The purpose of this project is to document Bismarck and Mandan as they stand today, through the use of video and photography, as well as help preserve the history of the area through the production of historical articles, and eventually a proper book.
This project comes in two phases. The first is documenting Bismarck and Mandan as they stand today. This will be done through the use of video and photography, to capture for posterity the images of local businesses, buildings, and landmarks in and around the cities. The goal is to provide a snapshot, or a series of snapshots, of how Bismarck and Mandan looked today, for future generations. As the face of Bismarck and Mandan changes, this phase will continue to be updated, to also document those changes.
Each photograph, or video, will be accompanied by a brief history of the building or structure, as well as details as to where it is located.
All photos and video will be captured on film, as to help with the archival process. While film has the ability to last hundreds of years, with minimum care, and is a physical object, digital images are easily lost or destroyed, and lack many of the archival qualities that film does. Film negatives are also easily accessible, and will not be subject to being unaccessible in the future as new formats, or programs, render older file formats obsolete.
The second phase of this project is a systematic history of the cities of Bismarck and Mandan. This history will explore the earliest American Indian settlers of the area, and continue through today. The outcome of this systematic approach to the history of Bismarck and Mandan will be a full length book on the subject, articles on various aspects of this history published in the Midwestern Scout, as well as submitted to other publications, as well as the publication of much of the work online, to a dedicated website.
The material compiled in both of these phases will eventually be donated to the public, so that future historians can use the information collected as sources themselves, or even add to the collection.
The Documenting Bismarck Mandan Project began as a side endeavor. Having worked in the newspaper industry for a few years, I had compiled a number of stories about the history of both Bismarck and Mandan. While some of the stories found their way into an article or two, most were filed away for a later time.
After starting my own newspaper in 2016, the Midwestern Scout, the time seemed to arrive. With a mission to focus on the history of the area, I began really looking into what was written on the subject. Digging into the records I could find, I realized just how scant the writings were on the history of the two cities, with the last major books on the subject around half a century old.
Already having spent a good deal of time writing various articles, and searching out even more stories, I figured it was the time to go all in. This project, is the outcome of that.
Throughout the history of Bismarck-Mandan, there have been a number of occasions in which large swaths of historical material have been lost, destroyed, or forgotten. The historic significance of that material was not acknowledged, or was not appreciated, and thus it was not archived.
A few examples will be given of this loss of history in order to show the importance of a project as described above, which seeks to preserve history, as well as the benefits that a City Historian can give to city by actively helping to preserve potential historic artifacts.
Orlando Goff’s Collection: One of the early photographers to the area was Orlando Goff. He began his career in the area as the fort photographer at Fort Abraham Lincoln, and later opened a studio in Bismarck, where he would capture the first photograph of Sitting Bull.
Goff would capture a number of greatly important pieces of history with his photography, including many that documented life at Fort Lincoln. After Goff left the area, he left his studio to his apprentice, David Barry, who would also eventually leave the area.
Both photographers shot photographs on glass plates, which because of the weight, according to Barry, were left at the studio when the photographers left the area. The studio, which was on Main Street, Bismarck, would pass through the hands of a couple of other photographers, until the building in which the plates were stored, was destroyed, as renovations were being made. Today, while Goff produced hundreds of photos, only a handful are still in existence.
Bismarck Tribune: The Bismarck Tribune has operated since 1873, and because of that, is often an excellent source of history. However, among workers at the Tribune, a story is told about an editor in the 1970s who decided to throw away many of the past photo negatives.
Luckily, a number of staff members took matters into their own hands, and saved a good amount of those negatives from the trash. However, the result is that today, the Tribune’s archives are missing many of the photo negatives from before the 1970s, which included some of their earliest photo negatives which documented Bismarck and Mandan history.
Today, the historical significance of those photographic negatives would be nearly priceless. Such a value can be seen in the Tribune’s recent photo books, in which the Tribune had to reach out to the community, as well as other local organizations, in order to procure many of the photos.
Mandan News: The Mandan News has switched hands a great number of times. Through that time period, the large archives of the various incarnations of the Mandan News have often been destroyed or lost.
The current incarnation of the Mandan News, beginning in the late 1970s, has suffered great losses of photographic material. While at one time, their archives contained thousands of photos, dating back decades, today, their archives have virtually been wiped out.
During their move from the former Mandan News and Finder building, their photographic archives, which had suffered from a lack of organization, were largely tossed into the trash. While a few of the photos have been saved in the form the physical print newspaper, thousands of other photos were lost (during the days of film photography, an entire roll of film would have to be shot before the photos could be used. While a couple of those photos would be used in print, the rest of the roll of 36 photos would placed in the archive).
Frithjof Holmboe: In 1913, Frithjof Holmboe began making videos of North Dakota, in order to encourage settlement and tourism in the area. The videos depict the area, including Bismarck and Mandan, during a time in which the cities were still just developing.
Among the videos that were taken, the trolley line in Bismarck was captured, as well as steamboats moving up and down the Missouri. In 1921, Holmboe moved to California, and eventually his videos, the film they were shot on, were stored away in a building at Fort Abraham Lincoln State Park, and forgotten about until the 1970s.
Instead of completely being destroyed, State Archivist, Frank Vyzralek, worked to have them restored. The original 35mm nitrate film had deteriorated, to the point of portions of it oozing, but luckily, much of it was able to be restored, and that rare glimpse of history wasn’t completely lost.
These are only a few examples of the potential for historic archives and artifacts being lost. The last example showcases the importance of individuals who actively seek to preserve such work, so that it isn’t completely lost to future generations.
Much of the material, including photographs and videos, that we take for granted today, may have a historical importance for later generations, even though we don’t fully realize it at the time. For that reason, it is a benefit to have an individual who is actively looking to preserve such history. This project, and the City Historian position, would do just that.
One of the unique aspects of this project is the use of film photography and videography. The primary purpose for such a choice is because of the archival properties of the format.
While we are living in the most photographed generation to date, it is often agreed that we are living in a generation which is at threat of loosing much of that digital information. The reasons for such are numerous, but part of it rests on how quickly technology is advancing, and how that puts digital information at risk of being inaccessible.
Many of us have already experienced this with a variety of different digital formats that have been faded out, including the once popular floppy disks. Another risk is the failure of storage devices, where one hard drive failing can destroys tens of thousands of images in one instance.
Film does not suffer from such problems. Instead, we still have available to us both film negatives, as well as prints, from over a hundred years ago. Stored properly, those negatives and prints will continue to survive without any serious problems for hundreds of years. There is also little to no risk of film negatives becoming inaccessible. While new film scanners are being produced, there are also other means to explore film negatives, including printing positives from them, or using a digital camera to scan the negative.
Film also provides easier, and more economical access to larger formats. Today, the National Parks Service continues to employ large format photographers, who use film exclusively, to help document the parks and other historic areas. The reason for that is because it provides the highest resolution images, while also being economical.
For this project, medium format film will be the primary medium. Such a medium provides a high resolution image, that is exceptionally archival, and is more economical than the digital version.
In addition to using film, all the film will also be processed in house. By processing the film myself, the entire process is more economical, while I can also assure the most archival processing of the film.
An extra benefit of using film is that using such a format can help to bring greater awareness to the project, as it is relatively unique. With film use on the rise among photographers, stories revolving around unique uses of the format are being picked up by larger media agencies.
The proposed timeline of this project is a two-year period. The major undertaking will be the documentation of Mandan through photography and videography, the processing of that material, and archival of the finished work. The two-year period is set in order to allow for a full documentation of Mandan, which will serve as the foundation for an ongoing documentation, which will serve to update the records as new buildings, structures, or organizations change the face of Mandan.
The documentation will largely be conducted during the summers of 2017, and 2018. The summer months have been chosen as the time period will allow for the clearest documentation to be done, which won’t be effected by outside factors, such as towering snowbanks. Additional documentation will be taken during all the months throughout each year, especially when special events of historical importance take place, but the majority of the work will be completed in the summer.
Having the documentation take place during the summer also allows for much of the processing, and archiving, to be done in the fall and winter, when the weather is less hospitable, and ideal times for photographing or videoing portions of Bismarck and Mandan become less.
The timeline for the research portion of the project, including the finished work on the history of Bismarck/Mandan, is also based on the same two-year period.
Research for the project is 50-60% completed, having begun three years ago. That primary research will continue through the next three months, which will result in an overall timeline of Bismarck/Mandan history. The outline for the major work will be completed through the summer of 2017.
During the later part of the summer of 2017 and moving through the winter of 2017-18, oral interviews will also begin, in order to get first hand accounts of events that have had some sort of impact on the area. Those oral interviews will be recorded, and will eventually provide a unique database by themselves.
Based on the material collected in the oral interviews, the overall outline will be slightly modified, and the information will be cross-checked in order to provide the most accurate portrayal of the history of Bismarck/Mandan.
Through the fall of 2017, and winter of 2017-18, additional specialized stories will be researched, and placed into the overall outline. These specialized stories will focus on interesting side aspects that have occurred in the area, such as interest pieces on unique characters in the history of Bismarck/Mandan (such as Anton Ness, who was a Mandan doctor who claimed to heal though faith). These stories don’t necessarily add to an overall picture of the history of Bismarck/Mandan, but add interesting asides to that history.
Beginning in the Spring of 2018, the material collected for the book on the history of Mandan will be compiled, and the writing will commence. The writing will continue through the winter of 2018-2019, when the overall work should be ready to print. During that time period, additional research will most certainly be needed in order to fill in potential holes, or to answer questions that arise. Such research should not delay the writing as a whole though.
During this two-year phase, special articles, and glimpses of the overall project, including photos from the documentation phase, will be published in the Midwestern Scout, as possibly elsewhere, in order to keep the public’s attention on the project, and to ensure that it continues to move forward.