Knowing Your Past Carries You into the Future
The past meets the present and future in a quiet little town; from the last lynching in North Dakota to the fellowship of burgers in the park and a farmers market on Saturday nights. Showcasing it all is the Lewis and Clark Trail Museum.
Motoring down Highway 85 you now bypass the town of Alexander where traffic and trucks lumbering through town used to be an all-day occurrence. All that commotion goes around town now, but beckoning passersby is a highway sign pointing the way for some quiet moments and a glimpse into the past.
In the 1960’s McKenzie County and its towns were as they had been for many generations of farmers and ranchers. Here on the plains and badlands of North Dakota hard work, determination, perseverance, and a great sense of community were part of the daily routine. Busy with the demands and struggles of everyday life, it was hard to realize the things one used on a daily basis would someday be historical treasures. However, in 1967 a group of local ranchers and farmers had the vision to know that preservation of those everyday items would be an important window to the past and worked to preserve the great heritage they shared. The McKenzie County Historical Society organized an Alexander chapter which led to a special committee for the Lewis and Clark Trail Museum. They voted unanimously to accept the offer from the Alexander School District to donate the old school for their proposed museum.
The old school was the perfect facility. The building was itself, built in 1914, was an artifact and had many rooms and spaces for the different collections. The old school would still be fulfilling its original mission of education by preserving the past for future generations. The name Lewis and Clark Trail Museum was agreed on by a public vote. The Corps of Discovery, better known as the Lewis and Clark Expedition, spent more time in North Dakota than any other state. The ghost town of nearby Charbonneau was named for one of their guides Toussaint Charbonneau husband of Sakakwea, making this an ideal designation.
Opening in 1969, many of the concepts used to display the vast collections were innovative. There is of course a room dedicated to the Lewis and Clark expedition with displays to help the visitor understand and appreciate their contributions. The museum was organized thematically into distinct rooms; a school room, country store, and saddle and blacksmith shop to name a few. One of the larger rooms has a display for each day of the week from the old nursery rhyme; Monday is wash day, Tuesday is ironing day and so on. The concept of needing a whole day for mundane chores is of itself a great history lesson. Also on display, the actual post office boxes, clerk’s window and stamp area from the old Charbonneau Post Office. Exploring this exhibit sparked a visitor’s memory of a bumpy jeep ride with her grandfather over the hills to Charbonneau to get the mail.
Just like the post office exhibit, there are many personal stories and ghosts from the past hidden in seemingly ordinary items throughout the museum. The large John Deere tractor out front was once played in by children growing up on a local ranch. The brother decided he was going to crawl down into the smokestack and hide while his sisters were pretending to drive it, but they got the last laugh when he got stuck. While the historical value of the tractor is important, when the girls come visit now with their kids and grand kids it’s so much more. While many of the stories are lost now we still have the artifacts and our imaginations.The museum houses the most extensive collection in northwestern North Dakota. You are likely to find something “new” each time you visit.
The museum extends outside with other historical buildings including a log cabin, a sheepherder’s wagon, church and an old local Boy Scout headquarters. There is a coffee and gift shop in the old Charbon Township Hall. On the front lawn petrified tree stumps unearthed when Hwy 85 was redirected are displayed. They are estimated to be 60 million years old and are unique to western North Dakota.
While in recent years the museum has struggled, in 2011 the nonprofit Help Save the Alexander Museum was formed and new life was breathed into the museum. Since then rooms and exhibits are continuing to be updated and refurbished. New signage has been added to The Days of the Week Room that includes a QR code so the visitor can scan it and read about it on their smart phone. There is also a code attached that will take you to a web page for more information such as how an item worked, or a song. Updates such as these will continue.
In 2012 an addition was built to house antique vehicles and machinery dedicated to Evelyn Lebak a long standing member of the community and the museum’s curator and director for 25 years. In 2015 a room was dedicated to the life and career of congressman and Governor Art Link who was County Chairman in 1967 and on the original museum committee. Currently The Bannon Room is being revamped and new information is being added about the last lynching in North Dakota of Charles Bannon in 1931. A fascinating story that reflects the times and the raw human emotions that can grip us and make us do things we never thought we would. In 2018 an addition to hold displays from the dilapidated gymnasium such as the blacksmith shop and train collection will be completed. Future plans include continued preservation and restoration, as well as new themed rooms and perhaps traveling exhibits.
As the Lewis and Clark Trail Museum welcomes visitors and seeks continued community interest and support, it looks forward to celebrating its 50th anniversary in 2019 with special event The mission of education and inspiration continues.
The museum is open for the 2018 season through Labor Day: Monday, Tuesday, Thursday, Friday and Saturday10:00 a.m. – 5:00 p.m., Sunday 12:00 p.m. – 5:00 p.m., and is closed on Wednesday. Lewis and Clark Trail Museum welcomes school groups and other tours during the season as well as when the museum is closed to the public.
In addition the Lewis and Clark Trail Museum sponsors a Farmers Market every Saturday evening from 6:00 – 8:00 pm coinciding with Burgers in the Park hosted by the Lions Club. (Booths are $10.00 per week. Call the museum to sign up or for more information. ) What a great way to spend a summer afternoon and evening! What a great community project in which to put ones time and energy.
You can contact the museum at PO Box 343, Alexander, ND 701-828-3857
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Article published in:
The Roundup, Sidney, MT July 14, 2018
The Sidney Herald, Sidney, MT July 25, 2018
The McKenzie County Farmer, Watford City, ND August 1, 2018