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.

AmeriCorps Volunteers Help Out at Fort Totten

On September 15, 2018, a team of AmeriCorps volunteers arrived at Fort Totten State Historic Site. The team, comprising eight volunteers aged 19 to 25, originated from all over the United States. Tasked with cleaning out the historic gymnasium in preparation for restoration, the team members got to work almost immediately.

AmeriCorps team members

AmeriCorps team members upon arrival, posing in the auditorium at Fort Totten State Historic Site.

Created in 1993, AmeriCorps is a federally funded volunteer program that sends teams all over America to complete their mission of “helping others and meeting critical needs in the community.” The process of acquiring an AmeriCorps grant and team began back in 2016 with several meetings between State Historical Society staff and AmeriCorps leaders. Upon acceptance, the staff of Fort Totten began preparations for the team’s arrival. The team would be staying at the Totten Trail Historic Inn, a Victorian-themed bed and breakfast operated by the Fort Totten State Historic Site Foundation and housed in the former Officer’s Quarters on the grounds of Fort Totten State Historic Site. Accustomed to sleeping outside and in church basements, the team rejoiced at having their own bedrooms and bathrooms for the duration of their visit.

AmeriCorps team members in hazmat suits outside gymnasium

Team members pose outside the gymnasium during clean-up.

Fort Totten staff slated 2-3 weeks for the gymnasium cleanup and were amazed when the project was completed in just five days. The team members then moved onto a lengthier project — the rehousing of the museum collections of the Lake Region Pioneer Daughters. You may remember from my previous blogs that the State Historical Society has made the restoration of the historic hospital/cafeteria a priority in the last few years. The historic hospital/cafeteria at Fort Totten has been home to the Lake Region Pioneer Daughters and their collections since 1960. Since the massive overhaul and restoration of the building, completed in 2017, the collections were housed in boxes throughout the basement of the building and accompanying buildings. AmeriCorps was tasked with combining the collections from multiple buildings, removing the objects from unsatisfactory boxes and housing, placing them in archival, acid-free boxes, and adding object tags with accession numbers to the items and boxes. Team members spent almost three weeks working on this project and were fascinated by the many treasures discovered in the vast collections.

AmeriCorps team members rehousing collections

Americorps team members rehouse the Lake Region Pioneer Daughters collection in the historic hospital/cafeteria at Fort Totten State Historic Site.

The experience of working with AmeriCorps was phenomenal and one we hope to have again. The young people involved were truly committed to public service and strengthening communities. We’re very excited to see what becomes of these young people and what they choose to do with their lives after AmeriCorps.

New Programs out at State Historic Sites!

Scattered all across the state, in almost every corner, our historic sites have something fun to offer for everyone. In addition to preserving and interpreting the history of these great places, we also offer dynamic educational programming for all ages. The summer of 2018 has seen two new programs take off –the Cycling History Highways series and the Junior Sheriff program at the Stutsman County Courthouse State Historic Site.

Cycling History Highways is a series of bicycle rides throughout the summer that merge cycling with historic tours and activities. On June 30, cyclists were treated to a guided tour of Chief Looking’s Village in Bismarck by Doug Wurtz, member of the North Dakota Archaeological Association. Cyclists then departed for Double Ditch Indian Village State Historic Site, with a unique water break at a tipi along the way. Upon arrival, the group partook in Native American games, atlatl throwing, and an interpretive tour.

Cyclists riding by Double Ditch Indian Village State Historic site with the Missouri River in the background

Cyclists enjoying the view near Double Ditch State Historic Site on June 30

Two more rides are scheduled for the summer, with a Cold War themed ride planned for July 28 near Cooperstown and a ride from Fort Clark State Historic Site to Knife River Indian Villages National Historic Site near Stanton on September 22. Cold War riders will be given guided tours of the Ronald Reagan Minuteman Missile State Historic Site, including the Oscar Zero missile alert facility and November-33 launch facility, before proceeding on to other Cold War sites. For the final ride, cyclists can immerse themselves in the historic world of the early American fur trade, joining Historical Society staff for guided tours and activities at both sites.

For more information and to pre-register for Cycling History Highways, please visit:

In addition to cycling around historic sites, history enthusiasts of all ages can enjoy the Junior Sheriff program at the historic 1883 Stutsman County Courthouse—our newest addition to the historic sites lineup. Hopeful Junior Sheriffs can test their wits as they explore the oldest courthouse in North Dakota. Participants will answer questions, solve puzzles and record their answers. The new Junior Sheriffs will be sworn in and received their official badges! Appropriate for all ages, the Junior Sheriff program at the courthouse is a fun and free activity to try.

Junior Sheriff Notebook

The official Junior Sheriff notebook and badge

For more information on the Stutsman County Courthouse State Historic Site and all of the events on schedule this summer, please visit:

Guest Blogger: Guinn Hinman

Guinn HinmanGuinn Hinman was a Historic Sites Manager at the State Historical Society of North Dakota.

Summer Historic Preservation: Column Restoration at Fort Totten State Historic Site

Fort Totten State Historic Site, on the south-east edge of the town of Fort Totten, features a dozen or so brick buildings, all with distinctive columns lining the front porches and entrances. Unfortunately, many of these columns had succumbed to rot and water damage over the years and were in desperate need of preservation.

The original military fort was built of logs in 1867 and replaced with buildings built using locally made bricks in 1868. These original bricks and the wood columns require regular maintenance and care.

Soldiers at Fort Totten State

Soldiers in front of a building at Fort Totten, circa 1870. Note the distinctive columns on the porch. SHSND 670-21

Staff members in front of school

After its tenure as a military post, Fort Totten became an industrial boarding school for Native American children in 1890. Pictured are staff members of the school on a front porch around 1890. SHSND 32286-61

Rotted columns

The columns at Fort Totten had started to rot and were in need of restoration.

Column replacement

This summer, we replaced 7 columns. To replace the columns, the existing rotten columns were removed and the porches shored up temporarily. Large fir beams were hand cut into the distinctive tapered shape of the historic columns at Fort Totten.

Column replacement

The footers at the base of each column were then poured and the columns painted to match the historic colors.

Column replacement

Although likely overlooked by most visitors, the columns at Fort Totten are an important architectural feature of the site and well worth restoring. Restoration work is an important aspect of our preservation of historic sites at the State Historical Society of North Dakota.

We invite you to visit Fort Totten and admire the craftsmanship of our newly restored columns.

Exhibit Development at Fort Totten State Historic Site

Work is nearing completion on restoration of the historic hospital/cafeteria at Fort Totten State Historic Site. Throughout the winter of 2017 we’ve developed, designed, and installed new exhibit spaces throughout the building. Agency staff members have been hard at work for several weeks customizing the exhibit display booths and preparing objects for exhibition. Interpretation themes for visitors to explore include the frontier military hospital and industrial boarding school cafeteria as well as the extensive collections of the Pioneer Daughters of the Lake Region who have occupied the building since 1960.

When we last left off, the exhibit cubes were under construction ( The past few weeks have been spent outfitting the individual spaces and tailoring them to themes related to the Pioneer Daughter’s collections including military, Victorian era clothing and accessories, pioneer kitchen accessories, farm tools, and toys from the turn of the century.

Outfitting exhibit cube with 1870-era wood siding

Fort Totten site supervisor Kyle Nelson outfits one of the exhibit cubes with 1870-era wood siding sourced from his family’s original homestead in Nelson County.

Preparing military uniform for exhibit

Historic Sites Manager Guinn Hinman (right) works with volunteer Alison Hinman (Dickinson Museum Center) on preparing a military uniform for exhibit.

Exhibit showcasing dress uniform

The completed exhibit—showcasing the dress uniform of H.M. Creel who founded Devils Lake.

WWI artifacts

World War I artifacts housed in the vast collections of the Pioneer Daughters of the Lake Region being assessed and prepared for exhibition.

Preparing to install large graphic

Ramone Gumke of Newman Signs (Jamestown) prepares to install a large graphic depicting a turn-of-the century printing press in an exhibit cube at the hospital/cafeteria at Fort Totten State Historic Site.

Some of the completed exhibit cubes

A view of some of the completed exhibit cubes in the west wing of the hospital/cafeteria at Fort Totten State Historic Site.

The Grand Opening for the hospital/cafeteria and re-opening of the museum of the Pioneer Daughters is scheduled for May 20, 2017. Stay up to date on the restoration process and see more photos on the Fort Totten Facebook page:

Update on hospital/cafeteria restoration at Fort Totten State Historic Site

The past few months have seen many developments on the restoration of the historic hospital/cafeteria at Fort Totten State Historic Site. When we last left off ( contractors were beginning to install a new HVAC system and starting an electrical overhaul. Adding central air and heat to the building was a much needed update to properly house and display the historic collections of the Lake Region Pioneer Daughters.

Contractors began the extensive process of running duct work throughout the basement in the summer of 2016. The stone foundation, built by soldiers almost 150 years ago, is made of solid granite. In two separate places, contractors spent many hours drilling through the walls of the foundation to further the reach of the air flow system. This was a delicate and challenging process.

As the HVAC system installation was underway, the electricians completely rewired the building—running new wires and installing new outlets throughout. The interior was then scraped and painted, the original hardwood floors refinished, and the first floor windows restored.

Exterior windows being painted

Contractors paint the exterior of windows that have recently been restored at Fort Totten’s historic hospital/cafeteria.

Most recently, work began on the exhibit “cubes” that will house the Pioneer Daughters collections. Each exhibit space will detail a different theme and part of the collection. The cubes have the flexibility to be changed each season, if desired, and offer greater security and protection to the artifacts on display.

Exhibit cubes being built

The exhibit “cubes” in the process of being built in the historic hospital/cafeteria at Fort Totten State Historic Site. Each cube will house a different part of the Lake Region Pioneer Daughters collection.

Once the cubes have been completed, work on exhibit development can begin. Throughout the winter, State Historical Society staff will carefully assess the collections and begin the lengthy process of cleaning and preparing artifacts for display. The completed hospital/cafeteria will also tell the story of the different uses of the building throughout its history—detailing its use as frontier military hospital, a tuberculosis preventorium, and a cafeteria for the industrial boarding school for American Indian children.

Learn more about Fort Totten and follow the site on Facebook for more restoration updates.

Painting wainscoting

Site Supervisor Kyle Nelson and Assistant Site Supervisor Lisa Alberts hard at work painting the wainscoting in the hospital/cafeteria at Fort Totten State Historic Site.

Restoration of Fort Totten Hospital/Cafeteria Ongoing

Fort Totten in 1878

Fort Totten, pictured in 1878. The hospital, with its unique dome, can be seen in the center of the photo. SHSND B0037

Work continues on the restoration of the historic hospital/cafeteria building at Fort Totten State Historic Site. One of the largest buildings at Fort Totten, it operated as a hospital and chapel during the time the site functioned as a military post. After the military abandoned the site in 1890, it became a boarding school for Indian children, and the hospital was converted into the cafeteria and kitchen. Today, the hospital/cafeteria is home to the Lake Region Pioneer Daughters who have housed their museum and collection at the site for over 50 years. In preparation for contractors, SHSND staff worked with the Pioneer Daughters and volunteers from the Lake Region Heritage Center to carefully pack and relocate the extensive collections in the building. Once the collections were moved, contractors from RDA Inc. (Fargo) began rebuilding a central load-bearing wall that was in desperate need of repair. Over several years, the wall had begun to shift and bow precariously and was, at that point, structurally unsafe. The wall was completed in November 2015, making room for mechanical and electrical contractors who are currently installing a new HVAC system and updating electrical systems throughout the building.

Rebuilt load-bearing wall

In October 2015, the central load-bearing wall in the hospital/cafeteria was completely rebuilt.

With a $500,000 appropriation from the 2015 North Dakota Legislative Session and a commitment of $100,000 from the Fort Totten Foundation, the work on the building will progress much further than the State Historical Society had previously anticipated. Designs for a new exhibit space, which will interpret the hospital, cafeteria and the Pioneer Daughters collection, is underway. The State Historical Society is also working closely with the North Dakota State Information Technology Department to best determine the technology needs for the building and how to best anticipate the long term needs for the site.

Present day hospital/cafeteria at Fort Totten

The hospital/cafeteria at Fort Totten State Historic Site pictured present day.

The summer of 2016 will likely see the completion of the electrical work, first story window restoration, interior painting, floor refinishing, installation of the HVAC system, and exhibit development. We also anticipate the restoration of the historic dome that sat atop the building if funding allows. Recent research suggests the dome (pictured in historic photographs) was used as an ether dome for surgeries during the military post era at the fort—providing much needed light in an era before electricity. The addition of the dome structure will be a unique feature to Fort Totten State Historic Site. SHSND is excited about the progress of construction.