North Dakota – Bismarck: A Treasure Trove on the Prairie

Bismarck, North Dakota, is another one of those places that we have driven through before, but it was on a drive to somewhere else, and we only took few minutes for a glimpse of the impressive capitol building then we drove on.  The 19-story Art Deco-style building stands on a rise at the head of a long landscaped parkway.  It easily dominates any other structure in the state and carries the apt nickname of “skyscraper of the prairie.”

This handsome structure comes as a result of a fire that destroyed the old capitol in December 1930.  That first capitol had been built prior to statehood.  It was constructed mostly of wood and was not in the best condition when it burned.  A Chicago architect was hired, and he designed this high-rise edifice, which was built quite a distance from the heart of the city.  Finding funding for the project was especially challenging during the Great Depression.  Taxing state citizens was out of the question, so the money came from the insurance money from the fire, the existing state building fund, and from selling off some of the land that was part of the capitol campus…this fixed the budget at two million dollars.

Fairly early in the project the construction workers began striking for pay raises.  The governor knew he had to stick within the tight economic constraints, so rather than give in he dismissed the workers.  He brought in the state militia and assigned them the task of completing the building in two years…and they did.

As we waited for our tour to begin, we looked at the portraits of famous North Dakota citizens in the Roughrider Gallery.  The people featured in the oil paintings are recipients of the Theodore Roosevelt Rough Rider Award, which is given to North Dakotans who have brought honor to the state.  The list includes Lawrence Welk, Louis L’Amour, Peggy Lee, Phil Jackson, Angie Dickinson, Louis Erdich, and a long list of military, medical, scientific, and humanitarian leaders.

Our guide led us at a brisk pace to the elevators and whisked us up to Memorial Hall, where we were impressed by the forty-foot bronze pillars and the massive state seal hanging between them on a black marble wall. 

The building has a clean design with gorgeous woods, marble and artistic bronze details.  Without a showy dome or other expansive public spaces, almost the entire interior is usable for state offices.  The early planners seem to have had a real vision of efficiency…the state legislature is in session for no more than 80 days and meets only in odd years, and there have only been 15 special sessions.  The theme of thrift and efficiency runs even further.  State legislators do not have offices.  If you look closely at this photo you will barely see a set of box files between their chairs…this is all the personal space they are allotted in the building.  Without plush offices, I can understand their willingness to get things done quickly.

A new Judicial Wing was added to the building in 1981 and this is where their Supreme Court meets.  The walls are covered with lush North Dakota wool velvet for sound absorption.  The court is in session ten months a year and handles about three hundred cases during that period.

A smooth elevator ride took us to the 18th Floor Observation Deck where we could see for miles across the plains.  We also enjoyed viewing historic photos of the original capitol before and after the fire as well as scenes of construction as this skyscraper rose from bare land far from the center of the city.  It is hard to believe that this elegant and seemingly modern structure is almost ninety years old.

Just a short stroll away, past a statue of Sakakawea (the Shoshone woman who served as an interpreter and guide for the Lewis and Clark’s expedition), is the North Dakota Heritage Center and State Museum.  This treasure trove is open seven days a week and is a must-see museum.  The Governor’s Gallery hosts historical and traveling exhibits, and we were there in time to see a fascinating exhibit on the horse…its evolution, uses over the years, care, saddlery, and art relating to the animal. 

The Adaption Gallery: Geologic Time took us back into the world of creatures who occupied this place 600 million years ago.  Dinosaurs stalked the land and humongous fish populated the waters that once covered North Dakota during prehistoric times. 

I’m not usually much of a fan on this topic but found myself draw in by the displays…especially the skeleton of a reptile making its way along a river bottom under the protection of the lily pads floating above on top its Plexiglas enclosure.  It was wonderfully 3-D, ethereal and archaeological all rolled up into one.

The Innovation Gallery: Early Peoples introduced us to the earliest residents whose story runs from 13,000 years ago to tribal life in the 1860s.  Displays and artifacts took us into early villages, and displays of traded items showed the comprehensive and interrelated network of tribal exchanges that ran all the way into South America.  That was followed by the story of early fur trading.  One of my favorite pieces is this carved memorial to honor No Two Horns’ grey horse that was killed at the Battle of Little Big Horn. 

In the Inspiration Gallery: Yesterday and Today, we enjoyed learning about the people who have been shaping the character of North Dakota since the 1860s.  We were introduced to some of the ethnic cultures that comprised the population of the state back when three-quarters of the residents were immigrants or their first-generation offspring. 

The cultural diversity was represented by everything from a Saami boot made of reindeer hide to a beautifully embroidered traditional Bohemian dress to a costume worn in the 1982 Mrs. North Dakota Pageant…and some of the men were just as colorful as shown by this full-dress Scotsmen’s regalia. 

More social diversity is expressed in the variety and number of member’s names stitched into this quilt made some time in the early- to mid-1950s by Bismarck’s Rebekah’s Lodge (an auxiliary of the Odd Fellows). 

From another display we learned that North Dakota leads the nation in production of flax, wheat, lentils and peas, barley, sunflowers and honey.  The agriculture and industry, history and blending of cultures contributes to the surprises you can find as you tour the state today. 

On our way back to the car we passed a handsome buffalo sculpture.  Looking closely at his shaggy head we discovered that he was made of hundreds of shaped pieces of rebar…yet another example of North Dakota ingenuity on display.

Now we were really running out of time, but on another trip to Bismarck we look forward to touring the Former Governors’ Mansion, an 1884 modified Stick Style home that was originally built as a private residence and then purchased in 1893.  The 4,000 square foot house served as home to twenty governors and their families until 1960 when a new governors’ residence was built on state capitol grounds.  A heritage garden at the original mansion is tended by the Bismarck-Mandan Garden Club and the carriage house has also been restored.

Halfway to Fargo we stopped in Jamestown, North Dakota, to pay homage to one of my father’s favorite writers.  Louis L’Amour was born here in 1908 and lived here until his family moved away when he was fifteen.  This was where he heard stories of Indian raids and cowboy life from family members who lived through these adventures…where he roamed the countryside and followed the railroad tracks…also where he wandered the aisles of the local library, and where, at twelve years old, he worked in the telegraph office and learned to type.   He went on to live out his own adventures as a seaman, hobo, boxer, mine claim manager and soldier in the U.S. Army, so when he wrote adventures they weren’t pure fiction.  

Jamestown also claims to be the home of the World’s Largest Buffalo Monument.  Dakota Thunder, as he is named, stands twenty-six feet tall and can be seen free of charge.  He stands just beyond the Frontier Village or he can be seen on the horizon from the interstate highway as you drive past.  

My husband, Don, holds a particular fascination with Fargo, North Dakota ever since he saw the Coen brothers’ movie of that name starring Frances McDormand.   

He insists there must be a woodchipper museum somewhere in the city, so we drove the streets in search of it but instead found the Plains Art Museum, across the street from a federal courthouse in a renovated International Harvester warehouse.  The collection’s emphasis is on contemporary art with some American Indian art and traditional folk art.  We found the museum’s holdings quirky, and we think it holds potential for a woodchipper lurking in a subbasement.  

It is hard to tell where Fargo and North Dakota end and Moorhead and Minnesota begin.  It is probably easiest to tell by the gas prices, so be sure to fill up your tank in Fargo before crossing the state border. That openness is characteristic of North Dakota with its vast, seemingly endless prairie.  This is one of the states whose borders mark the northern boundary of the land that came with the 1803 Louisiana Purchase.  The railroads opened this land for development and helped shape its history, but the vastness of the prairie cannot be harnessed and North Dakota remains open to be explored.    

FOR MORE ADVENTURE: This is Part 11 of 12 in our drive from Maine to and from Glacier National Park.  If you would like to follow along with us, the first installment was Des Moines, Iowa, and the next stop is in Toledo, Ohio.

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