From giant prehistoric fish and dinosaurs to underground missile silos, North Dakota’s history covers about 80 million years. In its earliest days, the Peace Garden State was part of an inland sea. The heritage center and museum in Bismarck tracks the state’s history through various stages of its growth. In all, four galleries offer a look at North Dakota’s history.
Dinosaurs roamed the Dakota plains about 65 million years ago. In Nebraska, we had mammals, no dinosaurs, so to see the fossil casts of a T-Rex and triceratops that lived about 500 miles from where I call home was intriguing.
Following the extinction of dinosaurs and climate change, North Dakota became a swampland with some unique animals. How about a 12-foot crocodile calling North Dakota home? Or a three-foot long salamander?
North Dakota experienced the last great ice age between 12,000 and 2.6 million years ago. As the ice age faded, glaciers eventually retreated, resulting in a changed landscape. Animals adapted to the new environment. Giant sloths and early bison roamed the state.
The museum’s second gallery – Early Peoples – provides a look at North Dakota’s Native American culture and history. PaleoIndians were the first Native settlers, coming to the state about 13,000 years ago.
Tribes that have called North Dakota include the Dakota (Sioux), Assiniboine, Cheyenne, Ojibwe (Chippewa), Arikara and the Cree. Today, the state is home to reservations for Spirit Lake Sioux (Devil’s Lake), Standing Rock Sioux, Turtle Mountain Chippewa and the Three Affiliated Tribes (Hidatsa, Arikara and Mandan).
The exhibit offers a look not into only the history of the tribes, but also into their culture. Displays feature looks at clothing, weapons and shelter used by tribes.
Another gallery – Yesterday and Today – has six sections that look at the state’s history from the early days of farming to pop culture. The gallery features a display involving one of the state’s early homesteads, including women homesteaders.
Sam Holland handmade six automobiles over a 10-year period near the turn of the 20th century (1898-1908). The blacksmith from Park River created a variety of autos – a steam-powered, as well as single- and two-cylinder ones.
North Dakota ranks among international agricultural leaders in wheat, sunflower seeds, barley, honey, potatoes and sugar beets.
The state is home to several energy options, including wind, oil, coal and hydroelectricity. North Dakotans were innovative with equipment. Though designed in Minnesota, a North Dakota bought the rights to a self-propelled front loading vehicle. They revised it, becoming known as “Bobcat.” Almost everyone is familiar with or has seen a Bobcat vehicle.
Conflicts and War tracks the state’s history from early Native American battles to modern conflicts. Offering a look at early weaponry, the section does an impressive job in communicating the timeline.
The exhibit features a nuclear fallout shelter. It resembles a basement that could be found in any home. A young child asked me about the old television set in the corner. It was running video of programs. I explained to the 10-year-old that TVs once looked like that. He wondered how old it was. I told him it was probably from the 1950s or early ‘60s. We figured it may be older than his grandmother. He was impressed that it still worked.
I’m all too familiar with the display featuring the missile launch control center, having worked in the missile field as a security controller and quality control evaluator for several years at Grand Forks Air Force Base. The missile operations at GFAFB ended earlier this century. However, Minot Air Force Base still has a missile mission. The Grand Forks history remains alive with the Ronald Reagan Minuteman Missile Site near Cooperstown.
The section covering the state’s people and communities includes a display featuring items from an Indian boarding school to immigrants’ clothing. The 1950s are highlighted with a replica of a soda fountain.
The Cultural Expressions section highlights North Dakota’s diversity, including Native Americans and European immigrants. Clothing and musical instruments are featured in the exhibit.
The fourth gallery – the Governor’s Gallery – houses temporary exhibits. During our visit, the exhibit focused on the “Green Revolution.” It looks at recycling, energy alternatives and reducing our carbon footprint.
Items are featured in corridor exhibits between the galleries. They feature a variety of subjects, including a mastodon fossil.
The North Dakota Heritage Center and State Museum offers a fantastic look into the state’s history. And it’s free! We enjoyed our visit and strongly recommend visiting when in the Bismarck area.