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.

A Visit to Burlington Homes: A Plan for Rural Sustenance

red barn

This small barn still features typical elements from its construction in 1936: the sliding barn door and the small, centered loft door with a fixed, four-pane window.

In 1934 families of lignite coal miners west of Minot at Burlington faced a bleak future. The Depression was grinding into its fourth year, employment in the coal mines was slack, and people were losing hope. The lignite coal mines never offered much employment, just a few months in the winter. Now the local lignite mines faced stiff competition from out-of-state coal mines that had harder coal that burned hotter, offered at about the cost of local lignite coal thanks to cheaper railroad transportation.1

Similar grim conditions were everywhere at that time, and the federal solution was to funnel funds to states, as state and local governments, as well as private and religious charities, had traditionally supported people facing hard times. A nonprofit group, the North Dakota Rural Rehabilitation Corporation (NDRRC), received about $100,000 to solve the destitute conditions of about 40 families by providing irrigated land, a house, a small barn, a henhouse, and a privy.

The NDRRC incorporated in 1934, and by late 1935 had purchased 640 acres for irrigable land, pasture, and home sites. It planned a dam on the Des Lacs River to provide gravity-fed irrigation water, and contracted to build about 35 sets comprising a house, barn, henhouse, and privy.2 It appears that five families left the area or otherwise did not participate in the program.

The general idea was that the families would work cooperatively to market cash crops such as strawberries, raspberries, and seed carrots to local outlets near Minot. They could also raise hens and gather eggs, and the small barn could easily house a cow and calf as well as agricultural supplies and tools. They rented to own and paid $25 to $35 a month for a few acres of land, shared pasturage, and the house, barn, henhouse, and privy. By the early 1960s the project had reclaimed the $100,000 through rent, 40 percent of the hay crop, and 25 percent of the grain crops.3 The Burlington Homes Project was closely connected to Judge A. M. Christenson, who donated many hours to advance the project’s success.

grainy black and white photo of minimal tradition home

This Minimal Tradition home has a basement and five rooms, including space for two bedrooms upstairs. The brick chimney, slightly offset door, sets of windows flanking the front door, two windows down, and one window in the apex of the gable end are features found in the Burlington Homes houses. Originally the homes had red cedar shingles, a small shed roof above the front door, and were heated with coal furnaces. From Burlington Centennial, p. 94.

small red shed

A sturdy but small henhouse with a people door on the gable end. The tiny ventilator and ridge cap are original features of the henhouses.

The architectural firm Van Horn and Ritterbush provided specifications for these small buildings, which included high-quality materials such as fir structural members and red cedar siding, and conservative building practices like 12-inch on-center spacing for the ceiling joists in the small barns. The applicant families apparently had some say in the house design, since some have elevated basements, and some had rough-in plumbing initially while others did not.

The electrician was instructed to provide rough-in electrical wiring and detailed instructions to homeowners on how to wire light fixtures and electrical switches.4 One house, recently remodeled, had the outdoor water pump just outside the front door, which provided all the water for domestic purposes, at least initially. The specifications mentioned that the applicant families were to provide their own water well and trenching for the concrete privy vault.

Today the 1.5-story Minimal Traditional homes, small barns, henhouses, and at least one privy still dot the landscape along North and South Project Road just west of Burlington. Many of the homes have been remodeled, but the barns and henhouses are a tangible reminder of difficult times and creative solutions to improve a whole community. In the 1950s some of the lots were offered on a rent-to-own basis to veterans with disabilities, and eventually all of them transferred to private ownership.

medium size red barn

Well-preserved barn at TC Landscaping in Burlington, still useful after more than 60 years.

1 Burlington Centennial, 1883–1983 (self-pub., 1983), 92; “A Brief History: National Association of Rural Rehabilitation Corporations,” accessed Sept. 12, 2019,

2 Burlington Centennial, 90; Steven Martens, “Federal Relief Construction in North Dakota 1931–1945,” accessed Sept. 12, 2019,

3 Burlington Centennial, 90. For further background information, see Gudmund Leonard Dalstad, History of the North Dakota Rural Rehabilitation Corporation (Bismarck, ND: self-pub., 1996).

4 Specifications for the Burlington Homes Project, 3rd group of buildings, Van Horn Ritterbush Company Collection, box 6, file 47000107, State Archives, State Historical Society of North Dakota, Bismarck.

Historic Masonry Bingo: Time to Hit the Bricks!

It’s autumn and a delightful time to wander the urban centers of North Dakota and beyond. In urban landscapes we find a variety of brick patterns and stone work that over time have lent much of the historic character to downtown areas. Below is a historic masonry bingo card that you can print out and take along to identify some of the fascinating details found in common buildings. It includes brickwork details, stone masonry, and concrete masonry units (CMUs).

See if you and your friends can bingo in your walk around town by finding matching examples in your area.1 Check off the examples you see and try to get a straight line of four spaces across, down, or diagonally, and the first one to do so wins.

Brats, beer, bricks, and bingo anyone?

Bingo card with different styles of bricks

Buttered Joint – A thin masonry joint made by applying a thin layer or mortar to four sides of a brick.

Common Brick – Softer bricks, which are less uniform and regular than stock bricks. Stock bricks resist weathering better than common brick.

Concrete Masonry Unit (CMU) – Concrete blocks were introduced in the early 1900s with presses that could manufacture a single CMU when the operator was able to exert significant pressure on the press bar. A rusticated (with uneven texture made to simulate rock) version was popular by about 1916, was mass-produced, and used in foundations.

Brick Bonds

American or Common Bond – A pattern or brickwork in which every third, fifth, sixth, or seventh course consists of headers (short end of brick exposed), and the other courses.

Herringbone Bond – A variety of ways of assembling bricks in diagonal zigzag fashion.

Running or Stretcher Bond – A bond in which all bricks are laid lengthwise.

Quoin – A hard stone or brick used to reinforce an external corner or edge of a wall, often of a contrasting color to other stones or bricks.

Spalling – The flaking of brickwork due to frost, chemical action, or movement of the building structure.

Historic Masonry at State Historic Sites

Fort Totten State Historic Site

four men making bricks

Workers making bricks at Fort Totten, Dakota Territory. SHSND 0670-024

Ceramic bricks have been manufactured in what is now North Dakota since 1868 at Fort Totten. Suitable clay was near the shore of Devils Lake, and workers employed by the US Army placed mud by hand into wooden forms. These green bricks were carefully stacked to allow air to circulate, and then previously burnt bricks surrounded those to be fired. The burnt bricks were covered with clay, and a fire was meticulously maintained to bake the bricks. The structure was a scove kiln and the method very primitive. Many of the buildings still standing at Fort Totten are of the common or soft brick produced under basic conditions and completed in the late 1860s or early 1870s.2

Building with trees around it

Commanding Officers Quarters, Fort Totten. SHSND 00137 0046

Stutsman County Courthouse State Historic Site, Jamestown

exterior of a building

Stutsman County Courthouse line drawing detail by N.C. Koch and Company, Milwaukee, Wisconsin, found in A&HP Site 32SN0045.

The Stutsman County Courthouse, built in 1883, is an imposing example of Gothic Revival architecture with massive masonry walls on an ashlar granite foundation. “Father of Jamestown” Anton Klaus started a large brick-making plant in 1882, and the dark, cranberry-colored bricks came from his facility on the east side of the James River about 1.5 miles east of Jamestown. The manufactured bricks are still soft by modern standards, but much more durable than those at Fort Totten.3

De Morès Memorial Park, Medora

sandstone fountain

Photo by Lorna Meidinger.

De Morès Memorial Park is in the City of Medora. Sandstone is the featured material in the walls, paving blocks, fountain, seats, and small shed. Constructed in the 1940s, the park was a Civilian Conservation Corps project led by National Park Service landscape architect Weldon Gratton. The sandstone came from a quarry near Sentinel Butte.

1 Many thanks to Colorado Preservation Inc. and the Masonry Restoration and Identification Workshop held in Denver on July 26, 2019, for the masonry bingo idea.

2 Frank E. Vyzralek, “Brick Making in North Dakota, 1868–1998,” p. 1, MSS 10553 sub-series III Brickmaking, North Dakota State Archives, State Historical Society of North Dakota, Bismarck.

3 Ibid., p. 3.

The Construction of the 1917 Wabek Consolidated School

Wabek Colsolidated School

1917 Wabek Consolidated School Photograph by Hunter Andes, August 2018

Wabek School, located about three miles south of Plaza in Mountrail County, is a unique two-room schoolhouse constructed from two separate one-room schools. The school comprised the Charipar School building (originally located six miles to the east) and Worsley School building (originally located five miles to the south). These buildings were both moved to Wabek School’s current location in May 1917 and joined by a central addition, including a bell tower. Construction was completed in October 1917.1 The consolidation of small, rural schools into larger ones like Wabek School was a key component of education policy in North Dakota during the early twentieth century.

By this time, educators in North Dakota--as well as those in many other states--realized that rural one-room school houses could not offer the educational opportunities that town and city schools provided, and that rural school children had poor educations compared to town and city children. The disparity between rural educational opportunities and those afforded to town and city children was alarming. In North Dakota by 1915, “less than 25% of farm children finished the eighth grade, while more than 75% of the city children completed this grade; less than 10% of the farm children of high school age did high school work, while more than 60% of this class of city children were so enrolled . . .”2 Professional educators, such as Neil C. Macdonald, found that the school term in one-room rural schools was less than seven-and-a --half months, while city children were attending for nine months. Country boys in particular lost many days of schooling because their labor was needed on farms. In North Dakota, Macdonald won the state superintendent of Public Instruction position under the banner “A Square Deal for the Country Boy.” He and other educators saw the consolidated school as the best solution for providing better education to rural youngsters.3

Map of Chosolidated Schools in North Dakota

Financial aid from the State Board of Education and its continuing promotional campaign encouraged school consolidation in the early 1900s. This map shows that by 1916 there were 401 consolidated Schools in North Dakota with 151 of them open schools, which are schools built in the country and not in railroad towns. From N. C. Macdonald’s “The Problem of Rural School Betterment” May, 1917, p. 16.

Professional educators in the early 1900s had several other reasons for promoting consolidated schools, including the expense of educating students in isolated schools having less than 10 pupils, the inability to pay teachers enough so that they could better their training, the lack of social opportunities, and poor sanitation, ventilation, lighting, and heating in the school buildings. Many believed that these schools did not equip students with the knowledge needed to function in a rapidly changing democratic society.4 By 1911 the State Board of Education had begun to reward school districts that chose to consolidate with payments at a higher rate. Town and city school districts also took advantage of the financial opportunity and consolidated.

More than five hundred children had spelling bees, played basketball, and performed in school pageants at Wabek School from 1917 - 1960. For example, during the 1936 – 1937 school year, Wabek School hosted a Playday event in which students from Wright, Banner, and Mountrail Schools attended. After 1960 the community used it as a meeting hall, until it eventually fell into disuse.

For its unique construction and its representation of the consolidated school movement in North Dakota, the local township community hopes to forestall the demolition of the Wabek School building and is seeking to nominate it to the National Register of Historic Places.

1 Geo. A. Ogle & Co., Mountrail County Atlas, Plaza Township, 1917. Also Hazel A. Frye, Wabek Reunion, Wabek, North Dakota, copied transcript, 1977.
2 N. C. Macdonald, “The Consolidated School in North Dakota,” December 1915, p. 6. State Archives
3 Janice Lookhart Ginger, Neil C. Macdonald: Schoolman, North Dakota Mini-Biography Series, (Bismarck, 1986), p. 13.
4 N. C. Macdonald, “The Consolidated School in North Dakota,” December 1915, p. 8. State Archives.

Documenting the “Toxic Purity” of Lead Paint in North Dakota (1906–1909)

In 2000 historian Christian Warren published Brush with Death: A Social History of Lead Poisoning in which he introduced his construct of “toxic purity” relating to historic lead paint. Warren explains that in the early 1900s, US citizens (most well aware of the toxic nature of lead paint) still wanted pure lead paint—leaded paint with no adulterants or additives. When we think of lead paint today, we immediately associate it with the toxic side of this construct. Most consumers at that time, however, were worried about additional ingredients diluting the purity of lead paint.

One hundred twenty years ago consumers perceived lead paint to be the best. Consumers wanted to know the contents of the paint cans they purchased. If they contained ingredients such as water, benzene, chalk, or any oils other than linseed oil, many considered them to be inferior paints.1 There were no labeling laws; consumers did not even know the net weight of a can of paint. Although there were no standards set by industry or the government at the turn of the last century, consumers were hoping to purchase linseed oil thoroughly mixed with pure white lead powder and maybe some colorants.2

Capitol Shite Lead paing label

A label from one of many regional white lead paint producers.

North Dakota was the first state to fully address informing consumers about the contents of a can of paint.3 In 1905 the state legislature passed “An Act to Prevent the Adulteration & Deception in the Sale of White Lead and Mixed Paints.”4 The legislature put the responsibility for carrying out this act on the capable shoulders of Edwin F. Ladd, the “fighting” chemistry professor at the North Dakota Agricultural College (now North Dakota State University), who also oversaw the publication of five bulletins on the subject of paint, its composition, and  clinical tests of various brands of paints.

Historian Elwyn B. Robinson characterized Ladd as a zealous and courageous publicity seeker, outstanding in an era of progressive reformers.5 Ladd had already led the charge against food alteration at the college’s Experiment Station6, publishing his results in the station’s Bulletin 53. His work was important in the passage of the federal Pure Food and Drugs Act of 1906.7

In his introduction to Bulletin 67 on white lead paints, Ladd calmly informs paint manufacturers who want to challenge his results published therein to “let the courts decide.”8

The Dutch Boy's Lead Party - A Paint Book for Girls and Boys

Dutch Boy logo and brand trademarked for the National Lead Company in 1907. Click the image to see the inside pages where happy children learned that lead was a most useful metal present in light bulbs, shoes, “tin” soldiers, baseballs, china, and other common household products.

In Bulletin 70 (1906) we learn the state court ruled in favor of the state’s right to regulate paint labeling. The Bulletin also provides the names of manufacturers who used up to 24 percent water in their paints, those who provided short weight adulterated or diluted lead in their paint composition, and those using up to 70 percent inert material, which was merely filler.9 In Bulletin 86 the Experiment Station analyzed many paints with mixed ingredients such as zinc oxide, a legitimate white lead substitute.10

At the time there were many small and regional paint manufacturers due to the cost of transportation of heavy ingredients. Ladd expected that manufacturers in the western half of the United States would provide inferior paints to those in the east, but found shocking results. Regardless of the region, “dope” paints were manufactured all over. North Dakota was the exception, as by the end of 1909 Ladd felt that the legal requirement to have truthful labels had greatly improved the quality of paint sold in the state.11

New Jersey Zinc Co. ad asking if lead paint is worth the risk and advertising zinc white.

1903 Advertisement for the New Jersey Zinc. Co. We wonder if master painters and others knew about the toxicity of lead in the paints they used at the turn of the twentieth century. Yes they certainly did, better than we can know today, as they felt the agony of stomach ulcers, intestinal binding, tooth loss, gout, and arthritis. Some symptoms sent them to their beds for weeks waiting out “painters colic” if they (or more likely their apprentices) inhaled or ingested too much of the chalky powder. From Warren, Brush with Death, 61, and Olga Khazan, “How Important Is Lead Poisoning to Becoming a Legendary Artist?” Atlantic, November 25, 2013,

1 E. F. Ladd and C. D. Holley, “Paints and Paint Products,” North Dakota Agricultural College Experiment Station Bulletin 67 (1906): 575–77.
2 Christian Warren, Brush with Death: A Social History of Lead Poisoning (Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 2000), 44–45, 52–53. The first ready-mixed paint came from Sherwin-Williams in 1880, but some master painters were still having their apprentices mix barrels of dusty white lead into linseed oil in the early 1900s. “The First Paint Revolution,” Sherwin-Williams, [accessed July 11, 2018,].
3 Warren, Brush with Death, 54. Nebraska passed a paint labeling law in 1902. It was backed by the lead-based paint manufacturers, who wanted to influence consumers to think of any new paint formulas that introduced new ingredients as inferior to lead paint. The labels did not require the disclosure of the amount of white lead.
4 Laws Passed by the Ninth Session of the Legislation Assembly of the State of North Dakota, 1905, Chapter 8 SB 49, 13.
5 Elwyn B. Robinson, History of North Dakota (1966; repr., Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press, 2009), 261.
7 Warren, Brush with Death, 282.
8 Ladd and Holley, “Paints and Paint Products,” 575.
9 E. F. Ladd and C. D. Holley, “Paints and Their Composition,” North Dakota Agricultural College Experiment Station Bulletin 70 (1906): 53–65.
10 E. F. Ladd and G. A. Abbott, “Some Ready-Mixed Paints,” North Dakota Agricultural College Experiment Station Bulletin 86 (1909): 80–89.
11 Ladd and Abbott, “Some Ready-Mixed Paints,” 80–81.

The 1935 House that Introduced the FHA to Bismarck

Sketch of house

This is a 1935 sketch of 903 North 9th Street, a model home that helped introduce FHA loan programs to Bismarck. The house still exists and looks much like this, with the interior features much the same. From The Bismarck Tribune, March 10, 1935, 6.

It was a real surprise to find out so much about my neighbor’s house while researching the Federal Relief Programs started by the Roosevelt Administration. This house still embodies many modern features for energy efficiency and convenience that inspired and thrilled our grandparents. It was built as part of a nation-wide competition to promulgate the new Federal Housing Administration (FHA) and showcase the latest in modern home comforts.

In the early 1930s Bismarck and the rest of the country was in the depth of the Great Depression, and President Franklin D. Roosevelt had rolled out numerous federal agencies designed to get wageworkers re-employed. One of the industries hardest hit was construction. In 1930 Bismarck had 57 new home starts, but in 1934 there were only seven.1 Most local construction workers were under or unemployed.

These grim conditions were everywhere, so one of the best-known federal agencies specifically organized to get construction revitalized was the FHA, founded in 1934. The Better Housing Program, under the FHA, encouraged homeowners to improve their house’s function and resale value through small but complex projects that would require cabinetry or the hiring of an electrician, plumber, or other trade specialist. It also funded new homes and promoted major repairs to improve neglected housing stock through low-interest loans.2 In North Dakota, homeowners spent $1,250,000 in 1934 – 1935 on home improvements, which facilitated getting tradespeople back to work.3

The Better Housing Program publicized a competition for a new modern home to be drawn by an architect and completed by a local builder in each city. Nationally 1,500 designs were submitted. Bismarck’s 1935 home is still standing today at 903 North 9th Street. It was designed by architect H. M. Leonard and built by Robert G. Aune.

Here are some of the conveniences packaged in this Picturesque-style home. The basement floor has an insulating concrete type (new in the 1930s), according to the architect, and balsam wool batt insulation in the attic.4 The living room is in rustic design with a beamed ceiling, oak flooring on the first floor, and birch trimmings. It contains a fireplace of native rock. Other lovely characteristics of the first floor are its rustic iron stairway to the second floor, a telephone niche, and a built-in buffet.5

The builder Robert Aune was a multi-talented cabinet-maker who later headed the FHA’s office for Bismarck. In the mid-1930s there was a serious housing crunch in Bismarck fueled mostly by refugees from dust bowl conditions in the surrounding area and natural population increase.6 The FHA’s support and pent-up demand for housing led him to build his model home on the corner and the house next to it at 905 North 9th Street. He also specialized in stonework as well as being a general contractor. I’m looking for other examples of houses and buildings that he built. If you know of any, please contact me at!

A few of the many FHA-related headlines generated in the mid-1930s (Bismarck Tribune). Housing Situation Acute Here; Heavy Construction Seen. Insulation will be of Great Interest, Architect Believes. FHA Drive Produces Big Results in ND. Home Owners, Businessmen Hold Key to Success of Modernization Drive. Completed Plans for Ultra-Modern House Announced.

1 Bismarck Assessing Division, Construction Analysis, 1930 – 1950, October 5, 2005, compiled from assessors records.
2 Better Housing News Flashes by Pathé Films, 1934.
3 The Bismarck Tribune (Bismarck, North Dakota), Tue, Apr 30, 1935, 3.
4 The Bismarck Tribune Jul 8, 1935, 7.
5 The Bismarck Tribune June 10, 1935 page 6.
6 Bismarck Census Figures from:

Quirky Connections of Robinson Town Hall, WPA, and Ole

The City of Robinson in Kidder County (about 30 minutes northeast of Steele), has a wonderful town hall that was constructed as a Works Progress Administration (WPA) project in 1935, the founding year of the WPA. I am writing a National Register of Historic Places nomination for this building. The WPA federal program had one mission – to put people back to work during a Depression that began in late 1929.

Robinson Hall exterior

Robinson Hall, Main Street. Photo by Susan Quinnell.

Even though they had just incorporated in 1929, the town leaders of Robinson were able to get a WPA construction project funded and completed quickly. This was because they had already had a special election in October 1934 and passed a $2000 bond to initiate construction of the town hall, which would also feature an auditorium. Constructing a multi-purpose town hall was common at the time. They discussed the design with a Bismarck architect Herman M. Leonard. He designed the building with a bowstring truss that allowed the auditorium portion to have a 40’ x 90’ clear span. This wide open space with beautiful maple flooring was much appreciated in the ensuing decades, as it allowed events to flow smoothly. Basketball games could proceed with high throws and predictable passing. In the 1930s, schools often had auditoriums in the basements with low ceilings, water-damaged, uneven wood flooring, and large pillars. Oftentimes they were simply too small to allow full court movement. Large weddings and other celebrations occurred inside as well.


Current auditorium with original maple flooring and dropped ceiling. Photo by Susan Quinnell

More than 600 people attended the dedication ceremony on September 11, 1937. During the course of my research, this event presented a little mystery. Movies were held in the auditorium that day, yet records from the Northern Plains Electric Cooperative show that electricity didn’t arrive until 1942. So I thought there must have been an alternative power source. Further research uncovered a gas-powered contraption in a museum in Georgia that could project movies at the time and didn’t need electricity, so that seemed plausible. However, the current mayor of Robinson, Bill Bender found old newspaper articles stating that a man by the name of Ole Saltness came to Robinson in 1929 and owned a Philco generator, which produced enough power to provide electricity to a few neighbors, businesses, and the Robinson Hall. At that time, the load probably would have been little more than one or two low-wattage light bulbs per building. Instead of choking on gas fumes, the movie audience would cry “Ole, Ole!” if a fuse blew. Robinson Hall provides a glimpse into the quirks of small-town life in North Dakota during the New Deal era.