Gems in the attic: Fargo-Moorhead area museums, archives hold hidden historic treasures

FARGO -- The letter was written in aloof language that didn't even try to convey condolences to the grieving family of Herbert Fuller Chaffee, lost when the Titanic sank.

Bonanzaville curator Kaci Johnson shows a color poster for William McKinley's presidential campaign. David Samson / The Forum
Bonanzaville curator Kaci Johnson shows a color poster for William McKinley's presidential campaign. (David Samson / Forum News Service)

FARGO - The letter was written in aloof language that didn't even try to convey condolences to the grieving family of Herbert Fuller Chaffee, lost when the Titanic sank.

"This is to certify that the name H.P. Chaffee appears on the first class passenger list of the S.S. 'Titanic' which sailed from Southampton and Cherbourg on April 10, 1912, but his name does not appear amongst the list of survivors furnished by the S.S. 'Carpathian,' a manager of the shipping firm, White Star Line, informed the family.

Chaffee, of Amenia, N.D., was one of North Dakota's wealthiest men, head of an agricultural empire that owned a bonanza farm that at its apex sprawled over 42,700 acres of prime farmland. He and his wife had traveled to Europe to buy furniture for their mansion - which the widow Chaffee ordered demolished because she couldn't bear to live there without her husband, whom she last saw when she was boarding a lifeboat without him.

The notification letter, and another informing Chaffee's heirs that White Star Line had "flatly refused" to pay any claims for loss of life and baggage for those who perished when the Titanic sank, are among the prized possessions in the collections of the North Dakota State University Archives.

The archives are a repository of history of the region and the official archives of NDSU, a treasure trove of documents for historians, genealogists and the idly curious to comb for clues of what life was like in days long bygone.


Actually, Fargo-Moorhead boasts several attics that are crammed with historical documents, artifacts and oddities. In an age when so much of life is digitized, it's reassuring to be able to peruse actual objects from another time.

The Bonanzaville historical village in West Fargo has almost 450,000 items. They range in size from the first Steiger tractor to roll off the assembly line and a Phantom II fighter jet to a framed set of pens used to sign a prohibition law in 1890 making the fledgling state of North Dakota dry.

Across the Red River in Moorhead, the Clay County Historical and Cultural Society at the Hjemkomst Interpretive Center houses a Viking replica ship that sailed to Norway as well as a boatload of documents and other items.

The NDSU Archives hold Cass County civil court records from the territorial era and early statehood that tell sad and sometimes tawdry tales of marriage dissolutions in the days when Fargo was a divorce mill for the nation.

A cottage industry including law firms and hotels sprang up to cater to unhappy couples who came to Fargo to take advantage of the brief residency requirement needed to dissolve a marriage.

"You want to talk about sad tales of human imperfection," said Tom Isern, a history professor at NDSU whose students have written papers based on the divorce files. One of his favorites was testimony from a man who was asked when he learned his wife was leaving him.

"When I saw my goods coming up the street in a dray," the forlorn husband replied, dryly, as Isern recalled the response. "It's all sad business." Some of the court files came with exhibits intact, including photographs and, in one case, medicine bottles introduced as evidence from a husband as proof of his wife's infidelities. The bottles contained medicine to treat venereal disease, said John Hallberg, an archivist.

The archives, which recently doubled their storage capacity through the acquisition of special shelves, also contain pens that presidents used to sign bills into law that came from the mementoes of former Sen. Milton Young.


Isern's favorite objects include the life mask, diaries and letters of Haile Chisholm, who worked as a blacksmith at what then was North Dakota Agricultural College for more than a quarter century, ending in 1937. Chisholm not only swung a hammer against an anvil; he also wrote poetry.

At Bonanzaville, where 40 buildings are open to the public during warmer months, patrons can see a pair of stuffed albino buffalo calves that were born on a farm in North Dakota in the 1950s. "White buffalo are considered especially sacred," said curator Kaci Johnson.

The village campus includes the house of David Houston, a Scottish immigrant who lived on a bonanza farm near Hunter, N.D. Houston became wealthy as the inventor of roll film, which he sold to Eastman Kodak in the late 1880s.

Some of the articles in Bonanzaville's collection literally came from cleaning out attics-one of them a homestead located at the village. When the former Hagen house, built in 1897, was being cleaned, a poster touting "Prosperity at home, prestige abroad," the campaign slogan for President William McKinley, was found.

"The colors are still amazing," protected from sunlight because the poster was folded, Johnson said.

The museum also houses a horse-drawn steam engine that was used to power equipment on bonanza farms in the 1880s as well as a horse-drawn hearse, retired in the 1930s and last used in 1986 for the funeral of the son of the hearse's former owner.

In Bonanzaville's American Indian exhibits, the museum displays a winter count, a pictographic record of events, from Swift Dog, a Lakota who fought at the Battle of the Little Bighorn. It depicts 1833 as the "year the stars fell," a reference to the Leonid meteor shower, and a drought in the early 1800s when it was so dry people had to draw water from a beaver pond.

"It's probably one of our most historically important items," Johnson said.


One of the Clay County Historical and Cultural Society's more exotic domestic items is an ornamental chair made from buffalo horns and antelope antlers that was crafted in Montana in the 1870s or early 1880s and brought to Clay County.

"Sadly it's a representation of the over hunting of buffalo and also of that time when awful things were being done to Native Americans," said Lisa Vedaa, the society's collections curator. "It's a relic from another period."

The society has several artifacts that recall the steamboat era on the Red River, including a brass whistle from the "International," which made its first run down the river to Fort Garry in Winnipeg in 1862. The "International" was the largest steamboat on the American portion of the Red River; it was retired in 1880, replaced by railroads serving the area.

One of the treasured collections held by the society is from the Thortvedt family, Norwegian immigrants who were pioneers in the Buffalo River settlement northwest of Glyndon.

The Thortvedts were avid diarists, starting with patriarch Levi, whose habit was picked up by four children, most notably his artistic daughter Orabel. Their accounts not only describe people and events, but provide a window into how those events registered with people at the time, archivist Mark Peihl said.

"From my perspective, they're primary sources taken down from the people of the time," he said, referring to historical journals and letters. "They help to give us a sense of how people felt about the things going on around them. These documents give us an insight into that, at least this family's recollections."


Patrick Springer first joined The Forum in 1985. He covers a wide range of subjects including health care, energy and population trends. Email address:
Phone: 701-367-5294
What To Read Next
Get Local