The Lewis and Clark Trail Museum
The Cowboy Chronicle; Publication of the NDCHF
Dickinson Press;The Drill
Dickinson, North Dakota
March 26, 2014
The past meets the present and future in the small town of Alexander where the Lewis and Clark Trail museum opened in June of 1969. Alexander is in the heart of the fastest growing region in the country due to the Bakken oil boom. This small typical plains town is now along a huge road project expanding US 85 to four lanes to accommodate the influx of traffic. As you go through town on the new highway, you pass the old Alexander School built in 1914. The school served the community well for 53 years until it was closed in 1967. This old school building now houses the museum.
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 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. They had the foresight to preserve the great heritage they shared. In September a meeting of the Watford City chapter of the McKenzie County Historical Society was held to consider organizing an Alexander chapter. This led to the organization of a special committee for the Lewis and Clark Trail Museum. This committee included Art Link, the County Chairman, who would later become governor of North Dakota. They also voted unanimously to accept the offer from the Alexander School District to donate the old school for their proposed museum.
The old school building was the perfect facility. The building was itself 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. In addition, Alexander was an ideal location for a museum as it was located near two major highways.
The name Lewis and Clark Trail Museum was first suggested in October of 1967 and was later 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. Having charted part of their course through northwestern North Dakota, this was an ideal designation.
C.F. Martell, a pioneer rancher in McKenzie County, had been instrumental in creating interest in a regional museum. After his death in 1966, the museum committee contacted C.F.’s son Charles to see if the Martell family would be willing to donate historical articles from the family ranch. This would help to get the museum Martell had envisioned off to a good start. Martell had been known for his large collection of “relics from the past”, as Lyle Safely, chairman of the planning committee called them. The Martell family donated a number of items as did many other local families. The plans for the museum were met with enthusiasm throughout the community and the committee soon had a wide array of articles.
Many of the concepts used to display the vast collection were innovative in the 1960’s. The museum was organized thematically into distinct rooms; for instance: a school room, old country store, and saddle and blacksmith shop, to name a few. There was a room dedicated to the Lewis and Clark expedition. One of the larger rooms had 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. There are even the actual post office boxes, clerk’s window and stamp area from the Charbonneau Post Office which closed sometime after 1966. I remember as a little girl getting in an old ranch vehicle to go with my grandfather to that very post office to pick up the mail.
Like the post office exhibit, all the articles and displays have personal stories beyond their historical significance. The large John Deere tractor out front was once played in by the Koch children growing up on the Martell 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 grandkids it’s so much more; it’s personal history as well. There are countless stories like this. Sadly, many of the stories are lost now but we still have the artifacts and our imaginations.
The Lewis and Clark Trail Museum has by far the largest and most extensive collection in northwestern North Dakota. Each room is so full that it is hard to take it all in. You are likely to find something “new” each time you visit. The museum extends to the outside with historical buildings moved to the site, including: an old log cabin, a sheepherder’s wagon, a church and the local Boy Scout headquarters.
In recent years the museum has struggled. The displays that were once new and innovative are now in critical need of updating, restoration and modern means of preservation. The community involvement that was once so strong had diminished. Jodi Stover, a museum board member, said in an interview in the Plains Reporter in 2011, “There hasn’t been a lot of the younger generation stepping up to the plate, including myself”
In 2011, the nonprofit organization Help Save the Alexander Museum was formed. Fundraising efforts began and there was renewed community awareness and interest. The museum board was able to add an outbuilding to hold the abundance of antique vehicles and machinery. They were also able to re-roof the main school building. Future plans include preservation and restoration, as well as new rooms such as a Military Room and an Oil Room. The board has the plans completed for a new building to replace the old gymnasium and is waiting for funding to begin the project. They also envision traveling museum exhibits and commercial space for lease to serve the community and provide a means of additional revenue. The museum remains open while the improvements and long range plans are progressing. There is even a coffee and gift shop on site in the old Charbon Township Hall.
The Lewis and Clark Trail Museum is located on US 85 in Alexander, ND.
You can contact the museum at PO Box 343, Alexander, ND 58831, 701-828-3857. More information is available on Facebook at HelpSaveTheAlexanderMuseum, or at www.lewisandclarktrailmuseum.com
- History of the Lewis and Clark Trail Museum; Board minutes, June 1994
- McKenzie County Farmer, Thursday September 28, 1967
- The Plains Reporter, Wed. November 9, 2011
- Letters of Mr. Lyle Safely and Mrs. George Larsen to Charles Franklin Martell Jr.
- Donna Sims, Lewis and Clark Trail Museum board president
- Kathy Jess James, Lewis and Clark Trail Museum board member.