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County museum receives help to digitally archive its collection

Culture | March 21st, 2024

By Sabrina Hornung

When the McIntosh County Heritage Museum in Ashley, North Dakota was approached by their county auditor regarding the value of the museum’s collection for the sake of insurance, the museum couldn’t give them an answer.

“When I jumped on board with the McIntosh Historical Society, we found we had no records of what our inventory was,” said Randy Woehl, McIntosh County Heritage Museum vice president. “There was a record book at one time that was kept in great detail of who donated what, and whether we own the item or if it was on loan.”

Those records were lost to antiquity, with over 50 years worth of records of loans and donations. What’s a board to do? The museum is overseen by the county and run by volunteers and its board members within the community.

McIntosh County is located in south central North Dakota. According to the 2020 census, there were a little over 2,500 residents in the county. There are a number of buildings on the Heritage Museum grounds, such as an old school, the old depot, a Lutheran Church, a small barber shop, a caboose..

“We said, how do we even go about this task to even do our inventory? I mean, short of taking a notebook and walking through there.” Woehl said.

Woehl’s wheels were spinning. How could he find a way to get people within the county interested and engaged so they could help out? And who else in the area could he ask to help out?

He had already been in contact with the State Historical Society of North Dakota (SHSND). In fact, a number of people from SHSND had been there to brainstorm. Prior to all of this, Dale Lennon — who is the Executive Director of the State Historical Society of North Dakota Foundation, and based out of Bismarck — sent out a mass email to a number of county historical museums throughout the state to see if anyone would be interested in using a computer program called Proficio Rediscovery Software (RSI) to aid in the cataloging of their collections

RSI is a tool that museums across the country use. It’s cloud-based, and easily searchable, so museums can readily keep track, exchange and catalog artifacts within their collections. According to Lennon, the historical society has been using this software for the past few years.

Randy Woehl was the first to respond and do a bit of research. That’s where the ball really started to roll.

Lennon initially bought the software to catalog a plethora of other collections that the foundation oversees. They include the North Dakota Lions Hall of Fame, the North Dakota Peace Officers Memorial program and the North Dakota Newspaper Association Hall of Fame.

“I made the purchase and then the thought came up, ‘Well, let's offer this service to cultural heritage institutions throughout North Dakota,’” he explained. “So any little museum that wants to use the software can do so by going through the foundation. I'm from a small town in North Dakota and I know how a lot of the records are kept. I know every small town– they have their own unique way of keeping that data in that information. And it's usually in some type of box in somebody's basement. But they have all these very valuable interesting artifacts that exist and nobody knows about and that's where this RSI software comes into play. I think it is an important tool to have out there for these communities to try to keep their identity in their history before it slips away.”

In addition to academics and museum staff, anyone can search through the digital collections of artifacts.

This is the first of hopefully multiple collaborations between a county museum and the State Historical society — and maybe a number of university students. In fact, the SHSND will train a number of college students on how to use RSI; but we’ll get to the students’ involvement later.

This is the first collaboration of its kind between the SHSND and a county museum in North Dakota. Admittedly, there are a few hurdles, such as technology, people power, and a small fee structure, all of which are very real struggles felt by county museums throughout the region. In this case, the foundation did waive the fee, since this is a pilot program.

Woehl then thought about getting students involved in the cataloging process. That would solve the people power element. And they’d also more than likely not shy away too much from the technology component of the project. Also, by getting youth involved, he thought they would have a sense of pride in knowing they contributed to their museum — and the museum will actively have a new generation’s involvement. If the area high school students could work hands on with the university students, even better yet.

Woehl brought his idea before the County Commission meeting in Ashley, which was very well received. Commissioner Perry Turner from nearby Wishek facilitated a meeting between representatives of the McIntosh County Heritage Museum and students and staff at Wishek High School. Turner had taught history at Wishek High School for 30 years and even incorporated genealogy into his history curriculum, so student involvement in the project seemed like a no-brainer. In fact, genealogy is still part of the history curriculum at Wishek High School.

“One of the classes that I taught for many years was World History for sophomores,” Turner explained. Once we got to the point of European immigration to the new world and all that entails, we worked in a genealogy research thing. I got hold of some kind of rudimentary genealogy papers, changed them a little bit into something the kids understood and they took off with it.” Turner said.

Woehl approached the Principal, Superintendent and School Board President in Ashley, and addressed high school students in Wishek.

In his closing statement to the students, Woehl said, “Before you dismiss something as boring or irrelevant, remember; if you truly want to understand the present — or yourself — you must begin in the past. You see, history is not simply the study of the past, it is an explanation of the present.”

Last summer, Wishek and nearby Lehr just celebrated their quasquicentennial, or 125 year celebration, affectionately referred to as “the quasi.” The photo books and celebrations of local history and heritage were still fresh in their minds.

One teacher mentioned afterward that one group of senior boys were just pouring over old photos. In fact, their FACS teacher assisted with the 125th cookbook in Wishek, which is its own treasured collection. Woehl’s words resonated.

In addition to approaching local and county boards, Woehl approached the Tri-County Tourism Alliance board at one of their monthly meetings. The group’s mission is to “organize people to preserve and promote Germans from Russia heritage and culture to enhance tourism in Emmons, Logan, and McIntosh counties.” These three counties housed the largest settlements of German Russian immigrants during their migration to America at the turn of the last century. According to the SHSND, the Germans from Russia are the largest ethnic immigrant group in North Dakota.

This meeting is where Woehl connected with North Dakota State University (NDSU) history professor Dr. Tom Isern. NDSU is a land grant university, and Isern is a firm believer that public service is integral to the mission of land grant universities. The NDSU library is also home to the Germans from Russia Heritage Collection (GRHC), which is one of the most expansive collections of German-Russian resources on the globe.

“I teach the methods course,” Isern said. “Every academic department has a methods course, methods of research and writing, which is also just kind of a course in how to become a professional historian, as opposed to being a history student.”

Isern is no stranger to German Russian Country, let alone McIntosh County. He had brought students out on a few other occasions and assisted with getting both the Ashley Fire Hall and the Zeeland Community Center on the National Register of Historic Places.

Needless to say he thought this would be an excellent project for them, so thanks to private donations from the Ashley Lions Club, Center for Heritage Renewal, and McIntosh County Bank, two separate groups of students will be coming to Ashley on the weekends of March 22-24 and April 19-21. Student lodging will be covered by the Ashley Lodge.

While in Ashley, students will be examining, photographing and describing artifacts at the Heritage Center and entering that data onto a spreadsheet. There is no internet access at the McIntosh County Heritage Museum, so the spreadsheets will be easily downloaded, thus creating an online catalog at the museum. Dr. Isern and Randy Woehl will both have computer access that will allow them to directly link in to the Rediscovery Software.

“It’s only history if it gets recorded and somebody makes something of it,” Isern said. “Otherwise, it's just forgotten stuff in the past. So we'll get a handle on these collections and describe the objects. It's an exercise in storytelling. So it is really making history.”

He described the McIntosh County Heritage as “the giant attic of the community.” Some artifacts that caught his attention include the sheepskin coats in the collection.

“The immigrants, whether they're German Russians or Ukrainian immigrants, everybody from that part of the world who came over here late 19th, early 20th century, the men wore the sheepskin coat,” he explains. “It's just a fabulous piece of textile art. They wore them in the old country, they wore them on the boat over and they remained in family hands and eventually made their way to the museum. It's just such an iconic piece of their culture.”

A one-of-a-kind piece is the Rosemeade bust of Wilhemina Geiszler, created by Laura Taylor Hughes. She was a student and assistant at University of North Dakota (UND), and studied under famed ceramicist Margaret Cable in the late 1930s, and was later a supervisor for the Federal Clay project of the Works Progress Administration from 1936 to 1939. She created the bust for the Ashley Centennial in 1939.

Wilhelmina Geiszler was a pioneer woman who tragically perished in a prairie fire while saving her child. She is referred to as the “heroine of the prairie.” Isern calls dibs on cataloging the piece.

“Rosemeade pottery is one of the most collectible lines of historic pottery figurines in the country. I think that one artifact there in the Heritage Center, is enough to bring a stream of visitors — if people knew about it, “ Isern said. “You can tell all those layers of story; Wilhemina dying in the prairie fire and then later commemoration by the sculptor who goes on to found Rosemeade Pottery.”

He considers part of the experience to be an exercise in storytelling.

“If you can describe a bunch of different objects from a museum collection, you can describe anything,” Isern said. “So I think it's a real opportunity for them.”

“It surely helps get work started here,” he said. “It sets up this encounter between a bunch of bright young people among the solid citizens in McIntosh County. It's kind of a beautiful thing.”

The McIntosh County Heritage Museum is open May through September on the first and third Saturdays of the month from 2-4 p.m. Can’t make it the first and third Saturday? Call 701-288-3504 to schedule a visit.

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