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.

Spring has sprung, and we’ve been busy at the Pembina State Museum. Besides the usual spring cleaning, we are renovating spaces and preparing for spring and summer programs. This summer season promises to be an exciting one as we focus on an expanded schedule for Gingras Days in conjunction with Walhalla’s 175th celebration and on developing new programs that will be available at the museum.

We’ve already finished one of our renovation projects, updating the restrooms, and visitors can enjoy the improved bathrooms when they visit. Since the museum was first built in 1996, the restrooms had been a boring sea of beige. But now they are bright and colorful and so much more pleasant. The new design was inspired by the Hudson’s Bay Point Blanket with its four colored stripes of green, red, yellow, and indigo, an iconic part of the northern Plains fur trade.

This capote at the Pembina State Museum, which was made from a Hudson’s Bay Company Point Blanket, is part of our “Hands on History” display and helped inspire the restroom revamp.

We replaced the stalls, painted the ceiling, and installed new lighting. The lighting was installed first, and that improvement alone was stunning. Once the color was added and the space steam-cleaned by the contractors, the restrooms felt completely new. These pictures show the dramatic nature of the change.

The men’s room before, top, and after the renovation.

With the bathroom project complete, our attention now turns to program and event planning. “Arrows and Atlatls,” a pre-historic hunting program, is slated for introduction later this year. Atlatls, for the uninitiated, are spear throwers. The word “atlatl” derives from the Nahuatl (or Aztec) word for this ancient hunting device, found world-wide during Neolithic times. It was gradually replaced on the northern Plains by bows and arrows, with the bow appearing around A.D. 600. The atlatl had been in use for many millennia, but the bow was around for less than one millennium before Europeans introduced muskets. While visitors to the Pembina State Museum can try out our atlatl at any time weather permitting, “Arrows and Atlatls” will provide an in-depth experience for students and visitors.

Our atlatl, soon to be joined by others, is always available for visitors to try out. Just ask for a team member at the front desk to help you get started.

The objective of “Arrows and Atlatls” is to show students the advantages and disadvantages of pre-contact hunting technologies and to let them try their hand at using the tools themselves. This summer we will have scheduled atlatl demonstrations, where visitors can also participate. A few large animal targets will be available as well. Be on the lookout for a bear or bison decoy lurking around the museum.

The big event of the summer, though, is going to be the Gingras Days at the Gingras Trading Post State Historic Site near Walhalla. We are working with the Walhalla Area Chamber of Commerce to plan an amazing two-day event to coincide with the city’s 175th celebration. This will take place on July 1-2 and will include live music, vendors, and other programs.

Ryan Keplin, also known as “Fiddling Lefty,” will perform in the Walhalla parade on the morning of July 1 and then take his show over to the Gingras Trading Post for an afternoon performance of live music and folk tales. There’s no charge for admittance and anyone interested in Métis fiddle music is encouraged to attend. Vendors will also be on-site. Regional craftspeople will be on-hand selling various souvenirs and gifts.

On July 2, the Gingras site will once again be open with activities available all day. We will have “Games of Pembina’s Past” available for people to play both days of the celebration. These include grace hoops, hoop-and-stick, and trundling hoops. (Suffice to say, a lot of hoops are involved!) The house and trading post will be open both days for tours. The storeroom of the trading post will be set up with crafts on July 2. Bring the family and make your own popsicle stick ox cart. The “Red River Rendezvous” hands-on activity will also be set up in the trading room with new features representing life during the fur trade era of the early 1800s in the Red River Valley. Visitors will have the opportunity to try on a capote, a top hat, and snowshoes, and even set a trap with help from staff.

The Gingras trading room during last year’s Gingras Days. This year’s celebration promises to be even better.

These are just the plans solidified so far. More is still in the works, including improved shelving for on-site storage and the much more exciting, and relevant for visitors, improvements and programs planned for the updated conference room. The summer season promises to be very busy and very exciting!