mansion or Camp Hancock State Historic Site, where I am also supervisor, I spend time honing my craft as a professional artist creating light paintings and capturing the night sky with my many cameras. You may have seen my photographs on the web or in publications of the State Historical Society, North Dakota Parks and Recreation Department, and North Dakota Tourism.

Our state historic sites are a great place for photography. Two sites I often visit once the sun goes down are Menoken Indian Village and Double Ditch Indian Village not far from Bismarck. Both sites offer great views of the night sky and both have 1930s Depression-era fieldstone shelters that make excellent foregrounds for photography. Of course, I visit other places, too, such as state parks, rural churches, and abandoned buildings—all of these locations tied together by their connection to North Dakota’s history. The opportunity to see and learn about North Dakota through my photography, in turn, makes me a better state historic site supervisor.

A night photo of a stone shelter that's lit from the inside. Next to the shelter is the silhouette of a man sitting on a bench. The sky has streaks of green from the Northern Lights.

The northern lights illuminate the sky over Double Ditch Indian Village State Historic Site.

A grassy field is shown with swirls of light in the sky.

In “Starry Night on the Prairie,” I created star trails over Double Ditch Indian Village State Historic Site by taking a few hundred photographs and layering them using computer software. The center of the trails is Polaris (North Star) which sits directly over the axis of the Earth and from our point of view does not move.

Night scene with white and red spiral lights making human like figures and red swirly circles in the background.

My light painting “Night Walkers” is set against the backdrop of the Menoken Indian Village State Historic Site.

Night scene of a stone shelter that's lit inside. Trees can be seen around the shelter as well as a green glow at the horizon from the northern lights and many starts in the sky and a few clouds.

The stone shelter at Menoken Indian Village State Historic Site under a dome of clouds, stars, and the northern lights.

Silhouettes of trees frame the outside of this night shot. Streaks of bright green, blue, and purple can be seen in the lower part of the sky from the northern lights. Many stars can also be seen in the sky.

A magical night at Menoken Indian Village State Historic Site.

Three Mysterious Folktales Spark Curiosity about the Former Governors' Mansion

Since Halloween is just around the corner, I thought I’d share three mysterious—and a little bit creepy folktales that have been shared about the Former Governors' Mansion State Historic Site, which housed 20 chief executives between 1893 and 1960. Folktales are one of those things that both confound and delight historic house interpreters when their visitors engage them with a statement or question that they believe with all their heart to be true.

1. Buried in the basement?
Having a group of 4th graders ask you “Who was the little girl who is buried in the mansion basement?” can be rather off-putting the first time it is asked, but having multiple groups of 4th graders from different schools, and over the course of years, ask is downright confounding. The easy answer is to tell them the truth – no one is buried in the basement, and then we move on. The harder part is to research and find the source, and give the next group of children asking the question a historically accurate answer.

A little research into the deaths of governors’ children turns up the most likely explanation of how this question formed. Governor Briggs’ daughter Estella died of tuberculosis on his inauguration day in 1898. She is definitely not buried in the basement, but in Howard Lake, Minnesota. After I started explaining to the groups what the basis of this folklore likely was, the question of the little girl buried in the basement stopped being asked after a couple years. Sometimes the truth isn’t as engaging as a juicy rumor, but we try to interpret history as accurately as possible.

2. Murder at the Mansion?
Last spring a new bit of folklore popped up at the mansion. A number of children starting asking about how many governors had been killed while living in the mansion. The answer was, of course, none. Two governors died while in office, but murder was not the culprit.

I asked one young boy where he heard that. Like most folklore stories, he heard it from a friend who heard it from a friend. After pondering this for a while it occurred to me that I was the likely source of the tale. In fall of 2016 Marilyn Snyder with the Bismarck Historical Society supplied me with a copy of the Bismarck Police Log from May 9, 1927, which described a “shooting” at the mansion. Certainly an interesting historical tidbit, and it solved a riddle about what appeared to be a bullet hole in an inner pane of glass in the south parlor of the mansion. How did the story go from being an obscure historical tidbit to becoming folklore? I shared the police record on Facebook. Not long after, friends were telling friends about the murder in the mansion. It will be interesting to see how long this bit of folklore stays around.

Call log 1: Call from Gov. Sorlie about somebody shooting through one of his windows with a 22 rifle.  Call log 2: Call from St. Paul press wanted to know how the Governor was, heard that he got shot. Told them there was nothing to it. Some boys were shooting birds and a shot hit the window.

The Bismarck Police Log, May 9, 1927

3. Paranormal activity in the parlor?
A variety of ghost stories and paranormal activities are commonly talked about by visitors at the mansion. Quite a few historic homes have similar stories. From curtains moving to footsteps on the stairs to doors mysteriously closing by themselves, these mansion stories have been publicized locally and on national websites. Over the years numerous paranormal groups have tested the mansion for paranormal activity at night and for the most part all have found nothing, except for one group that detected an electromagnetic signature that traveled at a slow walking pace back and forth from the piano in the parlor to the back entry. Searching in the basement turned up no plumbing, electrical lines, or other item that could produce such a phenomenon, and later attempts to locate it all failed.

There are of course, many additional folktales concerning the mansion--some come up on a regular basis, and some only get mentioned during a certain spooky holiday. Most of the stories have some basis in fact, but that fact is often less intriguing than the folktale. Whether true or not, these types of myths and folklore help spark curiosity and create interesting research and learning opportunities for both the visitor and for me.

The Off-Season

I get asked on a fairly regular basis what I do in the “off-season” at the mansion without all the summer tourists. This question always gets me a little riled up, mostly because I don’t have an off-season. We experience slower times, but we are never “off.” It may surprise you to learn that our largest audience does not consist of tourists. General visitation (our term for spontaneous visits during regular hours) only adds up to about a third of all the people that visit over the course of the year. In 2016, 6,400 people visited, and about 2,000 of those were general visits. The rest are people mostly from the Bismarck-Mandan community who come for events and private rentals, as well as a few school groups.

Johnathan Cempbell repairing banister

Site supervisor Johnathan Campbell repairing a detached banister finial. This finial has been reattached many times over the years. As people come around the corner they tend to pull on it.

So what do I do when it’s slow, and there are no people around? I clean and fix the wear and tear from all the hands on walls and feet on floors. Many people may not think of the mansion as a home, but that was its primary role for around 80 years, and that is what we preserve. Imagine what your home would look like after having a few thousand people come through it over the course of a year. Then envision having 10,000 fingers rubbing across your oak banister, and 1,000 kids using your bathroom. I’m guessing you wouldn’t let anyone touch the furniture, and you might wish you could lock the doors for a bit just so you could have a slow day or two (maybe three!) to clean. So if you come to the mansion and find the occasional speck of dirt on the floor or paint-chipped doors, please take it as a sign that the state’s historic governors’ home is well-loved by the community.

Johnathan Campbell vacuuming

Site supervisor Johnathan Campbell vacuuming dirt and melted ice from the hundreds of feet that have walked here since winter started.

And when I do get caught up on cleaning and maintenance, I go back to figuring out ways to get more people into the house so I can do it some more!


Guest Blogger: Johnathan Campbell

Johnathan CampbellJohnathan Campbell has been around the SHSND for around a quarter of a century. He has been the site supervisor for both the Former Governors’ Mansion, and Camp Hancock State Historic Sites for over a decade, and previous to that was the fossil preparator for the North Dakota State Fossil collection.

Nailing History Down

Visitors often ask what my favorite thing about the Former Governors’ Mansion State Historic Site is, and my answer usually draws a look of confusion from them. They’re expecting me to say something grand, like the staircase or the massive pocket doors. My answer is something small, but not insignificant--nails.

I love nails! Nails can tell you so much about when something was built. When I see a square cut iron nail sticking out of a piece of trim, I don’t say, “I need to pound that back in.” I get excited because that nail just verified that the trim was installed before 1895.

Square Cut Nail

Square cut nail in an exterior door frame that has pushed out over time from seasonal contraction and expansion. Many layers of paint can be identified, with just a hint of the original 1884 brick red color showing. This nail was pounded in more than 130 years ago.

When the mansion was built in 1884, the steel wire nail we know so well today was in its technological infancy, with only about 10% of all nails produced being small steel wire nails. By the early 1890s the steel wire nail had begun to replace the square cut iron nail. By 1895 mass produced stocks of cut nails had been depleted, making it rare to find buildings constructed with them.

Steel Wire Nail

Steel wire nail protruding from an early, but not original trim piece in the parlor of the mansion. The manufacturing tool marks on this nail indicate that it could have been pounded in any time after World War II.

Knowing this little piece of history, I can look at a nail sticking out of a board--be it interior trim, framing wood or siding on the mansion-- and roughly determine when it was installed. Combine that with the type of finishes, thickness of the wood and written/oral histories, and we can nail down approximate dates on mansion remodels.

A great example is the mansion attic playroom’s built-in toy boxes. Oral history suggests that Governor Langer had the attic finished into a playroom in the 1930s for his children. Examination of the toy boxes shows they were built with steel wire nails, and the wood was modern dimension lumber, which became the standard around 1900. These two clues seem to corroborate the 1930s construction date for the toy boxes. But while examining the toy boxes to find out what kind of nails were used, a third clue was found; the signature of Governor White’s young son Edwin.

Edwin White’s childhood signature.

Governor White was in office from 1901 to 1905, which was a perfect time frame for the use of steel wire nails and modern dimension lumber to be combined in the construction of the toy boxes. Good bet that the toy boxes were built during Governor White’s occupancy of the mansion rather than Governor Langer’s!

Next time you are walking through a historic building, trying to puzzle out when something was remodeled, go find some nails. For something so simple, they can tell you a lot.

Holes in History

When presenting the history of our historic sites, it can be difficult to cover everything that happened over the course of the site. Oftentimes significant events that occurred in the last 50 years or less get reduced to a couple words at the end of an interpretive sign that discusses a longer, older history. The Former Governors’ Mansion State Historic Site was built in 1884 for Bismarck Businessman Asa Fisher, who sold the building to the state in 1893 for use as the executive mansion. The interpretive history displayed at the site focuses on the years from 1893 to 1960, when it was occupied by 20 different governors and their families. If the Former Governors’ Mansion was opening as a historic site today, would the introduction to the history of the building be written differently? What if?

The North Dakota Psychiatric Clinic

In the post-World War II United States, a movement was gaining ground to end the incarceration of the mentally ill in state psychiatric hospitals. In 1946 President Harry Truman passed the National Mental Health Act, which paved the way for states to find ways to help the mentally ill cope, recover, and live positive lives.

The state of North Dakota was a progressive leader in the development of ways to help the mentally ill beyond locking them away for their own safety and that of the community. Legislative action in the 1950s led to the development of outpatient care at the State Hospital in Jamestown and to the opening of the State Psychiatric Clinic in Bismarck in 1960.

The clinic opened in the recently vacated Executive Mansion at 320 East Ave. B. Located in the heart of the residential section of Bismarck, the residence was an ideal, friendly, home-like environment to help those in need.

In 1963 the clinic was part of a national pilot program to develop standards of care and treatment for mental illnesses under President John Kennedy’s Community Mental Health Act., which officially ended the practice of incarcerating the mentally ill without due cause in the United States.

Oral histories collected from many of the professionals that worked at the clinic through-out the ‘60s show that the care provided at the clinic was one of a nurturing, respectable nature every bit as modern in its approach as today’s widely available talk therapy. While it varied over the course of the decade, the clinic generally had two psychiatrists, a psychologist, a couple of social workers, and support staff.

James Sperry exposing plywood

SHSND Superintendent James Sperry exposing the plywood separating the psychiatrist offices. (SHSND0071-009)

Those who utilized the clinic were not limited to what we would consider classic mental illness (e.g., schizophrenia), but what we would consider by modern standards to be general mental health. Common clientele would have included couples seeking marriage counseling, addiction counseling, children with behavioral issues, speech therapy, and developmental disabilities, etc. While many of the people at the clinic were voluntarily seeking help, many of them were court ordered to receive treatment. Prison inmates and children involved in delinquency cases were commonly evaluated for signs of mental illness and provided with treatment options.

In 1966 the clinic became one of eight state-run mental health clinics in North Dakota. To this day those eight clinics continue to serve the people of North Dakota’s mental health needs. In 1972 the clinic moved to the Liberty Memorial Building in downtown Bismarck. The Former Governors’ Mansion was then occupied by the Department of Health Administration offices until 1975, when the building was turned over to the State Historical Society of North Dakota as a state historic site, which now highlights the years it served as the Governors’ Mansion.

State Health Department

State Health Department Administration Office Building, circa 1975. (BPL41_12072007)

When visiting the Former Governors’ Mansion State Historic Site, or any historic site for that matter, keep in mind the history you see presented may be incomplete.The name of the site may only be an introduction to part of a longer history.


Guest Blogger: Johnathan Campbell

Johnathan CampbellJohnathan Campbell has been around the SHSND for around a quarter of a century. He has been the site supervisor for both the Former Governors’ Mansion, and Camp Hancock State Historic Sites for over a decade, and previous to that was the fossil preparator for the North Dakota State Fossil collection.