written by Tessa Sandstrom
July 22, 2019 — On this date in 1916, eight men who were concealed by an icehouse and under the noise of a running twine machine escaped from the State Penitentiary after breaking through a weak point in the wall using piece of shafting, a mason’s bar and a crowbar.
Three prisoners were caught that night at midnight.
It took several weeks to catch the remaining five.
The escapees were among at least 17 prisoners who escaped within a three-month period.
The prison lacked the funds to hire enough guards to keep watch.
On the day of this escape, the guards were keeping watch in the bathhouse, leaving the watchtower unmanned.
The high number of escapes that year was also caused by a high inmate population of “unusually bad character,” according to the warden.
Journey of the Highgate Mastodon
written by Merry Helm
July 23, 2019 — In the spring of 1890, William Regcraft found some bones while digging a ditch on his uncle’s farm, one mile from Highgate, Ontario. A hardware merchant named William Hillhouse bought the bones, and he and his uncle, John Jelly, also bought the right to continue excavating. What they found was almost an entire skeleton of an Ice-Age mastodon, relative of the modern elephant.
Hillhouse and Jelly cleaned the bones and strengthened them with two layers of hot white glue. The one and only tusk, described as a “perfect beauty,” was dropped and broken in two places. After it was repaired, they offered R.A. Essery $50 to take the mastodon out on tour. Essery headed toward Winnipeg, putting up posters that read, “A Monster Unearthed! Do not fail to see the Highgate Mastodon!” A review by the St. Thomas Evening Journal read, “…the cavity in the head from whence the fire of a mastodonic eye…is almost large enough to admit a man’s head.”
Between 1890 and 1892, Essery died somewhere out west, and Hillhouse and Jelly lost track of what they called “The World’s Greatest Wonder.” Then, Hillhouse received a handbill from his niece in Neche, ND, revealing it was now being displayed by a Mr. Thompson and Mr. Glover.
The bones then wound up in storage at the Bibb Broom Corn Co. in Minneapolis. After some time, the company sold them to Harry Dickinson, a Great Northern Railroad fireman, to recoup unpaid storage costs. Harry shipped them by rail to his father’s home in Barnesville, MN, and they exhibited the mastodon around Minnesota and the Dakotas for the next several years.
Around 1898, a Buxton physician, James Grassick, saw the show and later bought the mastodon for $10, and in 1902, he loaned the bones to UND for display. A week later, the Grand Forks Herald published an article about it, and three days later, UND received a letter from William Hillhouse claiming rightful ownership. Grassick quickly sold the bones to UND for $100, and when attorneys came after him soon after, he told them he no longer owned them.
It was 49 years before the mastodon surfaced again. UND history professor Elwyn Robinson wrote to the State Historical Society to say a mastodon had been discovered in an attic on campus, and it was shipped to the Historical Society and placed in a storage building.
Early in 1991, plans were being made for a permanent exhibit at the ND Heritage Center titled The First People: North Dakota Prehistory. Committee members were wishing they had a nice reconstructed megafauna, like an ancient bison or mammoth for the display. Collections curator Mark Halvorson asked if a mastodon would do, at which point the chief archaeologist started laughing, saying, “Will a mastodon do? Yeah, that’d be nice!” Halvorson replied, “OK, I’ll pull our mastodon.” Paleontologist John Hoganson said, “You have a mastodon!?” Halvorsen said, “(Yeah, out) beside the ‘61 Lincoln Continental in the warehouse.”
Museum director C.L. Dill said, “I know I’ve seen this lower jawbone we have in a crate, but I’ve never seen anything else.”
It had been more than a quarter century since a mastodon had been reconstructed anywhere in the world, but after bouncing around in crates for a hundred years, the ancient Highgate Mastodon was on its way to having itself put back together. It now proudly stands near the entrance of the Heritage Center Museum.
Clarence Crum, Inventor
written by Merry Helm
July 24, 2019 — Clarence Crum, from Hannah, received at least two patents for his inventions. On July 4, 1913, the Hansboro Pioneer reported that Crum received a patent for “an invention of his, which will be a great convenience to motor drivers. The device will cause the lights on an automobile to follow curves or turns in the road automatically. It will work on any kind of car and will be a splendid rig to take the danger spots out of a crooked road on a dark night. Clarence has had several inquiries from auto firms to secure a right to the use of the device.”
Seven years earlier, on July 26, the Pioneer reported that Crum had received his first patent for a “rein holder, a clever little contrivance which fastens to the dashboard of the buggy and keeps the reins from falling under the feet of the team. The Rolla Star,” the article continued, “is out with the suggestion that he should now patent a contrivance that would enable a fellow to drive with one hand when out riding with his girl. (Others) say there is a scheme that would beat any patented device — let the girl drive the team.”
Rock Lake Boys to War
by Merry Helm
July 25, 2019 — It was about this time in July 1918 that ten young men from Rock Lake were going off to fight in World War I. The Rock Lake Ripples called their send-off “the largest assembly of any as on previous occasions in our village…”
The Town Hall was undergoing repairs at the time, so the event was staged outside. Benches made of planks were arranged in front of the hotel, a piano was moved out onto the veranda, and folks who came by automobile were asked to park out back so that there would be plenty of space for the crowd that gathered.
The Ripples reported that the program began with the “rendering of several selections by the Rock Lake Bank,” which leads a person to wonder just what types of renderings banks provide. There were also readings, a vocal solo, and an instrumental solo. Then, F. C. Robeson delivered the address, which was described as “abounding in pith, pathos and patriotism.”
George Catlin, Frontier Artist
written by Merry Helm
July 26, 2019 — Today is the birthday of one of our most important frontier artists. George Catlin was born in Pennsylvania in 1796 when George Washington was serving his second term in office.
Catlin was the fifth of fourteen children, was on the small side, and had black hair and a dark complexion. His mother and grandfather had been among the few survivors of the “Wyoming Valley Massacre” in Pennsylvania, and as a child, George heard many stories surrounding that encounter. He developed a fascination with Native Americans, and when he was 10 years old, he and a friend started hurling tomahawks. One hit Catlin’s left cheek and scarred him for life.
Catlin’s parents pushed him to earn a law degree. He did it but, he later wrote, “Another and stronger passion was getting the advantage of me, that of painting…” As a self-taught artist, Catlin’s law office became cluttered with art supplies and paintings of judges and juries, and at age 24 he finally decided to sell his law books in favor of canvas.
Catlin continued to focus on portraits, but in 1824, a delegation of Native Americans passing through Pennsylvania inspired him to focus on their culture. Six years later, he moved to St. Louis, where he became friends with General William Clark and painted portraits of American Indians who visited Clark’s office.
Catlin was aboard the first steamboat to navigate up the Missouri from St. Louis into what is now North Dakota. Of the reactions of the tribes to the steamboat, he wrote “…others, in some places, as the boat landed in front of their villages, came with great caution and peeped over the bank to see the fate of their chiefs, whose duty it was, from the nature of their office, to approach us, whether friends or foes, and to go on board. Sometimes in their plight, they were instantly thrown back, neck and heels, over each other’s heads and shoulders – men, women and children, and dogs, sage, sachem, old and young – all in a mass, at the frightful discharge of the steam from the escape pipe, which the captain of the boat let loose upon them for his own fun and amusement.”
Catlin lived for a short while at Fort Clark and Fort Union during the eight years he spent among the Plains tribes. The observations and notes he made later filled a 2-volume book. He also painted literally hundreds of portraits and scenes from tribal life, ceremonies and rituals. In fact, it was largely because of Catlin’s work that we know as many details about early Mandan culture as we do; only five years after he stayed with them, the entire tribe was almost complete wiped out by smallpox.
Catlin later wrote that he considered the Indian “the most honest and honorable race of people,” and said, “no Indian ever betrayed me, struck me a blow, or stole from me a shilling’s worth of my property that I am aware of.”
Unfortunately, Catlin’s work was largely unappreciated during his lifetime. A few years after he went back East, he presented his paintings to Congress, which made a shortsighted decision to reject it. By the time he died of Bright’s disease in 1872, Catlin was virtually penniless – yet now he is recognized as one of the foremost painters of American Indians.
The reason that much of the work survives is that, following Catlin’s death, a widow of one of Catlin’s creditors donated her collection of his paintings to the Smithsonian. Here in North Dakota, a number of his works can be viewed at the Fargo Public Library and at the Heritage Center in Bismarck.
“Dakota Datebook” is a radio series from Prairie Public in partnership with the State Historical Society of North Dakota and with funding from the North Dakota Humanities Council. See all the Dakota Datebooks at prairiepublic.org, or subscribe to the “Dakota Datebook” podcast.