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.

How Fun Are These? Historical Facts From the State Archives, Part I

Did you know? The North Dakota State Archives staff are full of fun facts about this state’s history. That’s because we work so closely with collections, books, newspaper articles, and other documentation related to the state. When we discover something bizarre, interesting, humorous, or unique, we have the tools to dig deeper, and we love to share our findings. More proof that it’s a lot of fun to work at the State Archives!

Read on for the first installment of our staff’s favorite fun facts about North Dakota.

Ashley Thronson, Reference Specialist

While I have learned many things about the history of North Dakota since I started working for the State Archives, one of the most memorable tidbits was reading about a memorial adopted by the territorial Legislature in 1879 related to the division of Dakota Territory. A delegation traveled to Washington, D.C., where territorial Rep. John Q. Burbank of Jamestown petitioned Congress with a proposal to divide Dakota Territory along an east-west line. Compared to the current north-south division that created the two states of North Dakota and South Dakota, an east-west split would certainly have been different! This fact also got me thinking of how the territorial divisions impacted and influenced cities and communities. What would Bismarck, Fargo, and other North Dakota towns have looked like in an East Dakota or West Dakota?

Map of Dakota Territory by district, 1884. SHSND SA 978.402 R186m 1884

Matt Ely, Photo Archivist

My favorite North Dakota fun fact is that the Ward County Courthouse fielded men’s and women’s basketball teams in 1909-1910. The formation of the teams was announced on Nov. 18, 1909, in the Minot Daily Optic. The State Archives collections include a picture postcard of the men’s team. Although I have been unable to find the team’s schedule yet, a note on the back of the postcard states that they had a record of five wins and zero losses going into their final game against Minot High School. In the future, I hope to find the result of their final game as well as any information I can on the women’s team.

The men’s basketball team from Minot was commonly referred to as the Court House basketball team, as evidenced in this image, circa 1909. SHSND SA 2006-P-012-00015

Lindsay Meidinger, Head of Archival Collections and Information Management

In 1911, a standpipe and tank were built on the North Dakota Capitol grounds in Bismarck. This water tower was witness to historical moments during the formative years of the state, including the 1930 Capitol fire. Recently, the State Archives received a donation of a photograph of the new capitol building. In the background of the image, the same water tower is visible. Utilizing the State Archives’ online resource, Advantage Archives, we learned that the water tower was “unriveted and taken down” in 1957. Not only was the date it was disassembled discovered, but we also found out that the water tower was sent to Hannaford for its first municipal water system. And it still stands there today!

The water tower looks on as the original North Dakota Capitol burns, December 28, 1930. SHSND SA A3522-00001

Jayne and Sally Strawsine on the North Dakota Capitol grounds in 1948. Notice the water tower to the right of the Capitol building. SHSND SA 11567-00004

These days you’ll find the original state Capitol water tower in Hannaford.

Shifting Toward the Digital Age in State Archives

The North Dakota State Archives is the official repository of the historic records of state and local government entities in North Dakota. These records have permanent value because they document the organization, functions, and transactions of state and local governments. For example, after each administration, the Office of the Governor transfers all permanent records with historic value to the North Dakota State Archives for preservation. These records may contain proclamations, speeches, correspondence, executive orders, and files related to legislation. The North Dakota State Archives contains records from the governors of Dakota Territory through Governor Jack Dalrymple, who left office in December 2016.

As discussed in my last blog, What in the World is an Electronic Records Archivist?, management of digital records and their preservation is an extremely important and pressing issue in the world of archives. Archivists have been preserving paper and other resources for hundreds of years. Now records continue to shift to digital formats, and the shift is happening fast! This shift can be seen in the types of files in the different governors’ records.

From the territorial days and through the end of Governor Allen I. Olson’s time in office (1981-1984), all records were paper. We saw digital records begin with Governor George Sinner’s time in office (1985-1992), although it was actually only just a few floppy disks. The increase of digital files continues to be seen through the records of governors Ed Schafer (1992-2000), John Hoeven (2000-2010), and Jack Dalrymple (2010-2016).  As digital files increase, paper files decrease. Just 40 years ago, when Governor Art Link’s (1973-1981) records were transferred from his office to the State Archives, we received 334 cubic feet of paper records. Last year, when we received Governor Jack Dalrymple’s records, we only received 58 cubic feet of paper; however, we received thousands of digital files! With this trend, we might have more empty shelf space in our storage areas, but our digital shelf space will continue to fill and grow rapidly.

Researchers are able to visit the Orin G. Libby Reading Room at the North Dakota Heritage Center & State Museum to study the paper records, and in the future, online access will available for an increasing number of digital files.

These records are great for researching the state’s leaders and government happenings, but they also provide an interesting history of various technologies used throughout Dakota Territory and North Dakota.  The following images illustrate this well:

This first image is a Thanksgiving proclamation by Newton Edmonds, second governor of Dakota Territory, written in a beautiful, swooping handwriting.

Thanksgiving Proclamation by Newton Edmonds

Newton Edmonds 1864 Thanksgiving proclamation (SHSND SA 30076)

The second image is a Thanksgiving proclamation made by Governor Jack Dalrymple in 2013. This proclamation was created digitally, printed, signed by the Governor and Secretary of State, scanned, and then transferred to the North Dakota State Archives.

Thanksgiving Proclamation by Jack Dalrymple

Jack Dalrymple 2013 Thanksgiving proclamation (SHSND SA 32346)

My, how times have changed! Although I love looking at the beautiful handwriting, I can’t imagine living without a computer to type documents! It will be interesting to see how technology continues to change and what steps archivists will take to ensure the records are available for future generations.

What in the World Is an Electronic Records Archivist?

Think about how much you use your cell phone or computer in a day. You create countless photographs, text messages, emails, Facebook posts, blog posts, tweets—and the list goes on. In the past, these types of daily documentation, such as letters, photographs, journaling, and commentary on daily life, were harder to create, and more permanent. Do you have a plan of what to do with the huge amount of historic data you create every day? Or will it just be lost with time? Are we entering an age where our future generations will not be able to research our current lifestyle, culture, or heritage?

Currently, archivists are trying to establish standards, policies, and methods to preserve the massive amount of data the world is rapidly creating. Not only is the amount of data an issue; so is the pace at which technologies are changing. At the North Dakota State Archives, we are working to preserve digital records created by state agencies, organizations, and private donors.

That’s where I come in!

Lindsay Schott

This is me, Lindsay Schott, electronic records archivist for the state of North Dakota!

As the first electronic records archivist for the state of North Dakota, I am responsible for ensuring that digital files created by state agencies are preserved and accessible for future generations.

I am currently working on creating policies and procedures to establish a digital archives repository. This repository will allow me to track file formats and add descriptive terms to the files.  These descriptive terms, will allow researchers to search and access digital records online through a portal in the future.

Media varieties

This is a glimpse of just a few varieties of the external media on which state agency electronic records are stored.

The State Archives has accepted manuscripts and other types of records since its inception. With the advent of new technology, that includes electronic files. That’s what I work with, the “new” technology, whether it is a file saved on some object from the 1970s or ’80s, or whether it is a current mp3 or pdf file. On any given day, I could find a collection housed in the State Archives that contains 3.5-inch diskettes, 5.25-inch floppy disks, CDs, DVDs, or other types of external storage devices. Or, a state agency can contact me with digital files that have reached their retention period, and we work to transfer these files through a file sharing site. These collections contain the digital photographs, documents, videos, audio files, websites, emails, and more created by North Dakota state agencies. As you can imagine, many different file types have been used when creating electronic records. Just think about the all of the different programs and versions of software that have been around since the beginning of computers. For instance, Apple generally updates the iOS on iPhones a few times in one year. Imagine having to track these updates for all types of records! It is my job to ingest these electronic records into a trusted digital repository.

Progression of records

Progression of records throughout the history of North Dakota. Left: Record books in storage at the Stark County Courthouse in Dickinson, 1937 (30573-00119, detail). Middle: Box of floppy disks waiting to be ingested into the digital repository. These were created in the early 1990s. Right: A screenshot of digital records in the digital repository. Now, instead of taking up shelf space, records take up lots of server space! Click image for larger view.

Keeping up with technology is just one of the many obstacles that electronic records archivists face. Format and media obsolescence are two very large hurdles standing in the way of digital record preservation. As the technologies change, file formats, storage media, software, and hardware go out of style and use. Electronic record archivists must make sure that these obsolescent file formats are migrated to a file format that is better suited for preservation. That is one of the reasons why we have many older computers around the State Archives. In order to ensure we can get the files off old storage devices, we need to have these older computers, because they can read older storage media. For example, computers sold today don’t have a 5.25-inch floppy drive. So, we have maintained several computer towers from the time when these floppy drives were a necessity. In the future, we may have to keep several towers that have USB ports to make certain we have the capability to read USB drives.

Old computers

These are a few of the old computers we have at the State Archives to ensure we are able to access old external media.

It is crucial that electronic records archivists take action immediately. If we don’t, the information found in the files may not remain available due to the rapid, changing pace of technology.

Archivist is My Name, Organization is My Game

When people find out I’m an archivist, I am often greeted with a very puzzled look and usually another question—like, “What’s that?”

On any day, you can find me processing collections of documents, records, photographs, or moving image materials. As archivists, one of our main priorities is to make sure items are stored and organized properly in order to maintain the longest record life possible. In this blog, I’ll discuss processing a large manuscript collection that includes all of these items.

Shelves with boxes of Frank Vyzralek's collection

Some of the processed materials from the Frank Vyzralek Collection

Over the past year, I and other archivists at the State Historical Society picked up personal papers, research, and records belonging to Frank Vyzralek, North Dakota’s first state archivist. Vyzralek was a passionate historian who researched a great variety of topics in relation to North Dakota such as baseball, beer, the city of Bismarck, crime, mills and elevators, places in North Dakota, railroads, and steamboats.

When Vyzralek’s donation arrived at the State Archives, almost 400 feet of boxes contained loose papers, photographs, and audiovisual materials. We had to determine how to best organize and store this valuable collection.

The first step we took was to establish series for the different materials. In the archives world, a series is a group of similar records. The series we decided on were Research Files, Personal Papers, Photographs, and Audiovisual Materials. Within the series, we then created subseries and sub subseries that reflected the topics and types of records with each series.

Box of folders with processed records from the Mill & Elevator Sub Subseries

Processed records from the Mill & Elevator Sub Subseries alphabetized and dated in archival folders

After the series, subseries, and sub subseries were established, we began the preliminary sorting. Most of the time, each box contained many different topics and types of records in no particular order. Along with the paper items, some boxes even had different types of artifacts like matchbooks and other collectables. These items will be offered to the Museum Division, because they are three-dimensional. This part of the processing took my colleague and I about three months to complete.

Newspaper clippings

Newspaper clippings regarding mills and elevators in Burleigh County in chronological order

When we finished with the preliminary sort, we began a more in-depth process, where we tackled each subseries, organizing the records by location or chronologically. Vyzralek liked to use newspaper clippings in his research. For one sub subseries, for example Mills and Elevators, it took some time to organize the thousands of newspaper clippings in a way that would be useful to researchers who will use Vyzralek’s papers in the future. After eight months of alphabetizing and organizing chronologically, this part of the processing was complete. During this stage, we came across a few live bugs and spiders. It added some excitement (and screams) to the process.

Boxes with binders of photographs

Processing in progress on photographs

Once we were finished with the paper records, we began to process the photographs Vyzralek took or collected. Again, we had to decide how to organize the photographs in a way that would create the best accessibility for researchers. We thought it would be best to organize the photographs by those Vyzralek used for research and those that related to his personal life, such as family and school photos. Just as we did with papers, we organized the photographs by location and date. Topics in the research photos include railroad depots, postcards, aerials of towns, churches, breweries, and other buildings in North Dakota.

Containers of floppy disks

Hundreds of floppy disks from the Frank Vyzralek Collection

Vyzralek stored much of his research on floppy disks, which will also be in his collection. However, floppy disks are now obsolete. As we process the physical papers, we also have to harvest the files of his research off the floppy disks to make sure the digital files are accessible to researchers, too. This entails finding a floppy disk drive, scanning for viruses, and ensuring there are no changes to the file during the processing of the digital files. Digital files provide more accessibility to the collection.

We are still processing the Frank Vyzralek Collection, but it will be finished in spring 2016. Once processing is complete, there will be a finding aid available on our website ( for researchers to use. This is just one of many rich collections of North Dakota history that can be researched in the State Archives.

North Dakota’s First Movie Maker

1. Frithjof Holmboe (SHSND 00834-0003)

Frithjof Holmboe, the man who captured the early days of North Dakota on film. (SHSND 00834-0003)
* Photo of Frithjof Holmboe from 00834 Frithjof Holmboe Photo Collection

It was 1915, and the population of North Dakota was approximately 600,000 people and growing. To attract more immigrants to the state, the State Immigration Department hired Frithjof Holmboe, a Norwegian immigrant, to travel around North Dakota to produce promotional films showcasing the positive characteristics of several counties.  (We have not found any North Dakota winter footage from Holmboe.)  As the state began to fall into an economic depression in 1921, Holmboe closed up the Publicity Film Company studio in Bismarck and moved to California.

It was not until the 1970s that the State Historical Society of North Dakota (SHSND) found the films.  Tucked tightly away in a storage building at Fort Abraham Lincoln, the original 35mm nitrate films had visible signs of deterioration; many were oozing liquid and covered with dust. After the discovery, the SHSND, with the help of the American Revolution Bicentennial Commission, shipped the original 35mm films to a lab in New Jersey to convert the originals into 16mm safety film.  The lab was not able to save all of the film; some of it had almost completely deteriorated. The new 16mm safety film of Frithjof Holmboe’s work arrived back at the State Archives for preservation and was eventually placed in a freezer to halt deterioration.

Frithjof Holmboe’s original 35mm nitrate film

Left - Frithjof Holmboe’s original 35mm nitrate film after its discovery in a storage building at Fort Abraham Lincoln.
Right - Signs of deterioration on Holmboe’s original 35mm nitrate film before it was sent to New Jersey for transfer to 16mm safety film.
* Photos from 10782 Snyder Films Collection – Flickertail Flashbacks

Recently, we braved the -5°F temperature of the freezer and took the safety film out to re-digitize it in a less compressed format. Before re-digitizing the film, we cleaned it to remove any dust and debris that may compromise the picture quality. Cleaning also helps to preserve it, along with the low temperature and low humidity that is in the freezer.

To clean the film, we use a 91% rubbing alcohol and a lint free cloth. The higher the alcohol content the quicker the liquid dries, allowing us to digitize the film almost immediately after cleaning.

Left - Braving the freezer to retrieve the film from the Frithjof Holmboe Collection
Right - Cleaning the safety film with 91% rubbing alcohol and lint free cloth.

Digitizing Station

The equipment we use to digitize the film into a digital file.

We placed the 16mm Holmboe film onto our Tobin Video Transfer machine. This machine has a built-in video camera that can record sound and video at the same time. Our BlackMagic DeckLink then captures the film. The DeckLink records the footage in an Apple ProRes format. Originally, we digitized the film into mp4 format because it takes up less space and is a popular format; however, in order to use our historic film in the new expansion exhibits, we needed a less compressed format. After we digitized the film, we placed it back into the freezer. Since technology is always changing, there is no doubt we will be revisiting the Holmboe film again to re-digitize it into the next best format.

Although Frithjof Holmboe’s film is our oldest collection, it is only one of many film and video collections preserved at the State Archives. Our film and video collections include family films, commercial films, state agency films, and news films. If you have any questions about our collections or contributing to the collection, please contact Lindsay at

Enjoy a clip of Frithjof Holmboe’s films! We also show some Holmboe films as part of our free daily public movies showing in the Great Plains Theater at the ND Heritage Center & State Museum.