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Organizing the past
for the future

NDSU students capture, preserve history of North Dakota town

The Coleman Memorial Museum sits at the west end of Main Street, not far from one of the two railroad depots Ellendale, North Dakota, grew up around. The Roaring ’20s-era bank-turned-dental office-turned private residence is now a storehouse of the area’s memories. »

The longtime residents have been the stewards preserving this local history, faithfully recording and maintaining stories and artifacts. But as in many rural areas of North Dakota, these local historians are aging and new people will be needed to continue the tradition.

A group of 12 NDSU public history students helped fill that role. They spent two weeks in Ellendale in June, cleaning, digitizing and reorganizing the museum’s artifacts as part of a public history field school. They learned practical skills used by every museum, interacted with members of the community and recorded their work in a documentary.

One of the students is Ken Smith. He grew up in Colorado, but has spent a fair amount of time in North Dakota, including 12 years near Ellendale, teaching at nearby Trinity Bible College. Now he’s working on a doctorate in history at NDSU.

Smith pushes up his baseball cap and leans on a push broom before listing the museum’s loosely assembled exhibits and what the students are trying to accomplish. Their goal is to create a sense of order to a museum in disarray.

Smith and his fellow field workers spend the morning cleaning, painting and removing carpet. They need to get their hands dirty before they can start cataloging artifacts and adding to exhibits.

Smith introduces John Wells, a senior from Baxter, Minnesota. He wears a blue cap with a Superman logo. Naturally, it takes Wells one tug of a claw hammer to pull a side room’s entire false ceiling onto him.

“A quick job,” he jokes.

photo of people involved in the project

Now Wells stands in the museum’s main display room. He gets a knot in his stomach while looking at a Civil War-era musket and bayonet. Its wooden stock is wrapped in duct tape. The homemade repair likely damaged the historical value of the gun.

It’s one of several artifacts needing the students’ expert, caring hands. Horsehair robes. Cowhide mittens. A bugle from World War I. A pristine coal-fired parlor stove. Piles of farm tools. The students are busy identifying all of them.

Four students are in a classroom of sorts, sitting around computers in the school section of the museum. The technology looks out of place as they work under the stern gaze of a wood-framed painting of a former Ellendale grade school English teacher.

Under the painting of Minnie stands Jeanette Robb-Ruenz, who is a retired schoolteacher and one of the key Ellendale volunteers who keeps the museum running. She remembers and mimics how Minnie would admonish students with a shake of a curled right forefinger. “Now, Richard,” she says, punctuated with a laugh.

Robb-Ruenz is busy. She has to “impart her knowledge” quickly. She sells hot dogs and burgers out of a mobile food truck each Friday and lunch hour starts in 20 minutes. The $4,000 in proceeds she raises each summer goes toward the museum’s operating costs.

She has been the museum’s curator since 1997. She grew up in Ellendale, taught there for 30 years, helped coordinate the city’s 1982 centennial and worked for the Dickey County newspaper. She edited the Ellendale Historical Society’s 125th anniversary book. She also led the efforts to house and feed the NDSU students as part of the field school partnership.

Robb-Ruenz has played an immeasurable role in preserving the area’s history. Her late husband once told her “you’re trying to save Ellendale one building at a time.”

historic photo of street

A modest addition has been the museum’s biggest change in the last 20 or so years. The public history students aim to change that, according to Angela Smith, the NDSU assistant history professor who is leading the efforts. Smith’s goal is to add interpretive text to five exhibits and provide signage for self-guided tours by the time the students leave. She also hopes to finalize a volunteer plan, collection policy and several exhibit plans.

She wants to leave the community with a baseline inventory and a method to find, accept and display new items once the students leave.

Wells says he and his fellow students have been able to apply their classroom knowledge. They also have learned a lot in the short time they’ve been in Ellendale.

“It’s about what you do rather than what you know,” he says. “It’s great that you learn the subject, but using that knowledge to do things like working with a small-town museum makes an impact that you wouldn’t be able to do just because you know it.”

The students gather for a group photo on the museum’s front steps. The late morning break provides a brief reprieve from the stuffy confines of history. They take stock, plan their next moves and crack a few jokes.

What was your first impression of the museum?

“It was a worst-case scenario,” says one student.

“It was like grandma’s attic,” says another.

They take turns guessing how many items are in the museum’s collection. The conservative estimate is 10,000. They’ve been cataloging 10 to 12 hours per day since they arrived four days earlier.

photo of people involved in the project

The students break for lunch in a roped-off section of Main Street near Robb-Ruenz’s food truck. Former Mayor Don Flaherty stops by during his shift as a longtime EMT on the Ellendale Community Ambulance. He thanks the students for their efforts. They return the thanks and mingle a few minutes more on the first borderline hot day of the summer.

They’re itching to get back to work. They’ll be at the museum again well into the night.

Several students go across the street from the museum to a three-story opera house built in 1909. It’s in the midst of a $3 million renovation. The refurbished main lobby is being used to scan, digitize and archive stacks upon stacks of photos dropped off by area residents.

On top of one pile is a framed photo of politician William Jennings Bryan. He’s speaking to a throng of supporters in Ellendale. A banner serving as a backdrop declares him “America’s Greatest Citizen.”

Lis Fricker, a senior from Fargo, archives photos. A blue bandana pushes her hair back as she slides a photo from its frame and places it onto a high-resolution scanner.

historic photo of building

“My father is in that one,” says Ellendale native Ken Schmierer as he gestures to a black-and-white photo of a basketball team from a bygone era. He’s one of the residents helping the students.

Fricker appreciates the connection. “A small group of committed people can change the world,” she says.

In this case, they are changing and perhaps saving a portion of small-town North Dakota history. Schmierer is grateful for their work. He said many years ago the town lost thousands of photos due to a fire at the newspaper office. The students’ work digitizing and archiving the photos online will keep them around forever.

“The project emphasizes the importance of preserving local history,” Angela Smith says. “We all work together to assure this town’s historical remnants are protected, and share our historical findings with a local public audience. At the end of the day, it’s about connecting with human beings and the stories they hold dear.”

As a kid, Schmierer lived in the Nodak Motel his father once owned down the street. The building was demolished in February. It was one Robb-Ruenz couldn’t save.

Schmierer looks through the opera house’s front picture window toward the museum.

“It’s a whole town’s memories,” he says.

Memories that will never be lost thanks to some dedicated students and volunteers who made the effort to preserve them.

The Ellendale History Project concluded with a documentary showing at the Ellendale Opera House. Luke Koran, a senior from St. Paul, Minnesota, led the effort to document and compile the two-week experience. About 40 Ellendale residents turned up to watch the video, which is available at https://vimeo.com/130682478. At least one was moved to tears.

– David Nilles

photo of people involved in the project

Student Focused. Land Grant. Research University.