It’s said that those who do not learn from history are doomed to repeat it. This can be said of all of us as individuals, but it’s even more true of large groups of us, as communities, as states and societies.
Therein lies the inherent value of state agencies such as the State Historical Society of North Dakota, which is charged with preserving and protecting the history of our state and region, and presenting it for public display at historic sites and museums across North Dakota. From the State Historical Society and its public employees, we can learn how our state and its people came to be where we are today, and we can avoid the pratfalls of the past, when they repeat themselves.
“It’s interesting how some of the same arguments keep coming up, year after year after year,” said Mark Halvorson, the curator of collections research in the Museum Division of the State Historical Society and North Dakota United member. Halvorson regularly speaks with legislators and other state leaders about the role of historical collections in state government, and the value of knowing where we have been in determining where we are going.
“We work with the Legislature, and we understand that it’s tough to ask anybody to vote for a tax increase,” Halvorson said. “But at the same time, we try to work with the legislators and help them to understand what the role of government is, what we do. ‘What does your agency do in my district?’ And so we have the facts sheets out: In this county, we provided this many school tours, we had this many traveling exhibits, this many objects have come in from that county.”
When you understand the history of our state, you can better react to the challenges that come up. And there aren’t many people who understand the history of our state in more detailed of a fashion than Mark Halvorson, who has been described as a “walking encyclopedia.” Just while calling him on the telephone to set up a time to interview him for this article, I received more historical information about the railroads, Norwegian immigrants to our state and my hometown of Wilton than I could think to write down.
“There are important things to remember in North Dakota history,” Halvorson said. “Agriculture is cyclical. It’s boom and bust; land values rise and they fall. They rise and they fall. That’s been happening since the 1870s, and people getting overextended? Happened in the 1870s, happened in the 1890s, happened in the 1920s, happened in the ’30s, happened again in the ’80s, which happened to coincide with the young farmers going bankrupt just at the second North Dakota oil boom started to hit the skids.”
Halvorson’s interest in history is rooted in his own personal history. He grew up on a farm near Rugby, and said that he first dreamed of growing up to be an engineer on the Great Northern Railway. However, a family trip to the museum in Bismarck at the age of six was what first started him on his current career path. “We came down to Bismarck. We went to the Capitol building, then we went to the museum. And that’s when I decided I wanted to work in the museum.”
He is careful to delineate his passion area as being in the history of people, and not geography. “I don’t like rocks,” he said, with a laugh. “Rock is good for one thing: throwing it in a rock pile or putting it into a rock crusher and turning it into gravel. I’m not interested in rocks or fossils. For me, it was the family connection. Listening to stories told by relatives about when Grandma and Grandpa came over from the Old Country.
“It was the connection of, where do I fit in the world? Why am I and my sister the only blondes in the family? Because we took after Dad; everyone else was dark-haired, brown-eyed. My sister and I were both blonde-haired, blue-eyed. So my German grandfather didn’t like me, because I was a little Norsky. And my Norwegian grandfather didn’t like me because I was a little Catholic. My folks had a mixed marriage in ’46. One of the first mixed marriages, right after the war — Norwegian Lutheran boy married a German-Russian Catholic girl. And that was a big deal in January of ’46 — huge deal.”
Halvorson’s family connections are the reason he came back to his home state after getting his master’s degree in history from Montana State University and working for the state of South Dakota for several years. “When I came back in 1990, I took a pay cut to come here,” he said. “But I came because I had family members; my mom and dad needed help. My dad had a stroke, so I was the one member of the family who could change their place of employment and move. And luckily there was one position open in the agency.”
Heritage and civic pride are very important traits to Halvorson. He proudly showed me his membership card from the North Dakota Public Employees Association, which he first joined five months after he started working at the Historical Society in 1990, and talked about growing up in a Farmers Union family, who believed in cooperatives. “I ask people, ‘Do you support your local farmers market?’ ‘Do you support your local food co-op?’ ‘Do you buy Dakota Maid flour?’” he said. “Because remember we’re the only state who has a state-owned mill and elevator, and the only state that has a state bank. I went to college, and my student loan was through the Bank of North Dakota. When I bought my house, it was on a mortgage from North Dakota Housing Finance Authority, which got their money from the Bank of North Dakota. Support local.”
He’s also proud to say he was a charter member of North Dakota United. “When the choice came a couple of years ago to merge with the North Dakota Education Association to form North Dakota United, I was at that meeting,” he said. “I was a firm believer in creating North Dakota United, because it would give us the power of two organizations that would represent public employees, whether they’re here, at the State Hospital, or whether they’re teachers. These are people who perhaps aren’t recognized, whether by the general population or other state agencies, or the North Dakota legislators, and I feel it’s important that everyone should be a member.”
And he is equally proud of the service he provides to his home state, while also being a responsible steward of taxpayer dollars.
“I pointed this out the last couple of sessions, when they’ve asked about money that goes toward exhibits,” he said. “We still use cases that we, the people of North Dakota, purchased new in 1905. I think we’ve done pretty well with that nickel. It’s 112 years later, and we’re still using them.”