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.

Planning a Party – Welk Homestead Grand Opening

Welk Homestead

Welk home with Blacksmith shop in background

How do you celebrate the acquisition of a new historic site? Well, you certainly want to recognize all the people that helped to make it happen. You want to give a brief explanation of its place in the story of North Dakota. And you want to make it fun! This was my mission this summer as we prepared to celebrate the most recently acquired state historic site.

Mud Brock

Mud brick construction of Welk home

The Welk Homestead State Historic Site, located near Strasburg, ND, celebrated its grand opening on Saturday, July 29, 2017 (see my last blog post to understand more about the significance of this site). The site had been operated by a private non-profit organization for many years. The state of North Dakota acquired the property in 2015 under the management of the State Historical Society. After the addition of new exhibits and other minor changes, the site was ready for a grand opening.

Ribbon Cutting Line

Ribbon cutting line up

First, I sent invitations to everyone who had helped in the acquisition of the site, including the governor and the congressional delegation. I asked people to say a few words about the site—either talking about the importance of the site in North Dakota’s story, or to tell a bit about the site’s history. A representative from US Congressman Kevin Cramer’s office read a congratulatory letter, and Secretary of State Al Jaeger read letters of congratulations from US Senators John Hoeven and Heidi Heitkamp. Representatives from the State Historical Society, the North Dakota State Legislature, the local community, and the former non-profit group caring for the site all had a hand in the acquisition. I invited the priest from the local church to give the invocation. Why invite a priest to a state historic site grand opening, you may be asking? Well, faith is an important part of the story we interpret at the site; immigration and the history of the Germans from Russia, North Dakota’s largest ethnic group. I realize that sounds like a lot of people talking, but all had short and sweet messages.

Disappearing kuchen

Disappearing kuchen from Model Bakery, Linton, ND. Photo by Michael Miller

Bubbling Cider

Bubbling cider. Photo by Michael Miller.

How could we make it fun? Well, this is the birthplace of the famous band leader Lawrence Welk, as well as a special place telling the story of German-Russian culture and agriculture. Music was and is an important part of this culture. Before the speeches, accordion music was provided, which put everyone in a festive mood. After the speeches, there was kuchen (a traditional German pastry) and bubbling cider – what else for German Russian country and the birthplace of Lawrence Welk!?

Matt Hodek and the Dakota Dutchmen playing and couples dancing

Matt Hodek and the Dakota Dutchmen from Lankin, ND, playing on the stage. Couples dancing to the music on the “natural” dance floor! The band started playing a bit before 4 p.m. and played until 7:30 p.m. with many people dancing and listening to the music. Say what you will about accordion and polka music, but it is happy music!

Then the fun started. Matt Hodek and the Dakota Dutchmen from the tiny town of Lankin, ND, provided music into the evening. Many people found the dance floor (actually the lawn) to be just right for celebrating the occasion. It was a “wunnerful” celebration for the community and the Welk Homestead staff.

Acquiring a New Site – Welk Farmstead

On July 1, the state of North Dakota acquired a new historic site, the Welk Farmstead. Much has been written about the pros and cons of such an acquisition, but now it is one of ours, meaning the people of North Dakota.

The Welk Farmstead was part of the Ludwig and Christina Welk homestead. They traveled halfway around the world to come here to start a better life. They came with other family and friends from Russia and built a community on the North Dakota prairie. One of their nine children, Lawrence Welk, left the homestead and became quite famous as a musician and TV personality.

Welk Farmstead

Ludwig and Christina Welk home, built of mud brick in 1898. Photo by Thomas C. Linn

So what opportunities does this site provide?

The site gives us a unique opportunity to talk about homesteading on the northern plains, agriculture (the state’s number one economic engine), Germans from Russia (the largest ethnic group in North Dakota), as well as a famous North Dakota son, Lawrence Welk. The State Historical Society has conducted Community Conversations in conjunction with Tri-County Tourism Alliance meetings in Strasburg, Napoleon, and Ashley to get feedback from the local community on what they would like to see at the site for programming. The SHSND also presented a session at the recent Germans From Russia national convention held in Bismarck in July to gather similar information. The results of these meetings will help us form programs, events, and activities at the site in the coming years.

This year at the site will be a time of transition. We will finish out the 2015 tourism season with the same hours and days of operation as those already put in place by Pioneer Heritage, Inc. (the site’s former management group). We have added an information page for the Welk Farmstead to our website,

From the Community Conversations we have received a lot of great ideas about what can be done at the site. Look for fun things to happen next summer at the Welk Farmstead!

The Civil War in North Dakota

When we mention the Civil War in North Dakota, most people say, “What!?” North Dakota is so far from the area we associate with the Civil War. Were there Confederate troops here? The answer is “no.” However, events did warrant sending resources - men, equipment, and supplies - to the frontier as conflicts between Dakota tribes and Euro-American settlers became more frequent. The Dakota War of 1862 by Kenneth Carley, The Dakota War by Micheal Clodfelter, Brackett’s Battalion by Kurt Bergemann, Columns of Vengeance by Paul Beck, and Through Dakota Eyes edited by Clayton Anderson and Alan Woolworth give insight into the Civil War-era conflicts that occurred on the Northern Plains between 1862 and 1864.

Map of Civil War Battlefields in North Dakota

There are five Civil War Battlefields in North Dakota, as defined by the Civil War Sites Advisory Commission established by Congress in 1990. They are Big Mound near Tappen, Dead Buffalo Lake near Dawson, Stoney Lake near Driscoll, Whitestone Hill near Kulm and Edgeley, and Killdeer Mountain at Killdeer. The State Historical Society owns portions of Big Mound, Whitestone Hill, and Killdeer Mountain, while the others are privately owned. Other sites in the state associated with Civil War-era conflicts include Fort Abercrombie south of Fargo, Fort Dilts near Bowman, and the Badlands south of Medora along the Custer Trail, which is managed by the US Forest Service. Since 2012, a group of partners (including the SHSND) have been commemorating the 150th anniversaries of the events that took place at these locations. In 2014 there were three commemorative events – Killdeer Mountain, Battle of the Badlands, and Fort Dilts, plus an overview of these events held here at the Heritage Center in June 2014.

Fort Dilts Visitors

People at the Fort Dilts site on September 7

As we came upon the 150th anniversaries of these events, we received several phone calls and e-mails from people inquiring about our plans to “celebrate” these anniversaries. The word “celebrate” conjures up images of joyful exuberance. We felt that these anniversaries need to be remembered, but the word “celebrate” seems to be disrespectful to the soldiers and Native Americans who lost their lives defending their ways of life. “Commemorate” seemed to be the better choice to appropriately describe the anniversaries and gave us direction for planning.

Each community near these historic sites wanted to be involved in planning. Native Americans who have family stories about the conflicts were also eager to take part. This involves the Ocheti Sakowin or the Seven Council Fires of the Dakota; the Eastern or Dakota groups of Mdewakanton, Wahpekute, Wahpeton and Sisseton, the Middle groups of Yankton and Yanktonai, and the Western or Teton which include the Brule, Hunkpapa, Oglala, Two Kettles, Sans Arc, Minneconjou, and the Sihasapa or Blackfeet.

On paper, this event planning sounds so easy. Just call everyone and set a meeting date, right? To be inclusive and get the full story, everyone has to be at the table. The members of the Ocheti Sakowin live in Minnesota, Nebraska, South Dakota, North Dakota, and Montana. There is no one spokesperson for the groups. And even now, 150 years later, emotions still run high about this era of history. Add in the pressures local communities are feeling with traffic and increased population in the western part of the state and you have some interesting (and enlightening) conversations. The US soldiers involved came from Minnesota, Nebraska, and Iowa, and military reports were used to tell that part of the story.

The commemoration events were quite successful. Those involved in the planning process were aware that the events had to be inclusive. In the three years of dialogue and planning for these commemorations, trust between all parties developed so that any concerns could be brought to the table and resolved.

The three sites that observed anniversaries this year are small in size. It’s difficult to get a large number of people on these sites, as there are no facilities such as restrooms or water. The events were hosted by the Dunn County Museum in Dunn Center, the City of Medora, and the Pioneer Trails Regional Museum in Bowman. Bus tours to the sites got all interested visitors to the right places. Feedback from attendees suggests that they learned something about that historic site next door.

Invocation in front of Dunn County Museum

Dakota Goodhouse giving the invocation on July 26 in front of the Dunn County Museum in Dunn Center

These events, and particularly the inclusion of Native American perspectives on this chapter of North Dakota history, seemed to help people realize that there are multiple and complicated stories associated with the sites that go beyond the historic site marker text. Our goal is to continue the conversations and research to bring a more balanced and culturally inclusive interpretation of this period of history to site visitors.

Time Traveling at Historic Sites

I love historic sites. These are the places where important things happened, where important things were done, where the world changed. It’s how I time travel. Science fiction has its allure, but it has nothing on historic sites. Each site has a power of place unique to it. I can visit any of the 56 historic sites that the State Historical Society manages and go back in time. A visit can give me a better perspective on what is happening in my own time.

A visit to one of our sites is very fun. We have programs such as History Alive, where you can meet a real person from the past (for 20 minutes or so). We also have film series, tours, guest speakers, demonstrations, concerts, and hands-on activities for kids. At many of our sites we have programs through the fall and winter, too. Wondering what to do on the weekend? Check out the events at our sites,

You may not notice all that goes into preparing for your visit. We mow and trim the site, which can be quite a challenge during a rainy year or just a rainy month. We have the buildings repaired as best we can with time and budget constraints. We provide entertaining and educational programs for various audiences. All of these things take planning, time, and people to make sure your visit is enjoyable. When we are successful, all you notice is that your visit is great!

Most of the planning is done during the winter months when visitation to the sites is lower. We plan for new programs such as concerts and speakers, we update our operating plans, and do some long range planning. If needed, we plan for and do some maintenance and repair work. In the fall of 2012 and early spring 2013 we did a bank stabilization project on the Red River of the North at Fort Abercrombie.

We have a lot of sites that have only a marker and no staff. These sites are more difficult for the average visitor to understand. We have sites related to General Sibley’s and General Sully’s expeditions into Dakota Territory between 1863 and 1865.We have sites that recognize prehistoric villages and Native American culture, historic townsites, and the role of North Dakota in the early explorations and mapping of the American West, among others.

At sites such as these, you have to bring knowledge with you. We have looked at trying to do something with technology at some of these marker sites, like QR codes. Unfortunately, some of them are remote enough that technology can’t help us. We keep looking for new ways to share the stories of these sites, too. Soon, the 3rd edition of the Traveler’s Companion to North Dakota’s Historic Sites will be published. This book will give brief histories of all of our historic sites and their significance in the greater story of North Dakota.