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.

Snail Mail Past: Historical Stationery From the State Archives Inspires Director’s Letterhead

I cannot count all the ways people can send an electronic message to one another these days. Email, text, Facebook Messenger, LinkedIn, Teams, Zoom, Twitter, direct message—the list seems endless. Even the once exalted method of the telephone has receded into a dim, distant place behind these other forms of messaging. People now regularly text me to see if I am able or willing to take a call. While most days I don’t feel particularly old, I fondly remember dial phones and the excitement of coming home to a blinking answering machine light! That all seems like ancient technology to me now.

On a personal level, I rarely see regular mail these days. I get forms and reports for review at the office, but personal mail is mostly just bills and junk punctuated a couple times a year with holiday or birthday cards. Truth is, I have received very few handwritten letters in the mail lately. But when I do get them, I treasure them. Before I came to the State Historical Society, I found that writing to other people the old-fashioned way—with paper, pen, and in cursive—brought me great joy. It turns out that it brought much happiness to the recipients of those letters as well. A couple of my friends confided that the letters meant more to them than I could have imagined.

My letter-writing habit got me thinking about stationery. I often used blank note cards or plain paper. But I wondered if something slightly more personalized might also fit the bill when it came to designing my director’s letterhead. I believe that answers to most of our issues in life can be found by looking back at our history. Most people think of archives as simply a way to source the past, but our State Archives contain thousands of examples of the very best historical graphic design as well. To this end, I asked Sarah Walker, head of reference services, for examples of stationery in our collections. Walker and Lindsay Meidinger, head of archival collections and information management, then served as sounding boards as I sifted through many samples. Just as I had suspected, I was richly rewarded with a plethora of beautiful, artistic, elegant, and professional examples of stationery that made me long for the days past when we communicated with each other by setting pen to paper and writing. TBH, BTW, NGL, those were the days—the days before we communicated primarily in emojis and acronyms! SMH.

A couple of the best examples I found included the stationery of the Lesmeister & Son Automobile Garage in Selz, North Dakota. I loved the graphics in this one with the old cars and the color. It just hollers “adventure.” I also liked the work on the Dakota Territory Centennial Commission stationery and other examples of company stationery that highlighted the organization’s officers. The Bismarck Diamond Jubilee graphic used the original streetscape of historic Bismarck to cleverly cast a shadow of the future Bismarck. What brilliant graphic design and use of color in that one! The steamboat and subtle other nuances in that letterhead caused my gaze to linger. Many businesses’ letterheads contained renderings of their buildings, indicating a great source of pride by the sender in the places they worked.

Lesmeister & Son Automobile Garage stationery, circa 1918. SHSND MSS 11354

Stationery made for Bismarck’s Diamond Jubilee celebrations in 1947. SHSND MSS 11354

Dakota Territory Centennial Commission stationery, 1961. SHSND MSS 11354

After looking at a few of these, Dannie Dzialo, a talented graphic artist who also works in the State Archives, and I sat down to discuss things we liked or didn’t like about the archived stationery. Reference staff also weighed in on what was attractive to them. And then we thought about a few things that are important to me. After some back and forth, Dzialo submitted the finished letterhead, which includes images of the state Capitol and ND Heritage Center & State Museum as well as the names of the agency’s departmental directors, people with whom I am honored and proud to be associated. These elements are mixed with a few others that have deep meaning to me, including, of course, my faithful Labrador retrievers and a steamboat, an expression of my early love of maritime and North Dakota history. 

My new director’s stationery reflects my love of North Dakota history as well as other elements from my past with deep meaning to me.

For the birds? Budget-friendly Invention Saves Signs and Keeps Our Feathered Friends Happy

Birds have completely domesticated the State Historical Society of North Dakota. No joke, bear with me. I have evidence. To keep our incredible archaeological and state historic sites accessible and attractive to the public, we mow them. Mowing keeps the sites looking tidy, keeps our visitors happy, and lowers the risk of fire. If you have met me and conversed with me in the last year, you may have heard that mowing grass is one of my favorite things to talk about. Never in all the time I was in museum and history school did I learn one single thing about mowing grass—the manpower and expertise needed to do so, the expense of the equipment, or the unintended consequences of mowing.

A man in a blue polo shirt and baseball cap sits behind a desk

Agency construction supervisor, fellow Detroit Tigers fan, and turf manager extraordinaire Paul Grahl.

I would like to introduce you to agency Construction Supervisor Paul Grahl. If he didn’t work for the Historical Society Paul might be professionally described as a greenskeeper, turf manager, or groundskeeper. He has numerous licenses and certificates that allow him legal access to a wide range of tools, which he uses to keep our sites looking spectacular. Paul’s responsibilities also include maintaining a vast array of equipment that we use throughout the year. He runs a tight shop; it is neat as a pin, and every tool is in its place. Frankly, it’s beautiful. This time of year, lawn mowers from quite a few of our historic sites show up at Paul’s shop on Main Avenue in Bismarck for regularly scheduled seasonal maintenance. The mowers naturally get put away in preparation for our other season—Plowing Season. Our mow/plow armada includes 17 mowers, five skid steers, one tractor loader, and a forklift.

Two orange riding lawn mowers sit in a storage area

Two examples from our fleet of 17 mowers.

Now back to the birds and their subjugation of the State Historical Society. Birds love our historic sites. We provide carefully manicured meadows for them to hunt insects and pursue other prey. To help them survey their avian domains, we provide said birds with perfect perches in the form of state historic site interpretive signs. In the bird world, our signs are unparalleled observation points and snacking stations.

One morning this past July, I was at Fort Abercrombie State Historic Site. I arrived there early (the early bird and all) and was fortunate to ride along with Site Supervisor Lenny Krueger as he opened the site for the day. Among his various duties that morning, Lenny washed the bird droppings off the interpretive signs at Fort Abercrombie while I helped sweep out some of the blockhouses. During our ride, I did some quick “Bill math” that entailed counting our historic sites, adding up interpretive signs, and generally thinking about how much time each historic site’s staff spend per week washing bird poop off interpretive signs. I came up with about $9,500 a year for our role as bird bathroom janitors. That amount seemed like a lot, but it also seemed to me like an unpleasant task that we should try to eliminate. Our interpretive signs are made of high-pressure PVC laminate. If the bird droppings are not removed from signs, they eventually damage signs by fading the colors and causing the first layers of laminate to separate.

An outdoor sign with many spots of bird poop on it

Our friends at the Minnesota Historical Society have the same sign issue. Photo by David Grabistke

Naturally I started to ponder possible solutions. The first round of thoughts involved keeping the birds off our signs. Paul had some good ideas on this topic as well. But here is the thing—I really like birds, and I really like seeing them at our historic sites (except for pigeons, that is a whole different story). So I ruled active deterrents out. I instead settled on ideas that involved improving the signs so birds continue to feel welcome at our sites, saving money, and keeping our signs clean so our staff teams can start each day facing one less unpleasant chore.

A hand sketched varsion of birds pooping on outdoor signs and a solution to add a piece to the top of the signs so the bird poop does not go on the signs

My hand-sketched visual summary of the agency’s avian predicament and revolutionary sign-saving solution.

I am no inventor, but I do love to bang around in the shop. If something is shiny or loud, I am almost guaranteed to love it. After a bit of trial and error, a piece of 5/16 steel rod, a few minutes at the anvil with red hot metal and a cross pein hammer, and six self-tapping sheet metal screws, I came up with a solution of sorts—Bill’s Sign Saver. I proudly showed the prototype to Paul. After he stopped laughing, Paul agreed to install it first at Double Ditch State Historic Site and then at Huff Indian Village State Historic Site. The Huff site is a notorious bird paradise where Paul could quickly collect a lot of data. While the marketing team might have some work to do on the name of the sign saver, early reports indicate we are really onto something when it comes to keeping signs clean. We might make a few more sign savers next summer and collect more data. I’m hoping that we can help other agencies and organizations facing the same challenges with keeping outdoor signs clean and well maintained while continuing to serve our beloved bird visitors.

A man in a blue polo shirt and brown hat stands holding a sign holder with a piece added on the top to help keep birds from pooping on the sign

Paul Grahl test fitting the sign saver in the agency’s maintenance shop.

A sign holder with a piece of metal attachd to the top to keep birds from pooping on the sign

My sign saver prototype awaits installation.

An outdoor sign installed with the attached piece of metal at the top to keep birds from pooping on the sign

Bill’s Sign Saver at Double Ditch Indian Village State Historic Site.

Expanding Our Missouri River Story with Two Transferred Sites

The State Historical Society of North Dakota has expanded! On July 1, the number of state museums and historic sites the agency operates became 59. We are excited to welcome the Lewis & Clark Interpretive Center and Fort Mandan State Historic Site into our family!

Welcome to the Family - Lewis &Clark Interpretive Center and Fort Mandan State Historic Site is written out in white text on a dark blue background. Under that is an outdoor view of a large brown building with green roof and a wooden recreated fort

Since 2015 our friends at the North Dakota State Parks and Recreation Department had managed both of these sites in Washburn. However, during the legislative session earlier this year, lawmakers changed the century code and management was transferred to the State Historical Society. For visitors, this change will be imperceptible as hours of operation, tours, and staffing remain the same.

I understand that such a sweeping change can be unnerving to those experiencing it. Leaving the familiar for the not so familiar is hardly everyone’s cup of tea. It was for these reasons that we decided to make the transition as seamless and stress free as possible for the team at Washburn. Working with Parks and Recreation Director Andrea Travnicek, State Historical Society Assistant Director Andrea Wike and the respective teams at each agency, we devised a plan to begin the transition as soon as the Legislature finalized the bill.

We created eight transition groups to work with the various parts of operations that would need to be brought over. These included Historic Sites, Human Resources, Business Office, Concessions, Museum Collections, Technology, Maintenance, and Communications. Kevin Kirkey, then-Lewis & Clark Interpretive Center manager, and Historic Sites Manager Robert Hanna of the State Historical Society, were assigned to each team. Other staff from both agencies were assigned as needed. We began having meetings in the final weeks of May. Some of the questions to be answered included how to bring IT resources over, how to handle shifting security for the sites to our system, and how the gift shops and retail purchasing would change. We discovered and addressed subtle differences between the two state agencies. 

These initial meetings went great, and before long detailed plans were in place for the July 1 transition. During the process, Kirkey decided to take on a new challenge within the state parks and recreation system. After a brief search, we selected Dana Morrison, the site’s interpretive coordinator, to replace Kirkey and become site supervisor.

A man dressed in a park ranger uniform shakes a woman's hand in the same attire. Behind them is a mural of Lewis & Clark

Former site manager Kevin Kirkey congratulates Dana Morrison on her promotion from interpretive coordinator to site supervisor.

The Lewis & Clark Interpretive Center and Fort Mandan are a remarkable addition to the State Historical Society, and, like our other sites, are now under the umbrella of the Archaeology & Historic Preservation Department. Prior to July 1, we were already responsible for the care and interpretation of key state historic sites along the Missouri River including Huff and Double Ditch Indian villages, Fort Clark and Mih-tutta-hang-kush Indian village, and Fort Buford. Adding the Lewis and Clark portion of the story allows for a more complete telling of the significant history that took place upon the banks of the Missouri from about 1400 to 1890.

A desk sits scattered with a map, candle, glasses, portfolio, quill, books, and other items

Recreation of Meriwether Lewis’ desk at Fort Mandan State Historic Site.

Operation of the Lewis & Clark Interpretive Center and Fort Mandan adds about 25,000 square feet of indoor space, as well as stunning new locations, excellent collections, and dedicated staff members. Our mission is the identification, preservation, interpretation, and promotion of North Dakota’s heritage. The Lewis & Clark Interpretive Center and Fort Mandan have found a perfect home.

Data May Be King, But Relationships Fuel State Historical Society Mission

These days, much attention is paid to data. In fact, those of us working in the history field are continually asked: “What does the data say?” And let’s face it, we live in a world where data rules. Big technology companies, social media, and the retail world are almost single-mindedly driven by data. More data means more money, and everyone tells us so. Someone is paying big money for your data. Important as data may be, I think it is wise to remind ourselves that organizations such as the State Historical Society of North Dakota are powered by an old-fashioned fuel called relationships. In fact, we thrive on them. It is my hope that every day we build at least one new relationship.

One of our most important partnerships is with the State Historical Society of North Dakota Foundation. The Foundation raises nongovernmental funding for us. The Foundation team is made up of a dedicated group of staff and board members from all over North Dakota. When people with financial resources want to support our work, the Foundation is the mechanism through which those funds are leveraged for our mission. The Foundation has been with us on the big projects such as the 2014 expansion of the North Dakota Heritage Center & State Museum, but also on the smaller projects. The Foundation provides valuable assistance in volunteer recognition and appreciation events. It provides funding for staff development grants and helps our staff share their knowledge with people across North Dakota.

Another important state partner is the office of North Dakota Tourism. This partnership is very important to the State Historical Society because they assist with marketing our museums and historic sites. We are currently working with North Dakota Tourism to co-brand a few of our interpretive centers as state visitor centers. North Dakota Tourism does not currently have official visitor centers. The State Historical Society has interpretive centers on major transportation routes in North Dakota. We feel that by partnering with the state tourism office we can deepen existing relationships and build new ones. Our first visitor center pilot project will be at the Chateau de Morès State Historic Site in Medora, opening in April.

Until the late 1960s, the State Historical Society and North Dakota Parks and Recreation were one agency. Since then, we have continued to partner with their agency on a variety of projects. Recently, for instance, I have been part of a team that consists of our historic site managers and new media specialists working with state Parks and Recreation counterparts to develop a program that will encourage new audiences to explore North Dakota’s state parks and state historic sites. We also work closely with their agency on archaeology and historic preservation projects.

Drawings of a picnic shelter that resemble a log cabin

Drawings of a Fort Abraham Lincoln State Park picnic shelter held by our agency are helping the North Dakota Parks and Recreation Department plan for the reconstruction of the shelter, which burned this past fall. State Series 30249 Historical Society. State Parks, Fort Abraham Lincoln State Park Records

At the ND Heritage Center & State Museum, we also share our physical space with paleontologists from the North Dakota Geological Survey. Because the missions of the two agencies are parallel, we collaborate on some fossil projects in the Adaptation Gallery: Geologic Time. It’s a win for all, as visitors to the State Museum can take in millions of years of history in a single stop. And data confirms that people love dinosaurs!

A dinosaur fossil with skin preserve on it sits on a mount ready for exhibit.

In a partnership with North Dakota Geological Survey, their paleontologists are working with our staff to update a State Museum exhibit about Dakota, a rare fossilized Edmontosaurus in our collection. Here, one of Dakota’s arms is fitted into a mount for future exhibition.

No conversation would be complete for us at the State Historical Society if we didn’t mention our friends groups that support the work at our historic sites across the state. By my count, we have 10 official friends groups supporting our work at Fort Abercrombie, Fort Buford, Ronald Reagan Minuteman Missile Site, Chateau de Morès, Former Governors’ Mansion, Camp Hancock, Whitestone Hill, Stutsman County Courthouse, Fort Totten, and Welk Homestead. If you were to add up all the volunteer work and financial contributions of these groups over the years, the totals would be staggering. The work these groups help us achieve is truly remarkable.

The interior of barracks with white wooden bunk beads and black framed cots with blue trinks at the foot of them.

Friends of Fort Union and Fort Buford were instrumental in providing funding for the barracks exhibit at Fort Buford State Historic Site.

The exterior of an old, large, light green house with dark green trim and brown shingles. There is a frong porch on the house.

One of our friends groups, the Society for the Preservation of the Former Governors’ Mansion, raised about $40,000 for a new roof at the state historic site. The group has been helping support the upkeep of the mansion at 320 E. Ave. B in Bismarck for decades.

The left image is of a red church with dark colored trim. The roof alternates between the dark color and red. There are four sets of double windows. The first is stained glass but is too small to see what the image is. The right image shows an old version of the stained glass window before it was restored.

Our newest friends group, the Bismarck Historical Society, is fundraising to help us restore the stained glass windows at Camp Hancock State Historic Site’s Bread of Life Church.

Finally, we must not forget the relationships that we have with our elected officials. The secretary of state and state treasurer serve on the State Historical Board. We also work with the governor’s office and staff on various programs and projects. With the North Dakota Legislative Assembly currently in session, we are reminded of our close relationships with our legislators.

A view looking from the stage of an auditorium out towards the crowd. Three men and two women sit among the blue cushy chairs.

Members of the state House Appropriations Committee, Reps. Mike Nathe, David Monson, and Mike Schatz, and staffers try out new auditorium chairs at the ND Heritage Center & State Museum. Support for the auditorium remodel came from both state funds and the State Historical Society of North Dakota Foundation.

Don’t get me wrong, data can provide us with information about our visitors, how much they make, where they live, how many children they have, how long they have been married, and if they are likely to visit us again. It is good to have data. One thing the data tells me is that that we need to pay close attention to our relationships—we need to nurture the ones we have and look for new ones. All of them are important, and all of them are beneficial.

Imagine: The Rewards and Challenges of Beginning as the New Director During COVID-19

Imagine the exhilaration of landing your dream job at one of the leading institutions in your profession. Then, the less exciting tasks of selling your current home, saying goodbye to your award-winning team, and relocating to the other end of the country for your new job on an award-winning team. Throw in the additional excitement of settling into your routine in a new state, purchasing a new home, learning all about your role and the complex organization you now lead. Just think of the exciting new challenges – learning about your coworkers, getting to know how the organization functions, the kinds of things it does, the people it reaches, and of the amazing places you will go. It’s like the first day at an exciting new school, or that first day of college!

A man in a suit bends down on one knee and uses one hand to reach out and touch a gray and white decorative circle on the ground that says IMAGINE in the middle

Bill Peterson, State Historical Society of North Dakota Director

Now imagine doing all of that in the middle of the current pandemic. Saying goodbye to the old team was sad. Instead of an emotional hug over a cold beer with people you loved, mentored, and wielded the mighty sword of history with, it was online. It should have been battle-scarred history warriors enjoying a celebratory victory lap with cheers, back slaps, and grandiose tales of unimaginable valor. But it was something else. We still nailed it—we laughed, we cried, we said our goodbyes, and gave our well wishes. But the whole thing was dimmed by COVID-19 virtuality and the flatness of Zoom. We didn’t get fist bumps, and we will never get to have those hugs. Historians will never look fondly upon those pictures. I will never reminisce over those photos of treasured friends and colleagues in our final moments together because they don’t exist.

Fast forward to the first day of that amazing new job. I still rely a great deal on what I can observe. On those first days at the ND Heritage Center, I saw nothing really. There were no people working here, and there were no visitors. It was a modern, post-apocalyptical ghost town. I did observe just how clean and secure the Heritage Center was though. If civilizations from alien worlds were observing us in those days in early June, they would have watched custodial teams cleaning the building to a spotless perfection and the security teams constantly monitoring cameras and installing body temperature scanning systems in the hope of future visitors. The word “eerie” comes to mind.

A man mops the floor in a room shaped like a box with all glass windows.

Custodian Josh Masser mopping the terrazzo floor of the Northern Lights Atrium.

The ND Heritage Center & State Museum reopened to the public June 22. My first official day, after spending weeks with outgoing director Claudia Berg, was July 1. I was able to meet more and more of the staff as they came in from their remote locations to pick up work or to drop off something. They were a bit like science fictional scouts or prospectors returning to the ship for supplies and immediately heading back out to the frontier. Some staff are now back in the building full-time, but there are still team members I have yet to meet in person who are continuing to telecommute. Learning everyone’s name was a challenge for me. I had to work at it. And now, it was all for nothing. Bank robbers wear masks for a reason—they work. I am almost back to square one with learning the names behind the masks.

These first months have taught me just how much I have to learn about North Dakota. Nothing is quite as good at reminding me of my intellectual inadequacies as the bookshelf in my new office. It is quite the bully at 16 feet long by 6 feet tall. I have never had a problem filling a professional bookshelf or case with more than enough materials to impress your average professional. I read. A lot. Yet the hulking, half-full bookshelf mocks me. Constantly lurking behind me, growling sinisterly in my ear in its Stephen King- inspired voice, “I’M NOT FULL! Why am I not sagging beneath of the weight of North Dakota knowledge containers?” The bully never stops. It’s sulking hungrily behind me as I write.

A man wearing glasses and a gray suit stands looking to the side with a very large, mostly empty, bookcase behind him

I think I just heard the bookcase say, “FEED ME."

In late July and early August, I traveled to our various historic sites to meet the rest of the teams. They opened to the public as planned on Memorial Day weekend. On these trips, I learned so much and met some of the best history professionals imaginable. We manage some of the most amazing history sites in all the land. I learned another thing about the State Historical Society of North Dakota on those trips too. We love to mow grass. I think we mow the whole state. I am told people love us for this. The grass selfishly kept right on growing during the whole summer. Maybe it is a bit of a bully, too.

A field of mowed grass

Grass, the bully at Fort Buford State Historic Site.

A view looking from a porch with a bench out to a large mowed area with buttes in the background

Grass, the bully at the Chateau de Morés State Historic Site.

An outdoor view of a large area of mowed lawn with three white buildings and a lake in the background

The green bully at Welk Homestead State Historic Site.

It’s been challenging, but I am learning. This is an amazing institution, staffed by an incredible team of professionals. They are doing great work despite the challenges of COVID-19. I am overjoyed to be here and looking forward to all of the amazing places we will go together. I still can’t see a lot of how things are getting done, but I see the great results.

I know a lot of people have been severely damaged and lost loved ones to COVID-19. Through it all I have been very fortunate, and I am grateful that my wife, Susan, and I have fared so well while so many have struggled. We are delighted to be in North Dakota. If I haven’t met you yet, I look forward to making your acquaintance soon. When you feel comfortable coming to the building, stop in and say hello. To guarantee safe passage, I would bring a book to feed the monster in my office.