Posted 5/10/16 (Tue)
By Betsy Ryan
Farmer Staff Writer
The Lewis & Clark Trail Museum, located in Alexander, N.D., is a treasure trove of pioneer history. It gives its visitors a glimpse into the early days of McKenzie County by featuring common-to-the-time items of homesteaders and local businesses starting as far back as 1865. While thousands of people have filtered in and out of the museum, touched by the charm of old Alexander, the future of the museum is at a crossroads.
The museum is housed in, what used to be, the Alexander School. The school was open to students in grades 1-12 from 1914 to 1967.
When the school eventually moved to a new building, the old building was still stuffed full of historical artifacts, and the community decided to transition it into a pioneer museum. Since then, many local families from the area, when coming across items that were interesting and significant in their own collections, began to donate items to the new museum.
Now, as you walk from room to room of the school house, you are immersed in life before semi-trucks and oil, before power lines and cell phone towers. The museum features items set up to look like a typical homestead, a general store, a beauty parlor of the early 1900s, a post office, a church, and many other interesting displays allowing you to take a peek into the past.
There is also an extensive display featuring the Lewis and Clark exploration team and their journey (passing just miles away from what is now Alexander) - with maps of their trail and examples of the animals they would have come across.
The museum has seen hard times before. Despite the historical significance of what the school contains, the museum is limited by funds and volunteer support. Built over 100 years ago, the school building also needs significant upkeep and repairs.
“Part of the charm of the museum is the authentic building,” says Barbara Curren, one of the three remaining board members. “If you are looking for a polished, fully restored historic building, or a model of what a school house used to look like, this is not it. This is the real deal, with slanting floor boards and limited temperature control. You actually experience what the school was, what it was like to walk into class everyday, and what life really looked like generations ago.”
While charm the museum has in troves, what it really needs at this time is volunteers and several people to take on paid positions to give the museum the TLC it so desperately needs.
“People in the community love this museum. Most families that have been in the area for a long time are featured in the museum,” explains Curren. “But, life gets busy. We all have other jobs and responsibilities that take up our time. More and more, the available time that people have to donate to the museum is waning. At this time there are three board members and that is it. We are at risk of having to close.”
As many pioneer museums around the country have faced similar struggles, the museum was established by people who wanted to keep the memory of their parents and grandparents alive. As those people age and retire, the next generation has less connection with the history contained in the museum, therefore less buy-in, motivation, and time to help.
The current board members are Barbara Curren, Renae Riggins, and Kelly Hall. The board is putting out a call to the people of McKenzie County for help. It is up to the community to reach out and keep the museum from having to close.
The museum needs some repairs. Several of the rooms need to be organized and displays need updating. As the integrity of the building begins to wane, artifacts are at risk of damage.
Usually opening up after Memorial Day every year, this year there is no museum curator or part-time employees hired yet to run the day-to-day activities, so opening has been put on hold.
With the right help, the future of the museum can be bright.
There are plans for a room featuring Alexander native, the 27th Governor of North Dakota and original Lewis & Clark Trail Museum board member, Arthur Link.
Items in the gym such as old farming equipment and automobiles will be moved out of the gymnasium and into surrounding buildings. New displays are planned and new ideas welcome.
Previous museum curator Joyce Brown describes the museum as, “The most significant historical artifact of the area.”
The guest book at the museum is filled with comments from visitors from all over the country. They regularly write things like, “Best pioneer museum ever!” and, “Don’t change a thing, what a treat,” or, “Walking through these rooms brought back so many memories.”
The board members are passionate and motivated. They are on the hunt for resources and people to step up and aid the cause of the museum.
While today, the extensive local history sits underneath drop clothes and dust, it need not remain that way. The creaky floor boards and drafty rooms contain the origins of the charm and spirit that are still so present in McKenzie County.
If you would like more information on how to be a part of the Lewis & Clark Trail Museum call Barbara Curren at 701-770-6662 or send her an e-mail at firstname.lastname@example.org.