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.

Music at the Mansion: Historic Sing-alongs Attract All Ages

Submitted by Kris Kitko on

Historic sites may display images or stories of tragedy and bravery in battle. Others bring to life accounts of flourishing Mandan and Hidatsa trading centers centuries prior to statehood. The Former Governors’ Mansion State Historic Site offers glimpses of life in the capital city for North Dakota’s first families of decades past, including times of celebration and song.

We can’t be certain which songs were sung around the fireplace or which Beethoven pieces may have been played on the 1910 Steinway in the parlor — but we do know that music filled the home on many occasions between 1893 and 1960 when governors and their families lived there.

For the past several years, we have incorporated live music or sing-alongs in most events, and for some events music is the main attraction. “Watermelon and Folk Songs” on Independence Day, “Labor Day Folk Songs,” and “Memorial Day Poetry and Music” commemorate special days with an assortment of songs sung by staff and visitors. These programs draw good-sized crowds eager to participate in a community sing-along.

As both an educator and a professional musician, I am grateful for the opportunity to develop these programs. It would be easy to sing only songs that I know, but offering a presentation that more accurately reflects the history of the Mansion requires much research — and rehearsal! To begin planning, I research American songs that were popular between the late 1800s and 1960, depending on our theme. Although YouTube is a fantastic resource, it’s not necessarily accurate, so I search for information from sources such as the Smithsonian Institution or academic libraries around the country. I also need to be certain that I understand the topic; many song lyrics are filled with sarcasm and double meanings, so it’s important to check the background of the lyrics before presenting them to the public at a state historic site!

After song selection, I learn the melody and the chords for guitar, ukulele, or piano. Luckily for me, Site Supervisor Johnathan Campbell understands that if I’m quietly singing in a back room between greeting visitors, I’m actually making sure I’m prepared to lead a publicized event for people who come specifically to the Mansion on Independence Day or another holiday.

Kris sitting with a guitar in hands and computer in front of her

On the day of the event, visitors sing using handouts or lyrics projected onto a screen — after all, participation is the main reason people come to music events. In fact, visitors have asked us to host more regular folk song sing-alongs.

Kris playing guitar with a bunch of people sitting and watching

Our Independence Day program is festive, often featuring shakers and percussion or a special appearance by Uncle Sam (Gary Miller) singing and playing banjo. The Memorial Day poetry and music event is much more reverent and subdued, with an opportunity for guests to share a story of a friend or family member who served in the military. One of my favorite events, it tends to be filled with heartfelt remembrances and a sense of community as we listen to each other’s stories.

Years ago, children played at the Mansion and on the grounds. We’ve hosted thousands of children for “Fun Friday,” “Birds, Bugs, and Slugs,” “Dinosaur Day,” and other programs with music. Our Flag Day parade, which travels around the Mansion block and is led by children waving handmade flags and playing drums or blowing horns, has been a newspaper photo favorite for the bright colors and lively participants.

Kris leading a parade of children with others spectating

Adding music to events may be seen as simply a “little extra something” for our visitors, but we’ve found that by adding carefully selected songs, we can offer an engaging, one-of-a-kind experience that holds a special place in the memories of Former Governors’ Mansion visitors. They often return year after year.

Oh, the Places You Will (Not) Go: Inside Forbidden Spaces at the Former Governors’ Mansion

Submitted by Kris Kitko on

In his classic children’s book, Dr. Seuss wrote, “Oh, the places you will go….” But at the Former Governors’ Mansion State Historic Site, we could add “and the places you will not go.” We have both kinds of places—rooms and nooks where visitors can spend hours, and places that are generally off-limits because of accessibility or safety issues (such as the precarious basement stairs). Let me take you now to some of those forbidden places.

Roof: The hatch in the ceiling of the attic can be reached by climbing a ladder, and the original, 134-year-old wooden ladder is still used today by our staff for roof access. The flat roof, marked by the widow’s walk railing, provides a stunning view of downtown Bismarck and beyond.

Basement: Although the interpretive panel on the basement door describes the area, venturing into the basement is more exciting. While there is electricity (bulbs hanging from cords), a flashlight provides a better view of the cistern, coal room, and the work table used by prison release trustees (inmates cleared to leave the prison briefly to perform repairs and upkeep at the Mansion). The enormous silver furnace, most likely original to the mansion, is a work of historic technological art.


Furnace in basement (Photo: Johnathan Campbell)

The cistern (the original water source) is approximately ten feet deep and can be accessed only by crawling through a space high in the wall of the coal room. Around the corner is a small bathroom (added between 1907 and 1913) with a toilet still equipped with the wooden tank and pull cord high above the seat. This area also contained a laundry room and a cupboard for canned goods.

Bathroom Cabinets: One of Bismarck’s first indoor bathrooms is mostly sectioned off from traffic. Still inside the cupboard, out of view from the hallway, sits a can of Bon Ami cleanser, circa 1940s.

Top Floor, Carriage House: As the interpretive panel describes, some of the mansion’s caretakers and their families lived in the bright, airy apartment on the upper floor of the Carriage House. Because that area is now Johnathan Campbell’s office (the site supervisor), it is not open for tours. But some of the features of the apartment remain, such as the faux burnished copper light fixtures popular during the Arts and Crafts Movement (late 1800s–early 1900s).

Light fixture

Faux burnished copper light fixture, 1920s (photo: Kris Kitko)

Servant’s Staircase: The narrow, steep, unlit staircase (without handrails) hides a memento in the dark door frame: the initials “R.H.” written in pencil. Site supervisor Johnathan Campbell speculates that the culprit was Robert Hanna, son of Governor Louis B. Hanna, who lived in the mansion with his family from 1913 to 1917.

Initials R.H. written on wood

Initials in servant's staircase (photo: Johnathan Campbell)

If you visit the mansion and would like to see some of these unique spaces, be sure to ask. We may be able to accommodate some requests, with the exception of rooftop visits—as much as we’d like to!

Every year it seems we find something yet to be uncovered, like a tossed light bulb under a staircase, letters etched in wood, or evidence of something that was once secured to the floor. So keep your eyes open; perhaps you will make a discovery in one of the places you (usually) can’t go!

What’s Big and Green…and Friendly?

Submitted by Kris Kitko on

The Former Governors’ Mansion is 132 years old. As a former residence, one thing is certain: many children have played in the attic playroom, frolicked on the spacious lawn, and enjoyed singing or playing the piano in the parlor. In fact, many phases of restoration have revealed marbles, play money, and even height marks scribbled on walls. At first glance, “play” today and yesterday may look quite different; try to find a child who isn’t engrossed in a video game or on some device.

But there are similarities. In addition to Angry Birds, children still enjoy marbles, storytelling, singing, and bean bag toss on the lawn. We are thrilled to share our increased focus on programming for young children.

With my background as an educator and children’s entertainer, I have enjoyed supplementing the already diverse programming at this state historic site with weekly and annual activities for children. For example, we have added Friday lawn games and music at noon during the summer, an annual Flag Day parade and flag making, kite making and flying, Dinosaur Day and other events. When “Fun Friday” began in June 2015, we hosted over 240 people that month just for a one-hour weekly event. We recently added Dinosaur Day; over 450 people came. The following day—Fun Friday—welcomed 61 more people. Though there is some preparation involved, those two events lasted a total of 3-3.5 hours. That’s more than 500 people in less than 24 hours for three hours of programming at a fairly small site in the heart of downtown Bismarck!

Child with dinosaur tail

Dinosaur Day tail

High visitation numbers make everyone who works in our field happy. But no one works at a historic site just to rack up numbers. While historic sites offer much to learn or uncover, they also offer an abundance of something else: heart. We all have memories that make us happy, and the work of restoring, preserving, creating, and promoting memories (with a site) is what we do—even if they aren’t our own memories!

Here’s the secret: Memories don’t belong to only yesterday. At the risk of sounding like a bad pop song, memories are created constantly within us. To learn something new and establish something in one’s memory, the new stuff coming in has to latch onto something already “there.” If it doesn’t, it’s gone because it wasn’t assigned meaning to us while it lived for a few seconds in our minds.

Back to the Mansion. A large, green, somewhat daunting house that has the word “governor” in its description carries no real meaning to a young child—unless we attempt to give it meaning. If we can do this successfully, the child creates a memory. That’s where we come in.

Former Governors' Mansion

Think back to a place you loved to visit as a child. There! Did you feel that? The “Ah, yes—that takes me back” feeling that warms the heart is why I am compelled to invite kids to sing on the west lawn stage every Friday at noon…or blow a toy trumpet in our Flag Day parade…or color homemade kites for Kite Day. We hope to inspire children at our events, and they will experience that warm feeling about our beloved Mansion and grounds.

People participating in the Flag Day Parade

Flag Day Parade

But this is no “Field of Dreams,” where we simply build it and expect them to come. Planning is fun, but spreading the word is multi-layered. Parents with young children are now “digital natives”—they grew up with social media and computers or phones, and this is where they get much of their information. An event can be seen and shared by thousands of people in a short time—like with Dinosaur Day. And when parents do come and see their child on stage singing in front of 50-100 people, you should see the phones start recording! The big, green, friendly mansion is the backdrop of film clips and photos sent all over the world to family and friends.

This site in the center of town is dignified, stately, and grand. We hope tomorrow’s adults also look at the Mansion with a warm feeling that comes with loving a special place filled with memories in the heart of their community.

Augmented Reality Brings Former Governors to Life

Submitted by Kris Kitko on

Have you heard about the hottest new couple? No, it doesn’t involve a Kardashian, but the duo certainly has a knack for turning heads. Their names are History and Technology. Wait — don't yawn and walk away yet.

Okay, it is true that History and Technology are always together, both sharply at odds and wonderfully collaborative (like any couple). But this pairing now has something to offer that has previously been inconceivable: augmented reality (AR).

Remember the View-Master? Put it to your eyes, point it toward light, and a magical, three-dimensional scene appears, bringing you right into it. Fast forward to today, and imagine the scene being in the Former Governors’ Mansion.

In the Mansion, portraits of governors hang on the walls.  The house includes a 1910 Steinway piano, architectural features such as a widow’s walk, and mysterious burn marks on the kitchen floor. What if you could point a device toward a governor’s portrait and hear his inaugural address? Or hear the Steinway playing “Bicycle Built for Two,” a song popular in 1893 when the first of 20 governors lived in the Mansion? Well, this summer you will be able to.

An app that features elements of AR allows visitors to point their phone to a “trigger” and watch or listen as history comes to life. Let me walk you through an example.

Augmented reality at the Former Governors' Mansion

Using a portrait of Governor Shortridge as a trigger, I can access his 1893 inaugural address (read by historian Dr. Barb Handy-Marchello) on my tablet (Johnathan Campbell).

Governor Shortridge, the first governor to occupy the Mansion, gave a memorable inaugural address in 1893. I would like our visitors to be able to hear it. Unfortunately, there appears to be no recording. AR to the rescue! This is how we make it happen:

Step 1: Take a picture of a trigger. In this case, Governor Shortridge’s portrait.
Step 2: Invite a voice actor to read and record a snippet from the inaugural address. Save the audio file.
Step 3: Find a few photos from the State Archives of Governor Shortridge and his family and the old Capitol from 1893.
Step 4: Using iMovie or a similar program, upload the photos and the audio file. Create a slideshow with the photos to match the length of the audio file.
Step 5: Upload and save this movie to Aurasma Studio, free web-based software.
Step 6: Visitors who have downloaded the free Aurasma app to their device can open the app and point the device to the trigger, Governor Shortridge’s portrait.
Step 7: Look at the screen of the device: The movie/slideshow with audio of the inaugural address begins to play!

But wait — there’s more!

Window lock

This original window lock dates to 1884. It is one of many objects that could be a potential “trigger” for your AR experience at the Former Governor’s Mansion (Johnathan Campbell).

That is a very basic Aurasma “aura” (projects in Aurasma are called auras). For something more exciting, what about the view from the roof? Johnathan Campbell, site supervisor and photographer, shot panoramic footage from the Mansion roof. After uploading it to my laptop, I obtained archival photos showing aerial views of Bismarck from the early 1900s. I arranged the video footage and photos in an iMovie file and uploaded it to Aurasma Studio. When visitors point their device to the trigger (an image somewhere inside the Mansion), they can enjoy a beautiful panoramic rooftop view from the past and today without scaling the 133-year-old attic ladder.

If you’d like to step inside the AR time machine (figuratively speaking) and catch a glimpse of today’s hot new History and Technology couple, you will be able to starting in July at the Mansion. In addition to the ones described, some of the AR adventures will include piecing together what caused the burn marks on the floor, watching the original Capitol fire from the Mansion back porch, and watching the demonstration in 1934 in protest of Governor Langer’s removal from office.

Johnathan interpreting

Site supervisor Johnathan Campbell interpreting burn marks on kitchen floor (Johnathan Campbell).

So keep your teleportation device at home and bring your phone or tablet to the Former Governors’ Mansion. We are finding ways for you to go back in time!

Personal Memories Connect Historic Home with Today: Gathering Stories from Friends and Relatives of North Dakota Governors

Submitted by Kris Kitko on

Family members and friends of the Former Governors’ Mansion’s past occupants still visit the site; these moments provide unique opportunities to hear behind-the-scenes stories. I’ll share a few of my favorites with you.

In September 2017, a gentleman and his two children from New York visited; he wanted to show his kids where their grandmother had once lived. His son looked me in the eye and said, “I also want to see the picture of my great grandfather.” The father then explained that his mother is one of Governor William Langer’s daughters. Langer was governor from 1932-34 and from 1937-1939.

As they walked around, the boy asked questions about historical events, some meant as a friendly quiz because he knew the answers. I enjoyed his spark and conversation style, which reminded me somewhat of a chess game. There was no doubt that he was the great grandson of Bill Langer. The girl, younger and not as captivated by talk of wallpaper from the 1930s, looked fondly at the piano. I welcomed her to play; the room filled with music from the same Steinway that Langer had acquired for the Mansion.

Governor John Davis's family

Governor and Mrs. John Davis and their children Richard, Kathleen, and John Jr., 1958. State Archives, A2528.

And then there’s the story of the secret identity. As part of our augmented reality project at the Mansion, I invited John Davis, Jr. , for an interview in September 2016, and he graciously accepted. John E. Davis was the state’s 25th governor from 1957-1961. In addition to showing me photos of his father, he told a few stories about living in the Mansion. Disliking the limelight when he was a teen, John Davis, Jr., didn’t want people to know that he was the governor’s son. While attending college in Montana, he carpooled home for holidays for two years without telling his travel companions about his father. He told them to drop him off at his grandmother's house down the road, so they wouldn’t know he lived in the Mansion!

Usher L. Burdick

Portrait of Usher L. Burdick, 1929. State Archives, B0076.

Another favorite encounter was with Ruth Haugland in the summer of 2016. She introduced herself and said that she was in her eighties but did not describe—at first—her ties to North Dakota history. As we chatted, I mentioned my background in teaching. Haugland said, “My father was a teacher. In fact, that’s how he met Usher Burdick.” Usher Burdick served in the ND House of Representatives, was lieutenant governor from 1935 to 1945, and served in the US House of Representatives from 1949 to 1959. Long before Burdick’s political career, Haugland’s father, Torger Sinness, answered a call to teach a bunch of rowdy schoolboys (including Burdick). The school, on Graham’s Island on Devil’s Lake, had lost a number of teachers who had literally run from the classroom and never returned; boys had been known to toss teachers or students out the windows!

Haugland said her father walked into the classroom with a pistol in his pocket, which quickly settled the class. Although Burdick put much energy into trying to scare away Sinness (including sneaking into his bedroom one night and beating him up), the teacher stood firm and eventually became Usher’s friend, mentor, and campaign manager throughout Burdick’s political career.

Another story about Haugland’s father related to the boneshaker (a bicycle with one large wheel and a tall seat) displayed in the Mansion’s Carriage House museum gallery. As we looked at it, Haugland mentioned that her father was never afraid of a challenge. She shared, “A man once challenged him to a boneshaker race. It was to be held the next day — and for a cash prize.” She leaned in closer. “Although my father had never been on a boneshaker, he accepted the challenge,” she said. In bed early to be rested for the next day, he didn’t fret about it. “And the most amazing thing happened,” she continued. “He said that he had a dream that played like a movie, and he was shown everything he needed to know about climbing onto a boneshaker, pedaling, balancing — and winning a race.”

The next day, using the images from his dream, he climbed onto the bone shaker and left his competition far behind.

Although these are brief encounters, they are the moments that breathe life into a historic site, often playing out like the “movie” in Torger Sinness’s dream. I love to see visitors’ eyes brighten at the story of the boneshaker race or a governor’s son who went to great lengths to blend in with his peers. And the story collection is growing for this interpreter who, some days, is lucky enough to catch a trip through time with the unexpected visitors who walk through our door.