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A historical role

By Staff | Aug 7, 2009

There isn’t an official state office in North Dakota titled ‘Cheerleader Captain,’ but if there were, Mark Halvorson would be a leading candidate for the job.

Halvorson, of Bismarck, is Curator of Collections for the State Historical Society and daily steeps himself in our state’s history and culture. “Officially, I’m one of the state’s pack rats,” he said, laughing. He is comfortable talking about our Native American traditions, our immigrant ethnic groups, our geography and climate and especially our small town life. After 19 years on the job he remains enthusiastic for all things Dakota.

Mark, who also teaches part-time at the University of Mary, grew up on a farm a few miles west of Knox in Pleasant Lake Township, one of six children in the Melford and Theresa Halvorson family. He attended school in Rugby, graduating in 1980, and received a bachelor’s degree in history from the University of North Dakota in December, 1983. From there he went to Montana State University for a master’s degree. He worked for the South Dakota Historical Society for about three years, then signed on with the North Dakota Historical Society in 1990.

In his museum work Mark researches, plans, designs and oversees the construction of traveling exhibits. He picks three-dimensional objects to be displayed, finds photographs to complement the objects and writes a description explaining the artifacts and photos.

His most recent project is called “Bridges of North Dakota.” He started by sifting through thousands of images of bridges. The chosen pictures were screen printed onto nylon fabric, a departure from the traditional method of printing on large sheets of rigid cardboard. Mark’s objective was to make the display lightweight, highly portable and inexpensive to move. “It can just be rolled up and put in the back seat of a car,” he explained. The exhibit includes an audio-visual component with a slide show, early day movies, and even the explosion of two bridges – the Liberty Memorial Bridge between Bismarck and Mandan and the old Four Bears Bridge at New Town.

A gardening exhibit he assembled will be opening in Bismarck in November. It includes a seed display, photos of World War II victory gardens and a Native American garden of the Mandan Hidatsa Arikara who farmed the rich Missouri River bottom lands.

A future project is updating displays at Ft. Totten near Devils Lake. The current exhibit has been there 20 years and is showing wear. The new displays should be in place within the next year and a half, Halvorson said.

In all exhibits, “The hardest part is deciding what to leave out,” he said.

In 1984 Mark worked as a historian at the Geographical Center Museum in Rugby. “They needed someone to inventory artifacts and start a record system,” he said. But he did more than catalogue the collections, and along the way learned something of the generous spirit of the community. He became involved in the day-to-day operation of the museum, and when the depot needed painting he talked to the owners of Coast to Coast Hardware, who sold the paint to the museum for cost. He also bought a case of vinegar for cleaning at cost from Super Valu. “That’s Rugby,” he says. “People are willing to help.”

Mark remembers his youth near Knox and the willingness of residents to work for the good of the community. “Maggie Miller dedicated her life to serving,” he says. “She was appointed postmistress in 1938 by Franklin Delano Roosevelt.” Later Maggie worked part-time as a clerk at the post office until she finally retired in 2004.

He cites the late Dora Whalen as a great example of North Dakota’s hard workers and independent people. Dora kept her corner of town meticulously groomed, including the alleys and neighboring vacant lots. “And when she was 90 or 95,” Mark says, “she wouldn’t allow her sons to put in indoor plumbing. But she did allow them to put in a new sidewalk to her outhouse.”

“You start to appreciate the people who do the small things in a community,” Mark said. “The people who mow the cemetery. The ones who bring the food to the parish picnic, where you can have seven different versions of potato salad. The quiet people who step up and do the job that needs to be done, day in and day out. Sometimes we lose that when we pay people to do a job.”

One of the quiet people Halvorson remembers was a Norwegian bachelor farmer from the Barton area. When Mark was at the museum in Rugby the man would show up every Sunday afternoon. “After church he’d drive to Rugby, have lunch and go to the museum,” Mark recalls. “He didn’t do anything special, just talked to the visitors.” In his unobtrusive way he had a positive impact on tourists.

Outsiders tend to think of North Dakotans as white bread, but Mark maintains that’s not the case. Settlers came from many places, bringing their traditions and religions with them. “The Syrians were Catholic in Rugby,” Mark states, “but the ones at Ross were Muslims.” In Bismarck the Jewish synagogue was started after ones in Ashley and Wishek closed. Jews north of Devils Lake met in the courtroom of the courthouse, he said. More recently a group of Bosnians have settled in Bismarck, and many Ethiopians live in Fargo.

When the Public Broadcasting program Antiques Roadshow came to Bismarck a few years ago Mark provided local expertise in helping to determine the identity and value of artifacts people brought in. “I was the one behind the screen, off camera,” he said with a laugh. The program’s experts can’t know everything, Mark says, so they get help from historians and appraisers in cities they visit.

Mark also appraised antique guns at Medora earlier this summer. As an antiques buff he was horrified to see an 1890s Winchester someone brought to the show. “A neighbor had cleaned it up with a wire brush to make it shiny,” he said. “He used a file to round up an octagonal barrel. That reduced the value from $1200 to $100.”

As Curator of Collections Mark designs every exhibit with one thought in mind: “How can we get the most bang for our buck for the people?” He sometimes figures expenses down to estimated cost per visitor, which he tries to keep under ten cents. “I want to pinch Lincoln ’til he screams,” he chuckled.

He credits his accounting classes at Rugby High School with his attention to financial detail. And even though his job would seem to have nothing to do with science and math, he says he uses them every day, and gives credit to Ray Minette and Christ Ley for teaching lessons he has never forgotten.

A while back Mark was offered a job in Minneapolis but turned it down. The pay was good, but he figured he would have at least a 15-mile commute, and with heavy traffic it could take hours. In Bismarck he can be on the job in minutes.

And why, he reasons, would he want to leave a place for which he has such affection, where neighbors look out for one another, where the volunteer spirit is alive and where small town values are still prized?

“You know whose dog bites,” Mark says, “and you know your kids are safe.” He often tells visitors, “North Dakota is just a small city that’s 400 miles east to west, and 200 miles north to south. And they call it a state.”

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