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.

Understanding the Importance of Tinware Production throughout History

Although tin as a metal has been used for thousands of years, its use as a coating for metal plate dates only to the 16th century. Historical records suggest the first manufacture and use of tinplate was in Bohemia (now a part of the Czech Republic) and parts of southern Germany. A coating of tin on thin metal plate provides a rust inhibitor. Because it’s non-toxic and food-safe, tinplate is a useful material for making cups, bowls, and plates.

Tin, which is contained in an ore called cassiterite, was mined in various places historically, including perhaps most famously in the British county of Cornwall. Cornish mines provided tin to the ancient Romans when they occupied what they called ‘Britannia’; later, Cornish tin was exported to Bohemia and other centers of tinplate production as a raw material. But the secret of how tin was made to coat very thin iron plates was kept a secret for many decades, until a bit of early industrial espionage made the secret available to the English in the third quarter of the 17th century. The impetus for covertly acquiring this knowledge was declining tinplate availability in England. The English (like many others) had been importing finished tinplate from the Bohemians and other producers for many decades. A shortage of tinplate, however, made them want to discover the secret of making it for themselves. An Englishman named Andrew Yarranton traveled to Germany in 1665-1667 with the express purpose of touring facilities and learning the process of making tinplate. Having learned the manufacturing process, Yarranton brought that knowledge back to England. Combining Cornish tin with thin iron sheets milled in Wales, British tinplate manufacturing took off rapidly.

The first tinsmiths came to the American colonies from England in the mid-17th century and began producing tinware for the colonial market. Tinware proved popular, and the few tinsmiths found themselves with more work than they could handle. This situation led to the training of new tinsmiths and to the creation of new foundries to produce tinsmith’s stakes and other tools. By the US Civil War, much tinware was being made in factories, although nearly every town across the country still had a working tinsmith who produced tinware for sale and made repairs.

Tinware remained popular until the 1920s and 1930s, when it began to be replaced with aluminum and stainless steel and later, plastics.

Karl and Nadine Schmidt in front of their Tinsmithing stand at Fort Abercrombie

Karl and Nadine Schmidt tinsmithing at Fort Abercrombie, June, 2016

A friend of the Fort Abercrombie State Historic Site, Karl Schmidt developed an interest in tinsmithing after he met a working historical tinsmith at the Brookings Summer Arts Festival in South Dakota some 12 years ago. Karl was fascinated by how the tinsmith turned flat sheets of tinplate into useful items. In spring 2014, Karl learned that the resident tinsmith at the Stuhr Museum of the Prairie Pioneer, Loren Miller, was offering a weekend in Nebraska. Karl and his family signed up. For Karl, this was the beginning of a new adventure.

Historical tinsmithing tools

Historical Tinsmithing tools

By spring 2015, Karl decided to become a working historical tinsmith (one who makes primarily historical tinware reproductions and uses primarily antique tinsmith’s tools). He found tools and hand-crank machines on Ebay. Some tools, like the tinner’s stakes, were ready to use, but some items, particularly the tinner’s machines, needed careful restoration work, which Karl did himself.

horse and pig tinware molds

Tinware by Karl Schmidt

In June 2015, Karl met William McMillen, arguably the best-known and most accomplished historical tinsmith in the country. Two months later, he attended McMillen’s week-long tinsmithing workshop, learning the fine points of historical tinsmithing, and making a variety of projects.

Tinsmith Karl Schmidt working

Tinsmith Karl Schmidt working with period tools

With excellent training under his belt and a tin shop full of tools, Karl began to make tinware and demonstrate his craft. Karl first demonstrated tinsmithing Fort Abercrombie State Historic Site for the Living History Weekend in June 2016.He continues to demonstrate his craft each summer in historical dress, using his 19th century tools.

Lantern made by tinsmith Karl Schmidt

Lanterns by Karl Schmidt

If you are interested in meeting Karl and watching the art of tinsmithing, join us for Fort Abercrombie State Historic Site’s opening day on Saturday, May 26, 2018. Karl and his family will be demonstrating and having wares for sale at this event and at Fort Abercrombie Living History Weekend, June 9 – 10.


Photos and history summary courtesy of Karl Schmidt.

History is Alive at Fort Abercrombie State Historic Site

The staff at Fort Abercrombie State Historic Site has great appreciation for history and a strong passion to teach others about the history and heritage surrounding the site. Visitors often mention that they studied history in school, but after coming to Fort Abercrombie and taking the guided tour with our staff, they can make a connection and understand what it was like to live here during the mid-19th century. As quoted by many visitors, “I feel like I am a part of history after that tour.”

That said, we do not want to be just a one-time stop. We have learned that programming needs to focus on getting people to return to the site for continuous learning and enjoyment. Our team is constantly working to provide effective programming, and those efforts have sparked a renewed interest among locals and tourists in the history of southeastern North Dakota. We are enjoying an increasing number of people who return each summer to attend events.

For example, each summer Fort Abercrombie hosts a Sunday history program, which focuses on many aspects of North Dakota history. This summer we’ll focus on the challenges of homesteading, local family history, environmental history of the Red River, and the Norwegian heritage of this area. Staff members Carole Butcher and Paul Nelson will spend countless hours researching in preparation for presentations that will allow people to make a connection to this history. Many local musicians will volunteer their talents in providing special music, and historical authors and storytellers will provide guests with entertaining and educational experiences during these programs.

We recognize that, for some people, seeing something with your own eyes can enhance your understanding of written history and create memorable learning experiences. For this reason, Fort Abercrombie hosts a Living History Weekend, as well as a Historical Authors and Crafters Weekend every summer. At this event, Michael Quade demonstrates the craft of blacksmithing in the 1860s at the fort, while Karl Schmidt demonstrates the craft of tinsmithing. These demonstrations give our visitors a way to visualize and engage with historical craftsmanship in the modern day. Visitors can also meet award- winning author Candace Simar, who has written about her family connection to Fort Abercrombie, as her great grandfather was one of the stagecoach drivers on the “Abercrombie Trail.” Historical author and storyteller Jan Smith will provide an entertaining history of real -life experiences at Fort Abercrombie and on the trail. Minnesota history educator and historical author Carrie Newman will help audiences understand different perspectives on the Dakota War. She was inspired to write the book War on the Prairie after taking a tour at Fort Abercrombie and becoming fascinated with Dakota War history. Carrie also demonstrates the craft of Civil War sewing while visiting Fort Abercrombie each summer.

The 5th Minnesota Infantry Company D Civil War re-enactment unit also plays an important role at Fort Abercrombie. The unit provides visitors with a real-life experience of what it was like to be a soldier at Fort Abercrombie and in the Civil War. History is truly alive at Fort Abercrombie. Come see for yourself at this year’s events!

May 13 Preservation North Dakota tour, 2–4 p.m.
May 27th 5th Minnesota Infantry Co. D. Training Day
May 27th Fort Abercrombie Opening Day, 8 a.m.–5 p.m.
June 4–August 13 Fort Abercrombie Sunday History Program, 2 p.m.
June 10-11 Fort Abercrombie Living History Weekend, 9 a.m.–4 p.m.
July 29-30 Fort Abercrombie Historical Authors and Crafters Expo, 9 a.m.–4 p.m.
September 8 Richland School District 9-11 Program, 9:30 a.m.
September 10 North Dakota Archaeology Association Event TBA

Jessica Dickson dressed as officer's wife

Aber Days

1862 Mountain Howitzer Cannon

5th Minnesota Infantry Company D

Interpretive Center

Interpretive sign

Tinsmith tent at Living History Weekend

Blacksmith at Living History Weekend

Photo 1: 5th Minnesota Infantry Co. D Officer's Wife - reenactor - Jessica Dickson near original 1862 Guardhouse on fort grounds
Photo 2: Fort Abercrombie State Historic Site Aber Days - Paul Nelson & Mick Owen 2011
Photo 3: Fort Abercrombie State Historic Site Interpretive Center Gallery - 1862 Mountain Howitzer Cannon
Photo 4: 5th Minnesota Infantry Company D. Aber Days 2016
Photo 5: Fort Abercrombie State Historic Site Interpretive Center
Photo 6: Ghosted sites of buildings on grounds of Fort Abercrombie
Photo 7: Fort Abercrombie Living History Weekend June 2016 - Tinsmith Karl Schmidt and his wife Nadine
Photo 8: 1862 - Blacksmith Michael Quade - Living History Weekend 2016