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South Dakota lends a pen to a friend

Press Photo by Katherine Lymn Barb Herzberg-Bender of Bismarck looks in awe at the pen U.S. President Benjamin Harrison used to sign both North and South Dakota into statehood. The pen was on display at the state Heritage Center in Bismarck on Saturday.

BISMARCK — It took a lot of pleading with its keepers to even get it out of South Dakota.

It flew with the governor in his plane, in the hands of a historian, and the North Dakota Highway Patrol escorted it from there to the Heritage Center.

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For the four hours it was in North Dakota, a guard stood with it.

It’s the pen President Benjamin Harrison used to sign North Dakota and South Dakota into statehood in 1889, and by now it’s already back in South Dakota.

Usually, the pen is on display at the state’s Cultural Heritage Center in Pierre, S.D., and protective historians had until recently only agreed to let it leave its home once, to show it to legislators.

“We had to talk our historians into taking it up there,” said Jim Soyer, a spokesman for South Dakota Gov. Dennis Daugaard’s office. “... We begged them over and over, and we wanted to make this a nice surprise for the North Dakota people.”

Just last week, the historians agreed because of the significance of the event — but they weren’t taking any chances.

“It came in a separate box, which sat on my lap the whole way,” South Dakota State Historical Society Director Jay Vogt said of the pen’s flight.

North Dakota Gov. Jack Dalrymple and Daugaard traded jabs at a ceremony unveiling the pen, bringing humor to the kickoff of Saturday’s 125th anniversary festivities.

“Clearly, the pen that was used for both states should be shared and clearly it should be rotated,” Dalrymple said. He lent Daugaard a mass-produced “Jack Dalrymple” pen in return.

Daugaard said he had thought about giving the pen to Dalrymple before, but “with all the oil on his fingers,” North Dakota’s leader might just drop it. The responses drew laughter.

North Dakotans gathered in the Heritage Center gallery for the governors’ remarks, and to get their own close look.

“Honey, this is huge,” said Barb Herzberg-Bender, a former librarian and history teacher at the unveiling Saturday.

“It’s all historic and cool.”

Which one came first? The ceremony was a natural occasion to bring up one of the Dakotas’ biggest unanswered questions: Harrison signed them both into statehood the same day — Nov. 2, 1889 — which was first?

Perhaps predicting the playful rivalry that lives on between the Dakotas today, Harrison left everyone with a bit of mystery. The story goes that controversy surrounded the two states over which one would be signed into the Union first. He had his secretary of state, James Blaine, cover both proclamations with a sheet of paper before they were signed. Then, Harrison shuffled them.

“So not even he knew, and none of us know, who became a state first,” Daugaard said Saturday.

With the bills on his desk, Harrison sat down with his pen. The documents’ order of signature was not recorded. North Dakota is traditionally listed first as the 39th state; South Dakota is listed as the 40th.

The pen came back to the public around the time of the states’ centennials in 1989. Harrison had handed the pen to land agent John Martin Ruggles after signing the proclamations. From Ruggles, the pen was passed down through family and friends until at the time of the centennial, organizers sought out the possessor of the pen, who donated it to the South Dakota State Historical Society.

A North Dakota historian put to rest any real animosity over the pen. The Dakotas were once all the same Dakota Territory, and the northern state has plenty of artifacts and other objects that South Dakota may be equally interested in, said Genia Hesser, curator of exhibits at the State Historical Society of North Dakota.

“There’s quite a bit of shared history.”

Lymn is a reporter for the Dickinson Press. Contact her at (701) 456-1211 or tweet her at kathlymn.