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Kevin Bonham, Forum Communications Co., Published May 19 2012

A glimpse of the pioneer past: Iconic North Dakota photograph celebrated an era

FINLEY, N.D. – A sod house John and Margret Bakken built on the harsh plains of northwestern Walsh County in the late 19th century long ago was swept away by time and the prairie wind.

But it forever will be preserved in an iconic photograph that became a commemorative U.S. postage stamp on May 20, 1962, to mark the 100th anniversary of the Homestead Act of 1862. The act gave land west of the Mississippi to pioneers who would settle it.

The photograph, taken in 1898 by pioneer photographer John McCarthy of Milton, has been preserved, too, thanks to another frontier photographer, Fred Hultstrand, who lived in Park River and traveled all over North Dakota and beyond, documenting life on the northern Plains throughout the first two-thirds of the 20th century.

“He called it history in pictures,” said Hultstrand’s daughter, Donna Jean Verwest, who lives near Finley and often accompanied him on his travels. “If he hadn’t done it, it wouldn’t have been done. He had a vision for how precious it would be years later, when all of us are dead and gone.”

Hultstrand, who died in 1968, was proud to have been part of the Homestead Act commemoration, she said. Verwest donated most of his collection, some 550 images, to the Institute of Regional Studies at NDSU. The Fred Hultstrand History in Pictures Collection also is preserved in the Library of Congress American Memory, a national digital library.

But she held on to a few of the family favorites, including the famous Bakken sod house.

“Dad told me he would take no money for this picture, that he would never sell it,” she said. “To him, it was very, very precious.”

Avid student

Hultstrand was born in September 1888 in a sod house on a homestead in what then was Dakota Territory, some 14 months before North Dakota became a state. As a teenager, he became fascinated by photography.

“He developed his first glass plate negative in a dugout in that sod house,” Verwest said.

As a young man, Hultstrand traveled to Idaho to continue his photography apprenticeship, sometimes working for free, Verwest said, returning home when he ran out of money and laboring on the family farm until he could earn enough to go back. That experience led him to Chicago, where he studied photography at the Chicago Art Institute.

He became a student of McCarthy, whose Milton studio was just a few miles away from his boyhood home, eventually buying McCarthy’s business and setting up shop in Park River.

Hultstrand photographed weddings and special events. He traveled from town to town, documenting early Main Streets.

“What he really loved was sod houses,” Verwest said. “He’d travel anywhere to take a picture of a sod house.”

He also photographed people at work, often developing prints and then returning to see if the family wanted to buy them. She still has a colorized photo of a blacksmith in Milton.

“This guy was grubby,” she said. “My dad took this picture to the guy’s wife and asked her if she would like to buy it. She told him, ‘It’s too dirty.’ That’s exactly what she told him. So, we have it. The picture’s beautiful.”

Photo to stamp

One of the Hultstrand studio’s specialties was colorizing black-and-white photographs. Thelma Wick was the in-house expert who added color to the Bakken photograph.

That colorized photograph eventually was printed in a 1926 book commemorating the nation’s sesquicentennial, according to Tom Isern, a history professor at North Dakota State University.

Charles R. Chickering, an artist for the Bureau of Engraving and Printing, discovered the photograph in the book and used the image as the basis for his design of the 1962 Homestead Act centennial stamp.

Chickering made some subtle changes in the composition. He also removed the two children, Tilda and Eddie, and the dog. This allegedly was done, according to Tom Isern, to avoid depicting living persons. What they didn’t realize in Washington, D.C., at the time, however, was that John Bakken was still living in North Dakota and he recognized himself and his old soddie.

In 1975, the image was again used by Norway to commemorate immigration to America.

Seeing history

Verwest, who often traveled with her father, worked as an assistant, especially at weddings. She helped to make sure the brides’ gowns were in the ideal position; the grooms’ ties were on straight. She also saw some of the state’s history.

She recalled trips to places such as Grassy Butte, when she was teenager, to photograph a sod house that was serving as a U.S. Post Office. But she admits she did not have her father’s appreciation for the times.

“When I was growing up, I didn’t see the value,” she said. “But as I got older, I realized it’s wonderful. It’s history. It’s like Dad called it, ‘history in pictures.’ And that’s what it is. Now, I’m so happy we didn’t give everything away. We have something special we can hold on to and pass on to others in the family.”

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Bonham is a reporter at the Grand Forks Herald, which is owned by Forum Communications Co.