Ward County's hub of history itself became the site of historic flooding last June.
Pioneer Village, the home and showcase of the Ward County Historical Society located next to the state fairgrounds, suffered devastating losses in the flood.
All 13 of its buildings received at least some damage. The railroad depot had up to eight feet of water and the warehouse, which held 13 antique automobiles, had seven feet. The entire original contents of the former Immanuel Lutheran Church, nearly a century old, were thrown out. Horse-drawn sleighs and buggies were devastated. Historic contents of the barbershop, dentist's office, general store and post office were destroyed. Furniture from the first county courthouse, built in Burlington in 1886, was ruined. Schoolbooks and records were flooded, and the state's first iron lung plus antique pump organs from the church were wiped out.
"So much was lost, it's hard to comprehend it all," says current director Sue Bergan. "The losses in the church hurt the worst. I sat down on the steps and cried the day they cleared it out."
Compounding the devastation caused by the flood, the society then lost its long-time administrator and curator, Reverend David Jones, the pastor of the Dakota Baptist Church. While attending a church conference in Boston, he died of a heart attack on September 28, 2011.
"He was an exemplary person, a wonderful man, and a historian," says Bergan. "He was from Mobile, Alabama, and had quite the cutest Southern accent. He just worked too many hours between the society and the church. It was a terrible blow to us to have to try to reorganize, knowing what he had accomplished and what still had to be accomplished."
The historical society was facing a historic crisis.
Volunteers -- many facing their own flood-related demands at home and work -- stepped up, including outside groups such as Lutheran Social Services and students from Minot State University and Trinity Bible College in Ellendale. The Minot post office donated an antique post office that was collecting dust in a corner of its building. The Stenkjaer Lutheran Church in Simcoe, which was closing, donated all its contents to Pioneer Village. An area farmer who has the first schoolhouse in Ward County still on his property is willing to donate the building and all its contents if the society can find the funds to move it. Other volunteers have "adopted" a Model T and a John Deere tractor, promising to restore the antique vehicles on their own. Bergan hopes additional items can be similarly restored.
Staff from the State Historical Society of North Dakota, the State Historic Preservation Office, the American Institute for Conservation, the Heritage Preservation organization, the University of Utah Preservation Library and FEMA also pitched in with their various specializations, helping inventory contents and deciding what could be saved and how it could be restored.
The Ward County Historical Society (WCHS) is a private, non-profit organization – which can be eligible for FEMA Public Assistance aid if they meet certain qualifications. The historical society was an eligible applicant and received funding for repairs to nine of the buildings, debris removal, and restoration of a portion of the collection. FEMA's team of environmental and historic preservation experts also provided valuable technical assistance to ensure FEMA funding could be used to maximum effect.
Charles Bello, FEMA Historic Preservation Specialist, who worked closely on this project, states that, "We were able to provide guidance and funding to help ensure that key items in the Historical Society's collection will live on and be enjoyed for generations to come."
Bergan herself had her own business hanging and removing wallpaper. She had worked with the historical society in January, 2010, when she and her mother re-wallpapered the upstairs apartment in the century-old Samuelson House at Pioneer Village. The flood wiped out a bridge to her own home, and she and her husband had half-hour walks up and down ladders on river banks to get home until a new bridge was built in October. In the meantime, she had volunteered to help at the society, and after Jones’ death she found herself drafted to be the new director.
“It’s going to be all of two years until everything is restored,” she says. “The immediate projects are to reseed the grass and get the outside of the buildings looking nice. I would like to have a couple of buildings open by the time the state fair opens July 20, but I don’t know if that’s going to happen or not. The log cabin and courthouse, maybe the cook car [a horse-drawn wagon pulled from farm to farm during threshing season], those are the three I’m hoping for, but it’s kind of a far reach.”
“I don’t know how we’ll commemorate the 2011 flood itself,” says Bergan. “Maybe just by winning the battle and reopening. We’re going to have a party then, that’s for sure.”
To learn more about the Ward County Historical Society and how you can be involved in their efforts to preserve the region’s history, visit them online at www.wchsnd.org.