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North Dakota's largest museum collects both ordinary, extraordinary

Mark Halvorson, curator of collections research at the State Historical Society of North Dakota, holds a bomber jacket worn by a New Salem man who served in the Army Air Corps as a radio operator during World War II. The jacket was donated by his family. Mike McCleary / Bismarck Tribune1 / 4
Mark Halvorson, curator of collections research at the State Historical Society of North Dakota, holds a rifle used during the Civil War stored with dozens of other firearms inside a vault in the basement of the Heritage Center in Bismarck. Mike McCleary / Bismarck Tribune2 / 4
Mark Halvorson, curator of collections research at the State Historical Society of North Dakota, walks down one the of the many long aisles of shelving units underneath the Heritage Center housing items from every era of the state. Mike McCleary / Bismarck Tribune3 / 4
Mark Halvorson, curator of collections research at the State Historical Society of North Dakota, opens a drawer with beaded leather moccasins worn in the 19th century by Native Americans from various tribes. Mike McCleary / Bismarck Tribune4 / 4

BISMARCK—A gun vault in the lower level of the North Dakota Heritage Center contains a Vietnamese machine gun brought home by a soldier from northwest North Dakota.

Storage aisles nearby contain a dormitory refrigerator discarded by the University of North Dakota and wedding cake toppers from three generations of North Dakota couples.

The state's largest museum collects both ordinary items and the extraordinary to tell the story of North Dakota and the state's residents.

"We try and only keep things that are related to North Dakota or her story," said Mark Halvorson, curator of collections research.

A committee of State Historical Society employees from different academic disciplines reviews potential donations and makes recommendations about whether to add them to the collection.

"We have to look at what is its history? How does it relate to North Dakota's story?" Halvorson said.

The committee also evaluates the story behind the item, its condition and whether it duplicates something already in the collection.

Several vehicles are stored in a secured but nondescript storage building on the edge of Bismarck.

One of the more unusual cars is a 1913 Glide 36-42 Touring, purchased by a Hebron man for nearly $1,300 in 1914. It represents a high-end vehicle at the time. A Ford Model T, which the museum also owns, cost about $275 at the same time, Halvorson said.

"We have to try to keep a sampling to reflect how times change, and how technology changes," Halvorson said.

Sometimes ordinary items are the most difficult for the museum to acquire because people don't typically save them.

For example, Jenny Yearous, curator of collections management, said she is excited about a collection of work clothes the museum recently acquired. The coveralls and work jacket once belonged to a man who worked for the farmers co-op in Regent, helping illustrate the importance of agriculture and farming to the North Dakota economy.

"It's really cool for us because people don't usually save those kinds of things," Yearous said.

The museum's gun vault has firearms that date back to 1905, but the collection doesn't have an example of a shotgun someone learned to hunt with from the 1950s through 1980s. Halvorson said that's likely because people traded those in to a gun dealer for the latest model.

The museum sometimes accommodates unique requests, such as a researcher who spent a day counting the number of stitches on a Chippewa canoe and taking precise measurements.

People who donate items sometimes come back to take photos with their family's heirlooms, including a family who donated a brown leather flight jacket worn during World War II. The bomber belonged to a New Salem native who was a radio operator in the Army Air Corps.

Halvorson encourages people to check with family members before they offer items to a museum.

"They may not realize that the one grandkid who's sort of admired that might be willing to care for it for the next 50, 100 years and pass it down," he said.

HALVORSON: Mark Halvorson, curator of collections research at the State Historical Society of North Dakota, holds a rifle used during the Civil War stored with dozens of other firearms inside a vault in the basement of the Heritage Center in Bismarck. (MIKE MCCLEARY PHOTOS, TRIBUNE).

HALVORSON2: Mark Halvorson, curator of collections research at the State Historical Society of North Dakota, holds a bomber jacket worn by a New Salem man who served in the Army Air Corps as a radio operator during World War II. The jacket was donated by his family.

HALVORSON3: Mark Halvorson, curator of collections research at the State Historical Society of North Dakota, opens a drawer with beaded leather moccasins worn in the 19th century by Native Americans from various tribes.

HALVORSON4: Mark Halvorson, curator of collections research at the State Historical Society of North Dakota, walks down one the of the many long aisles of shelving units underneath the Heritage Center housing items from every era of the state.

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