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.

Road to the North Dakota Blue Book: A “Treasure Trove” of State Information

When the 2023-2025 North Dakota Blue Book is unveiled in a ceremony this Wednesday at the state Capitol, the event will mark the culmination of a two-year effort by the secretary of state’s office, other state employees, and volunteers to compile what Gov. Doug Burgum has called “a treasure trove of information about all things North Dakota.”

An orange book cover titled Legislative Manual

Double Ditch Indian Village State Historic Site outside Bismarck is featured on the cover of the new North Dakota Blue Book.

Secretary of State Michael Howe said the biennial Blue Book, published by his office, depended on “a multitude of folks that care about the history of North Dakota.”

For Audience Engagement & Museum staff at the State Historical Society, our involvement began in October 2022 when Clearwater Communications, which coordinates the effort, contacted department director Kim Jondahl to let her know the Blue Book Committee had selected North Dakota state historic sites as the featured chapter topic.

Over the next three months our team got to work. Kim put in countless late nights researching and writing the chapter with input from our state historic site managers and supervisors. Editor Pam Berreth Smokey and I condensed and edited text. Meanwhile, New Media Specialist Supervisor Angela Johnson sourced images to accompany our contribution.

The result, a 50-page chapter providing an up-to-date overview of the state’s 60 state museums and historic sites, underscores the “power of place … [to connect] us to the world around us,” according to State Historical Society Director Bill Peterson, who will speak at the Blue Book launch. The chapter traces the agency’s evolving relationship with these sites, from the purchase of the first state historic sites in the early 1900s to the ways the state continues to steward and develop these significant locations today.

In addition to the featured chapter, the Blue Book, the 38th since statehood, includes a wealth of reference material on North Dakota’s branches of government, elections, natural resources, educational system, tribal-state relations, and key industries. A concluding chapter, penned by State Archives Head of Reference Services Sarah Walker, explores 150 years of Bismarck history in commemoration of the capital city’s sesquicentennial celebration in 2022.

All 141 state Legislators, cabinet members, elected officials, university presidents, the State Library, and contributors will receive copies. Blue Books are also sold in the ND Heritage Center & State Museum’s store, with past editions accessible via the State Historical Society website.

The 2023-2025 Blue Book, which clocks in at over 600 pages, has come a long way since the slim 180-page inaugural 1889-1890 edition. That roughly pocket-sized volume comprised an array of political and official statistics, the North Dakota Constitution, and founding national documents such as the Declaration of Independence and the Articles of Confederation. It followed a similar format to Long’s Legislative Hand Book and Rules of the Legislative Assembly of the Territory of Dakota, produced in 1887 and 1889 by Mandan attorney Theodore K. Long.

An orange book cover titled Legislative Manual

The inaugural, not so blue, Blue Book. SHSND SA 353 N811 1889/90

Interestingly, that first edition wasn’t even blue, nor was it called a blue book, a term adopted from the British who printed government reports and diplomatic correspondence in blue covers at least as early as the 1600s. The copy housed here in the State Archives has a salmon-colored cover—it wouldn’t go blue until 1897—and was known as the Legislative Manual. In the 1920s and 30s, the book was published under the title, the Manual for the State of North Dakota, before becoming officially known as the North Dakota Blue Book in 1942.

For much of the 20th century, the Blue Book was produced sporadically—about once every decade. But in 1995, Howe’s predecessor as secretary of state, Al Jaeger, began publishing it biennially. “All the credit I think goes to Al understanding the value of having that history in book form and also looked at every two years,” said Howe, a former state legislator who was elected secretary of state in November 2022 and in this role also serves on the State Historical Board. “Al since 1995 has been a part of every Blue Book including this current one that’s coming out.” Moving forward, the secretary of state’s office is exploring ways to expand the book’s digital format. They also plan to continue the tradition of printing the Blue Book (although exactly what that will look like is under consideration).

A tan book cover with an American flag on it titled Manual for the State of North Dakota 1930

In the 1920s and 30s, the Blue Book sported a distinctly patriotic cover. SHSND SA 353 N811 1929

Over the years, while state government statistics and reference material have remained a staple of the publication, the information inside has varied—early editions included everything from postage rates and the value of foreign coins to the names of registered law students and a listing of insurance companies operating in North Dakota. Some editions even reprinted England’s 1215 Magna Carta, which famously limited royal power. And in the era before women and many minority groups received full voting rights, the 1909 Blue Book featured a section on the qualifications needed by state to vote. With some variation, the common requirement was that you be male and at least 21 years old.

For its amusement quotient, however, the 1942 edition is a standout. It not only notes the number of large candy factories in North Dakota (two in case you were wondering) but also gives space to then-Gov. John Moses’ thoughts on our infamous winters. Moses deemed these “sadly misrepresented” and “widely dramatized in the public press,” on average “no more than seven to fifteen degrees below those recorded at St. Petersburg, Florida.” Ahem.

A blue book cover titled North Dakota Blue Book 1942

Want the skinny on North Dakota candy production? The 1942 Blue Book has you covered. SHSND SA 353 N811 1942

If that wasn’t enough to make readers pack their bags and head our way, Moses ended his homage to the state by citing the words of North Dakota poet James W. Foley: “There’s something in Dakota … makes you bigger, broader, better, makes you … noble as her soil … makes you mighty as a king.”

The 2023-2025 North Dakota Blue Book will be launched from 3-4 p.m. on Wednesday, Dec. 13, by Secretary of State Michael Howe in the Memorial Hall of the state Capitol. The event, featuring musical entertainment, light refreshments, and remarks by officials, is free and open to the public. Contributors will be able to pick up their complimentary copies at that time.

New Exhibit Offers Immersive Experience of Native Stories and Landscapes

From the first step inside On the Edge of the Wind: Native Storytellers & the Land at the State Museum in Bismarck “you get the sense this truly is another world,” says Exhibitions Manager David Newell.

Produced by the North Dakota Council on the Arts in association with the State Historical Society, the new exhibition, which opens to the public Thursday, explores connections between cultural practices, regional landscapes, and tribal oral narratives. It’s the result of a 10-year project by State Folklorist Troyd Geist to photograph landscapes sacred to Native American tribal nations that share geography with North Dakota and to record Indigenous stories relayed by elders and knowledge keepers related to these significant and spiritually powerful places. As audiences move through the Governors Gallery, they will encounter unique sensory experiences allowing them to immerse themselves in the featured stories, landscapes, and artifacts.

With that in mind, I asked Newell to give us a behind-the-scenes look at some of the elements that set this exhibit apart.

1. The Power of Plants

As you enter the exhibition, free-standing walls following the curve of the Missouri River guide you first to the flowers and plants section. This area inspires you to think “differently” about nature, Newell points out. Images of elders collecting botanicals to be used for medicinal and spiritual purposes can be seen along with Ojibway herbalist and artist Marvin Baldeagle Youngman’s exquisite beaded medicine bags. (Baldeagle Youngman is also pictured in one of the photographs.) The bags, adorned with realistic nature-inspired designs, depict traditional medicines such as wild rose and yarrow. At four smelling stations you can even lift a flap and take in the aromas of cedar, sage, sweetgrass, and mint.

Sweetgrass and mint smelling stations in the exhibit’s plant section.

An adjacent display of tobacco, pipes, and accessories speaks to that plant’s importance in connecting people to the spiritual realm. “Pipes act as a communication device,” Newell explains. Prior to the exhibit installation, an elder conducted an outdoor ceremony making an offering to the land and blessing the ND Heritage Center & State Museum. Part of this involved the blessing of red tobacco ties (small pouches stuffed with tobacco), which were placed in the gallery’s four cardinal directions. These will remain in the space for the duration of the exhibition.

2. Guided Imagery and the Medicine Wheel

Standing in the center of a Medicine Wheel representing the four cardinal directions, visitors look at screens showing the view in those directions from the summit of Butte St. Paul. Eight earphones are available for individuals or groups to listen as Dr. Linda Gourneau, a family medicine physician, narrates a five-minute guided imagery experience of hiking the butte accompanied by flute music. By linking the trail walk with the Native American concept of the Medicine Wheel and its role in promoting well-being and balance, the space imparts a sense of calm and “transports you to someplace else,” Newell says.

3. Northern Lights Experience

This sense of calm continues seamlessly in a nearby space featuring a projection of the northern lights and the sounds of night animals interspersed with flute music by Mandan/Hidatsa storyteller Keith Bear. (Fittingly, Bear’s Native name O’Mashi! Ryu Ta translates to Bright Light That Waves in the North Sky.) Here, visitors can sit on benches while immersing themselves in a visual and aural experience. Newell dubs this space “a contemplation zone.” Quotes from storytellers remind the viewer of the interconnectivity of life and the spiritual power of the natural world.

4. Story Spaces

Exhibitions Manager David Newell demonstrates one of five kiosks, where visitors can watch Native elders recount traditional stories. The knowledge keepers have been granted the right to tell these stories, which can also be viewed in the ND Heritage Center’s Great Plains Theater.

The heart of the exhibit is the story spaces, where visitors can watch short videos of the elders and knowledge keepers recounting their narratives about significant landscapes. (As variations of the same story may exist, those on display here represent the individual storyteller’s version.) Interpretive panels provide an overview of each story along with comments and quotes from the elders. Surrounding the kiosks are Geist and Swiss photographer Barbara Hauser’s stunning digital photographs on aluminum panels, as well as associated objects and artifacts, most of which are part of the North Dakota Council on the Arts’ collection.

Bison skull and sage from Buffalo Lodge hill in North Dakota. This site figures prominently in a story told by Ojibway knowledge keeper Alex DeCoteau about a boy who sacrificed himself so “the spirit of the buffalo” would always be found there to guide and bless the people.

Newell stops in front of a case containing a large cottonwood disk showing the star-shaped pith at its core. “This is my favorite story in the whole exhibit,” he says, referencing the Dakotah account of “a little star that wants to come down to the earth and live amongst the people because they make it so happy.” When the other stars tell him he can only do so if he hides himself, the star “hides inside a tree. And he’s still there.”

State Folklorist Troyd Geist personally cut this wooden disk used to help illustrate the story of “The Star in the Cottonwood Tree” from a fallen tree along the shores of the Missouri River.

The spaces surrounding the story kiosks are meant to immerse the visitor in the narration on the screens, allowing the words on the panels to recede and the experience to “take over,” says Newell. Twenty offering stations, interpolated throughout the exhibition, contain an abalone shell smudge bowl filled with sage accompanied by a small red pouch of tobacco as a sign of respect and gratitude. In some instances, elements from the narratives have been incorporated into this standard offering. For example, Hunkpapa Lakota elder Anna Littleghost told of the importance of keeping the supernatural Little People (said to inhabit the area around Spirit Lake) happy and noted their yen for red jellybeans, which she includes in her offerings to them. Newell sifted through six bags of jellybeans to procure the necessary amount of spicy cinnamon and red cherry jellybeans for the offering station in this area.

Tobacco pouch icons on a story menu reflect a modern digital representation of the traditional tobacco offering to the storyteller.

The exhibit concludes with a wall of prayers from the storytellers as they give thanks for the Earth's “power and energy” (Mary Louise Defender Wilson, Dakotah/Hidatsa) and meditate on the importance of stories to provide “the connection, the ancestral lineage all the way back to Creator” (Debbie Gourneau, Ojibway).

The sacred and contemplative nature of the landscapes and stories influenced all aspects of the exhibition’s design and organization, from its low-lighting and tonal qualities to the decision not to include the locations of referenced sites.

“We’ve made a conscious effort to respect the narratives of the storytellers and the sacred nature of the sites,” says Newell. “We are deeply appreciative for the trust these elders granted us.”

On the Edge of the Wind: Native Storytellers & the Land runs from April 27 through October 2024 in the Governors Gallery at the ND Heritage Center & State Museum in Bismarck.

Night at the Museum: “Sleeping Over” in the Past at North Dakota’s Only State Historic Site Inn

I awake in my canopied four-poster bed to a peal of thunder from beyond the lace-curtained windows feeling a bit like a character in a “Bridgerton” or “Downton Abbey” spinoff. Where am I? But more importantly what century am I in?

For guests, like myself, of the Totten Trail Inn at Fort Totten State Historic Site near the shores of Devils Lake, such questions are almost inescapable. Located in the former 1st lieutenants and captains’ quarters, the inn invites you to “send your imagination dancing to the tune of a different time and temper,” a time noted for its fainting couches and wreaths made of human hair. But I digress.

Now an Airbnb, the two-story inn, managed by the Fort Totten State Historic Site Foundation, has 10 rooms, each furnished with pieces representing the era from 1870 to 1910.

The grand oak staircase at the Totten Trail Inn.

“[Airbnb] has opened up our inn to people who have never heard of it,” says Gayle Gette, foundation treasurer. She adds that since becoming an Airbnb this year, by mid-July occupancy was already nearly double that of the entire 2021 season. Before fees, rooms run respectively $100 (with a shared bath) and $125 (with a private bath) per night.

Soon after my arrival, Jay Olson, a descendent of early Devils Lake settlers who along with his wife, Vangie, was serving as innkeeper during my stay, appears to lead me and others on a tour of the premises.

Built between 1867 and 1873 and situated within the present-day Spirit Lake Reservation, Fort Totten fulfilled multiple functions before becoming a state historic site in 1960. Initially constructed as a military outpost, by 1891 the fort had been decommissioned and converted into an Indian boarding school, teaching industrial and domestic skills alongside some basic academic education. After a brief interlude as a tuberculosis preventorium for high-risk Native children in the mid-to-late 1930s, the fort returned to an education focus, serving as a day and boarding school from 1940 to 1959.

The walls of the inn amplify the multiple narratives, which animate the surrounding fort’s 16 original buildings. Nearly every inch of surface space in this veritable living museum is covered with memorabilia, framed photographs, and historical tidbits. Corridors feature political, military, and Indian school artifacts, interpolated with gee whiz-style facts, such as: Two-thirds of the 7th Cavalry soldiers who died at the Battle of the Little Bighorn with Lt. Col. George Custer “were from companies stationed at Fort Totten,” and “by the turn of the 20th-century North Dakota had three times as many miles of railroad in proportion to its population as did the United States.”

A hall featuring a replica of Crazy Horse’s rifle leads into the elegant parlor and dining area.

In the early 1900s, during the boarding school days, the building was renovated to better meet the needs of the employees who lived there. “What you see now is pretty much what you saw” then, Jay notes.

Rooms and hallways bear the family name of their sponsor. Mine for the night is the Horne Room. (Bev and Ray Horne were influential in the effort to transform the building into an inn, which opened in 2002.) Reflecting the family’s historical ties to flight and air racing, the room is decorated with such items as a vintage aviator cap and goggles, as well as a Charles Lindbergh biography, should insomnia threaten.

Just off the spacious dining room and parlor (outfitted with piano, gramophone, ornate fainting couch, George and Martha Washington portraits, and a circa 1875 hair wreath), there’s a full kitchen with pressed-tin ceilings and walls, where guests can store food or even cook. It’s best to come armed with supplies, as the inn no longer offers breakfast.

Upstairs guests can while away an afternoon over puzzles and poker in the game room (a TV is discreetly tucked away in a cabinet should you need a break from the past) or peruse binders of old photos and site-related articles in the cozy reading room adorned with stained glass, Toby mugs, and a towering globe. And if you are feeling lightheaded or winded after all those steps, a second fainting couch is strategically placed at the top of the staircase.

My digs for the night: the aviation-themed Horne Room.

Given its more than 150-year history, guests inevitably want to know if the inn has any resident ghosts—one popular travel blog dubbed it “notoriously haunted.” Jay is quick to downplay such suggestions, chalking up any alleged unusual occurrences to the “creaks and groans and shadows” that play tricks on your brain.

When my tour concludes, I head out for dinner and then, at Vangie’s suggestion, an evening at the White Horse Hill National Game Preserve, just a few miles from Fort Totten off Highway 57. You may not be able to “roller skate in a buffalo herd,” as the old Roger Miller ditty reminds us, but you can get close enough to see their nostrils (keep your car windows closed, folks). Farther up the hill, the prairie dog town viewing platform provides the ideal perch for taking in unique rodent renditions of barking ballads and synchronized head moves.

Back in my room night descends swiftly, the dim light and pompoms from the bed’s canopy casting eerie shadows up the walls. I slip under the pink crocheted bedspread, drifting off to the sounds of footsteps overhead as guests return for the evening.

By the time I creep out to the dining room the following morning, the thunderstorm has passed, and the reassuring drip of a coffeemaker can be heard. It’s so pleasant in the light airy space I’m tempted to toss aside the day’s sightseeing agenda and assume a new persona as a lady of 19th-century leisure. But after a second cup of Jay’s suitably strong coffee and a chat with Vangie, I venture out to explore the Fort Totten State Historic Site, starting at the visitor center. There you’ll find an overview of the site’s evolution, along with brochures allowing you to experience the buildings through the eyes of a soldier, an industrial school student, and a Native American boy who played on the high school basketball team in the 1950s.

Fort Totten State Historic Site invites you to experience the space from multiple perspectives.

The interpretive content touches on the site’s darker chapters—the military fort’s role vis-à-vis surrounding tribes, the harsh conditions of the boarding school. But the site also details the ordinary life of its various inhabitants, from diets to daily chores to downtime, and even features associated curiosities such as the eccentric headgear of the Odd Fellows order established at the fort in 1879 for the care of military widows and orphans.

At the former military hospital/school cafeteria building, I duck into the Pioneer Daughters Museum. Exhibits highlight the organization’s sizeable collection of items donated by settlers and members of longtime Lake Region families, including the Bergstroms, whose name is on one of the rooms in the Totten Trail Inn. Among the items on display is an anchor from the famed Minnie H steamboat (which once plied the waters of Devils Lake), a 7th Cavalry helmet with horsehair plume (from notorious Devils Lake founder and one-time Fort Totten engineer officer Heber M. Creel), as well as an impressive array of glassware and children’s toys. Though the Pioneer Daughters turned the operation of the museum, on-site since the 1930s, over to the State Historical Society in 2016, they still help with Living History Field Day tours and reenactments.

Produce grown in Fort Totten’s victory garden is donated to the Hope Center food pantry in Devils Lake.

Emerging from the museum, the late morning heat threatens, and I take refuge under some trees looking out on the fort’s victory garden. Bells from the mission across the street echo in the Sunday air. For a moment, the sun’s glare on the surrounding green of the parade ground sets my head spinning. Do I sense I dizzy spell coming on?

Good thing I know where to find a fainting couch.

Totten Trail Inn can be booked online via the Airbnb website from Memorial Day weekend through Labor Day weekend. For more information, visit

Winter Wanderlust: Snowshoeing at Missouri River State Historic Sites

Forget about hibernating this winter. On a crisp day, there are few things more invigorating than getting outdoors for some exercise along the Missouri River. Luckily for us, some of North Dakota’s most significant historic sites also lie in close proximity. Throw in a pair of snowshoes, and you’ve got yourself the perfect outing: good for mind and body.

A woman dressed in black snow gear and red snowshoes stands with one leg up next to a sign that reads Walking Trail

The best way to see an (outdoor) state historic site.

A recent out-of-state visit from my dad proved the perfect opportunity to learn more about how the Missouri River story has shaped the region’s history. With snowshoes in the trunk, Dad and I set out on a snowy day in late January to our first destination: Fort Clark State Historic Site. Located 15 miles southwest of Washburn, the site is the former home of a prominent 19th-century American Fur Company trading post of the same name as well as a Mandan village (Mih-tutta-hang-kusch) and trading hub.

After being delayed by a passing coal train, missing the turn-off three times, and a few false starts trying to strap on our snowshoes, we make our way over a picturesque stone stile (straight out of a fairy tale) and gingerly descend through a thicket of trees to the river bottoms, where we pass fresh rabbit tracks. Not far away lie fields where in warmer months Mandan women would have come to gather corn and other crops from their gardens. The snow is deep here, and I’m grateful for our fancy footwear, allowing us for the most part to travel over (rather than through) the soft banks (yes, there were a few tumbles). On the other side of the barbed wire fence running along the state historic site’s property line, we spot an elevated hunting blind and a tree stand strapped to a trunk, which adds a hint of danger to the milieu.

I snap a few photos, then we decide to head back up the escarpment to the first high terrace and learn more about the site. Above us a flock of geese flies by, their honks jarring the pristine white silence.

The images show a man dressed in all black winter gear and snowshoes. In the left image he is reading a sign. In the right image he is standing next to a barbed wire fence with trees

Dad at Fort Clark State Historic Site, snowshoeing in the footsteps of explorers.

At the interpretive signs, we carefully brush off newly fallen snow to read about this former crossroads of trade and once-vibrant cultural confluence. During its three decades of existence, Fort Clark attracted a remarkable stable of high-profile visitors (John James Audubon, George Catlin, Prince Maximilian, and Karl Bodmer among them).

But the same steamboats that brought visitors and goods also carried the smallpox that would decimate the Mandan community in 1837. The following year, the neighboring Arikaras moved into the village. After Fort Clark burned in 1860, its employees worked out of the nearby Primeau’s Post, which had been acquired from a competitor. Surface features at the site indicate the archaeological remains of the trading posts and the earthlodge village.

As I finish my loop around the interpretive panels, the wind and snow whip up something fierce. Small wonder why in colder months the Mandans resided in winter villages in the protected wooded river valley. Visitors these days can take refuge in a small fieldstone shelter on the site built by the Civilian Conservation Corps in the 1930s. I duck inside and sign my name in the guest book (hooray for being the first visitor of 2022!) then hurry back to the warmth of the car, where Dad has long since repaired.

Prior to returning to Bismarck, we stop off at the Knife River Indian Villages National Historic Site in Stanton, a hidden gem with a strikingly designed abstract visitor center meant to suggest a bald eagle. We pull up minutes before closing but still manage to take in a small exhibit on the culture and lifeways of northern Plains American Indians, and thanks to the lone National Park Service employee on duty even sneak a peek inside a reconstructed earthlodge out back. Dad is duly impressed.

The next day is bright and clear, and we drive 25 miles south of Bismarck to Huff Indian Village State Historic Site, just down the road from the Huff Hills Ski Area. Snow has collected near the entrance, and the car soon gets stuck in a literal rut until a shove or two by Dad, summoning his inner native North Dakotan, frees us.

A woman dressed in black winter gear and red snowshoes stands at a stamping station next to a small brick structure reading Huff Indian Village Site with an interpretive panel in front of it

Many state historic sites like Huff Indian Village feature stations where you can transfer a stamp to your North Dakota Passport.

Once fortified on three sides by a palisade wall and ditch system, this mid-15th century Mandan settlement is sandwiched between the river and a path frequented by rafters of wild turkeys and whizzing snowmobiles. I snowshoe up to the riverbank and look out over the frozen Missouri to the snowy hills in the distance. (For the more reflective among us, or dads with aching hips, there’s also a bench for riparian daydreaming.)

At first glance the site may appear a great white sea of emptiness, but depressions where more than 100 rectangular houses (and one slightly rounded dwelling) formerly stood, as well as a ceremonial lodge and plaza, are evident on closer inspection. Below ground, as the interpretive signage explains, cache pits (an estimated 1,700!) stored produce before mold or infestation turned some into de facto prehistoric landfills. I imagine living in this densely populated 12-acre village, with its obvious concerns of impending attack and need for a strong civil defense. I marvel at the ingenuity of the Mandans who built this community by the river, where even in the midst of threat and foreboding, dances were held and crops cultivated.

The image on the left shows a woman in black winter gear and snowshees standing next to a froxen river. the right image shows a man in black winter gear and showshoes standing next to an interpretive panel with hills in the background.

Huff Indian Village State Historic Site offers visitors sweeping views of a frozen Missouri and the hills beyond.

While Huff was only occupied for a short time (roughly 20 to 30 years), I like to think that the spirits of its former villagers are still watching from afar, as we traverse these landscapes in much the same way as upper Plains people would have traveled so many years ago. Exploring Huff Indian Village and Fort Clark by snowshoe made our visits seem more authentic and evocative, moving through space just as previous generations would have done, in a different time but the same place.

Strasburg Sampler: The Welk Homestead, a Hardware Store’s “Secret” Door, and a Little Sod House on the Prairie

My drive down U.S. Highway 83 runs straight and lumpy through green fields punctuated by the occasional small town anchored by grain elevators and church spires. It’s high summer, the day of the Accordion Jam Fest at the Welk Homestead State Historic Site just outside Strasburg, and I’m eager to see where the famed entertainer and bandleader spent his early years. Still relatively new to my job at the State Historical Society of North Dakota, I’ve made a pact to acquaint myself with as many state historic sites as possible before winter’s onset.

Large white road sign that reads Lawrence Welk Birthplace - 2 miles west 1/4 mile north - Memorial wknd. thru Labor Day - 10:00am to 5:00pm. There is also a graphic of an accordion on the sign.

While the Welk Homestead is my ultimate destination, I’ve been told I can’t miss a stop at Keller’s Hardware Hank on Strasburg’s Main Street, where a “secret” door in the shop leads to a former hotel turned museum.

I’ve called ahead, and when I arrive co-owner Gary Keller wastes no time in giving me a rundown of the building’s evolution since his immigrant grandfather Valentine Keller bought the place in 1910. At the time, it was an implement shop, which sold windmills and horse-drawn farm equipment. By 1917, Valentine had ripped “the roof and front off,” added a story, and expanded the building into a hotel and restaurant, which opened in March of that year and offered “modern” amenities such as hot and cold running water, electric lights, and steam heat. For a quarter century, the hotel would serve as a way station for an array of colorful characters, including bootleggers, boxers, and even the odd bear.

Left photo is a sign that reads Keller Hotel. Right photo is a man pushing a case displaying paint swatches out of the way of a hidden door.

An overhead sign in Keller’s Hardware Hank, left, points in the direction of a “secret” door located behind a wall of paint sample cards.

Yes, you heard that right.

As Gary explains: “There was a vaudeville act in town, and they had a trained bear. After the performance, they brought the bear into the hotel, took him down into the basement and chained him to a post. Dad could hear the bear’s chain tinkling on the concrete.”

Needless to say, his father, Valentine Keller Jr., who was spending the night in the small room behind the lobby desk, had a tough time falling asleep.

In the early 1940s, Valentine Jr. opened a hardware store on the ground floor, which has been in existence ever since, and the hotel shuttered shortly thereafter, never to reopen again. An uncle and his wife briefly occupied a couple of the former upstairs hotel rooms, and Gary remembers playing in their quarters as a child and thinking, “It would be wonderful to live up here … like living in a castle.”

While not exactly a secret (a sign hanging from the ceiling points in the direction of the “Keller Hotel”), accessing the door requires Gary to move a portable wall of paint sample cards. Gary and his brother Dick converted the upstairs into a museum in preparation for the 2002 Strasburg centenary. (If you want to see the museum, an appointment is advised.)

Once upstairs, visitors enter a time warp. Three of the 11 hotel rooms are preserved in their original state with the remaining rooms featuring a variety of period-appropriate reconstructions, including a barbershop and a bank lobby with fixtures from Strasburg’s very first bank. (Gary’s grandfather bought the fixtures after the bank went belly-up during the Depression.) Fittingly, there’s also a display on local musicians, including Mike Dosch, John Schwab, and Lawrence Welk. According to family lore, Welk is said to have played weddings at the hotel and to have been sweet on one of Gary’s aunts.

Left photo is room with a bed covered in yellow sheets, light blue walls, and purple covering the window. There is also a picture hanging on the wall and a multicolored rug on the floor.

A preserved hotel room, left, and fixtures from Strasburg’s first bank in the upstairs museum.

The longstanding and tight-knit connections, which exist among the families of this German-Russian community, are evident throughout the tour. Mike Dosch, Gary tells me, is the great-uncle of his niece Kathy Dosch, who has popped upstairs during my tour to say hello. John Schwab’s brother Lawrence was married to Gary’s aunt, Regina Keller. John and Lawrence, who would die tragically in Room 11 during the 1918 Spanish flu, grew up in the Schwab sod house (John would also raise his family there), which is located about six miles northeast of town and open to the public. The widowed Regina would go on to marry another Schwab brother and live in the sod house for a time with him and her in-laws. Two of John Schwab’s sons would marry two sisters, who happened to be Lawrence Welk’s nieces. (In an interesting twist, these two sisters Evelyn and Edna Schwab would sell the Welk Homestead to the State Historical Society in 2015.)

By the way, had I seen the Schwab house? Kathy asks. I had not, and after lunch at the Blue Room bar, I set out past a “road closed” sign at the far end of Main Street (there is no paving from here on out), proceed around two curves, then continue straight until I come to a dilapidated stone house (straight out of a Hitchcock film). From there, I turn left at an intersection and begin the final three miles of the journey down a road buried deep among cornfields.

Despite Kathy’s excellent directions I manage to miss the plywood sign that shouts “Schwab Farm” and only see it after I give up and turn around. The sod house, now with white vinyl siding thanks to a 2010 facelift, is perched on a hill overlooking the road and was built in the late 1800s by the Schwab family, immigrants from the Odessa region of present-day Ukraine. Like the Welk Homestead, it is part of a “Prairie Legacy” Talking Trail, which explores German-Russian heritage across Emmons, Logan, and McIntosh counties. In addition to the sod house, the farm once included a summer kitchen, chicken coop, granary, and barn, but those outbuildings are long gone.

Left image is of a one story white house with gray roof. Right photo is of a room with yellow floral wallpaper, photos hanging on the wall, red and yellow chair in the corner, and a cherry wooden table along the wall with pictures on it. There is also a rosary hanging on the wall.

This little sod house, home to generations of Schwabs, offers a glimpse into a bygone era.

I remove the flathead screwdriver, which secures the front door, and step inside, moving tentatively through eerily still rooms filled with old family photographs, vintage furniture, and Catholic iconography. In the living room, an accordion sits on a stand next to a black-and-white television set. Several of John Schwab’s children were also talented musicians who played in a band called the Bubbling Quintet, his daughter Antonia Baumgartner will later tell me when I reach her by phone. Lawrence Welk, she adds, used to ride out to the farm and “ask dad to teach him certain things” on the accordion. Baumgartner, who spearheaded the sod house’s renovation in 1988, furnished the interior to reflect how it looked in the mid-20th century.

Left image is a white house with blue trim and has a staircase up the side of the house. There are flower pots along the house. Right image is of a white building with blue trim and a red windmill. A lake can be seen in the background.

The Welk Homestead State Historic site details German-Russian farm life and Lawrence Welk’s early years.

With the late afternoon heat spiraling upward, I carefully replace the screwdriver in the latch, then circle back to the Welk Homestead, where Matt Hodek & the Dakota Dutchmen are about to take to a flatbed trailer stage parked along Baumgartner Lake. (Antonia’s mother was a Baumgartner who grew up near the Welk farm, and Antonia would also marry into the Baumgartner family.) While I wait, I get my North Dakota Passport stamped by a girl at the admissions desk and examine the tiny (by contemporary standards) rooms where Welk spent his childhood in a white farmhouse built of batsa bricks. There, I pick up a button accordion and clumsily attempt a few notes. I snap a picture with a cardboard cutout of the big man himself then head over to the granary, where information panels tell the story of the United States’ “Germans from Russia” and a video recounts Lawrence Welk’s life and career.

A five person band stands palying on a trailer bed. A woman plays piano while men play sax, keyboard, drums, and accordion. They are all dressed in yellow polo shirts and dark bottoms. Two white podiums sit on the stage and read Matt Hodek's Dakota Dutchmen - Lankin, ND.

Matt Hodek & the Dakota Dutchmen perform at the Welk Homestead State Historic Site earlier this summer.

At last, the music starts. Couples get to their feet. I watch mesmerized as an elderly man in a beige jumpsuit and his prim partner in capris begin to polka, hopping and circling vigorously to the accordion beats. Clearly the heritage of Strasburg is very much alive, nurtured at our state historic site and by the people and communities that surround and sustain it. As I nosh on kuchen, the music’s hypnotic rhythm blissfully transports me–and it’s almost as if no time has passed at all.

The Welk Homestead State Historic Site near Strasburg is open Thursday-Sunday, 10 a.m.-5 p.m. through Sept. 5. On Aug. 28, it will host “Party with the Monarchs” from 1-3 p.m., which will include kite flying and butterfly-related crafts.

From Fashion to Firefighting: A Tale of Two Exhibits and One Tenacious Woman

A Pendleton wool cape featured in the State Museum’s new Fashion & Function: North Dakota Style exhibit will no doubt catch your eye. Its clean, classic lines and matched plaids certainly drew my attention, as did the exhibit label, which informed me that the cape had been made in the late 1960s by one Linda Harmsen of LaMoure.

Since my dad grew up in that quintessential small town in southeastern North Dakota during the same time period, I suspected he could tell me more about the garment’s maker. A quick text confirmed that he had indeed known Harmsen, who was a year behind him in school. And by the way, he added, she was also the first female firefighter hired in Bismarck.

March being Women’s History Month, I was keen to learn more. Well, I would have wanted to learn more anyway, but you have to admit the timing was propitious.

“Yes, I was the first,” Harmsen confirmed, when I reached her by phone a few days later.

In fact, as I would soon discover, Harmsen, now 70, was not only the first female firefighter hired in Bismarck, she was also the first paid female firefighter in North Dakota. One of her Bismarck Fire Department uniforms has long been on exhibit in the State Museum’s Inspiration Gallery: Yesterday and Today, she told me.

A woman wearing dark pants, white shirt, black jacket, and white face mask stands next to an exhibit case displaying a uniform with dark pants and a short sleeved light blue button up shirt.

Linda Harmsen, pictured next to her firefighter’s uniform, is the rare woman who can boast garments currently on view in two different exhibits at the State Museum. At right, her plaid cape, which she sewed with Pendleton fabric won in the Make It Yourself With Wool competition. SHSND 2006.328.1-3, SHSND 1991.121.12

So how had the former teenage seamstress from rural North Dakota come to crack this particular glass ceiling?

In a word: necessity. After budget cuts forced the closure of the North Dakota State University Land Reclamation Research Center where she worked, Harmsen needed a job, and the Bismarck Fire Department was hiring.

“Well, I’ll give it a shot,” she remembers thinking. She passed the agility test, the same one used by the National Guard, and joined the department in May 1994 along with six men, all in their 20s. Harmsen was 43.

“One guy said, ‘Wow, you are older than my mother,’” she recalls.

She adds with a laugh: “To be truthful, they were afraid of me. Just having a woman around was a whole new ballgame for them; they had to modify their behavior.”

They also had to modify the city’s fire stations, reconfiguring the dorms for increased privacy and installing separate bathrooms for women in all the stations.

In her 12 years at the Bismarck Fire Department, Harmsen remained the only woman firefighter. After leaving the department in 2006, she went to work as a trauma registrar at St. Alexius Medical Center. Her background responding to trauma situations was “pretty useful there,” says Harmsen, who is now retired.

A woman wearing a blue tshirt and dark pants with her hair tied back stands in front of a red fire truck that reads Bismarck Fire Dept. The headline of the news article below the image reads Firefighter a woman.

Harmsen made headlines when she became North Dakota’s first paid female firefighter in May 1994. Bismarck Tribune, May 6, 1994, p. 1

A woman stand in full firefighter turnout gear that is black with gray knees and pockets and yellow reflective trim.

Harmsen in full turnout gear, 1994. Courtesy Linda Harmsen

But back to that cape. Before she was a trailblazing female first responder, Harmsen was a teenage girl growing up in LaMoure who “liked having a lot of clothes to wear.” And in an era before fast fashion and cheap overseas-produced apparel, sewing was “how you got clothes to wear,” she says.

At “15 or 16,” Harmsen made an orange wool, double knit, drop-waist dress, with a short, pleated skirt and brass buttons, and subsequently entered the mod-style frock in the 1967-1968 Make It Yourself With Wool competition. She won the junior division in the district contest and went on to place second at the state competition in Devils Lake. Her prize: several yards of Pendleton wool fabric, which she turned into the cape currently on view in the Fashion & Function exhibit. (The orange wool dress is also in our museum collection although not on display as part of this exhibit.)

The left image is an orange dress with long sleeves and buttons down the front and on the cuffs. The image on the right is a card with teal on the left and light green on the right, separated by a zigzag pattern. The left side reads Make it yourself with wool, and the right side reads Fashion Show. There is also a red bow at the top holding on a white piece of paper with the name Linda Harmsen on it.

The orange dress, which won Harmsen second place in the state Make It Yourself With Wool competition. Among the feedback provided contestants: “Be sure to try for inconspicuous hems.” SHSND 1991.121.11

Three rows of women with the front row seated show off the dresses they made for the Make it Yourself with Wool contest.

Harmsen, second from left in the front row, is pictured with fellow contestants in the 1967-1968 North Dakota Make It Yourself With Wool contest. SHSND 1991.121

Harmsen is still immensely proud of how she “perfectly matched” the cape’s plaid stripes, though she concedes the garment wasn’t as practical as she would have liked.

“You couldn’t drive in it, [your arms] were tied down,” she says ruefully, when she and her sister Candy, a former Miss North Dakota, dropped by the museum earlier this month.

These days, Harmsen doesn’t get her Singer sewing machine out that often, though she occasionally applies her seamstress skills to making costumes for her a cappella singing group Sweet Adelines. And once, when she was still on the line, Harmsen brought her sewing machine into the fire station to add buttonholes to hoods so that they could be attached to the inside of the firefighters’ helmets.

The hoods “weren’t designed to go in that style of helmet. … They were just going to slice holes in them with a knife,” she says of her male colleagues.

So which was more demanding–firefighting or sewing?

“Firefighting is certainly harder,” Harmsen asserts, “and I guess it’s more rewarding because you are actually helping people.”

Not that the domestic arts don’t have their own unique appeal.

“I was probably more comfortable sewing,” she says.