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North Dakota marks 125 years with grand opening of Heritage Center

Gov. Jack Dalrymple shows the ceremonial key he used to lock the North Dakota Heritage Center's galleries in October 2012 during Grand opening festivities for the state museum on 11-2 afternoon. Moments later he took the key to the nearby Inspiration Gallery and unlocked the door to officially re-open the entire Heritage Center. A large crowd was gathered in the Heritage Center to celebrate North Dakota's 125th birthday and the opening of the entire Heritage Center. (Tom Stromme/Bismarck Tribune)

BISMARCK – North Dakota natives Norman and Joanie Janzen hit the road at 6 a.m. Sunday so they wouldn’t be late for their state’s 125th birthday party in Bismarck, about three hours away.

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The state’s gift to itself – a nearly $52 million expansion of the North Dakota Heritage Center – didn’t disappoint the couple from Devils Lake.

“Oh, beautiful,” Joanie Janzen said. “It’s so nice and big and open and spacious. It’s just neat.”

The Heritage Center needed all of that space to accommodate the estimated crowd of 2,500 people who packed its hallways and common areas and explored other areas as Gov. Jack Dalrymple and former governors marked North Dakota’s 125th anniversary of statehood and the grand opening of the expanded museum with a ribbon-cutting ceremony.

Dalrymple said the museum is already being referred to as the “Smithsonian on the prairie” and is “possibly the finest state heritage center in the nation.

“And yes, it did cost $51.7 million, and I think it was worth every penny,” he said, drawing applause.

Sunday’s event capped a yearlong celebration of North Dakota’s 125th anniversary, which it shares with South Dakota.

President Benjamin Harrison concealed the order in which he signed the statehood proclamations on Nov. 2, 1889, and to this day historians say it’s a mystery which he signed first. Because of alphabetical order, North Dakota is often considered the 39th state and South Dakota the 40th state, according to the North Dakota Blue Book.

The history of the Heritage Center, on the other hand, is well-documented.

Former Gov. William Guy, who died last year at the age of 93, planted the seed for the original Heritage Center almost 50 years ago. That seed was carefully tended by subsequent governors, growing into the world-class facility that exists today, said his daughter, Bismarck City Commissioner Nancy Guy.

“I am so thrilled to see this amazing addition to the cultural offerings in our capital city,” she said.

Construction on the original Heritage Center began toward the end of the late Gov. Art Link’s administration, and the museum opened in 1981.

“I know he’s looking down upon us today, saying, ‘A job well done,’ ” said his wife, former first lady Grace Link.

Former governors Allen Olson, George Sinner, Ed Schafer and John Hoeven, now a U.S. senator, also addressed the crowd.

Hoeven recalled how, after an expansion of the state archives in 2007, the 2009 Legislature authorized $51.7 million for the 97,000-square-foot museum expansion project. Lawmakers required the historical society’s foundation to raise $12 million from federal and private sources to match $39.7 million in state funds.

“This is the culmination of a vision, and it’s the culmination of a belief in this state and the people of this state,” he said before presenting retiring State Historical Society Director Merl Paaverud with an American flag as a gesture of thanks.

State Historical Board Chairman Calvin Grinnell said the expansion allows the state to show more of its collections, provides additional storage space for precious artifacts and offers greater educational opportunities.

“Gov. Art Link once called this place the people’s place, and today this is the people’s celebration of a completed dream,” Grinnell said, calling to mind the lyrics of North Dakota troubadour Chuck Suchy’s “Old Dakota Dream,” still fresh in the crowd’s ears.

The expanded museum’s first two galleries opened to the public on April 28. On Sunday, Dalrymple used a “skeleton” key – its bow resembled a Tyrannosaurus Rex skull –to unlock the doors to the facility’s largest gallery. The Inspiration Gallery covers 19,000 square feet, encompassing all of the old museum’s exhibit space and displaying pieces of the state’s history over the last 160 years.

A spacesuit designed by North Dakota researchers for Mars exploration quickly caught the eye of 4-year-old Axel Weiss as he bounced into the gallery.

“Hey, what is that?” he said, his parents and two sisters following close behind.

Galen Weiss said the Mandan family usually visits the Heritage Center once a year, and now it “feels like a more modern museum.” He said he’s excited to see the traveling exhibits that will pass through the Governors Gallery, the other gallery that opened Sunday.

In the museum’s James River Café, hundreds of people stopped to admire the North Dakota-shaped birthday cake created by Quality Bakery of Fargo, complete with a replica of the state Capitol and other North Dakota icons such as the World’s Largest Buffalo Monument in Jamestown.

“Absolutely fabulous,” Norman Janzen said.

While they couldn’t take a piece of the cake, Joanie Janzen didn’t walk away from Sunday’s event empty-handed.

“I got a piece of the ribbon,” she said with a smile.

Reach Nowatzki at (701) 255-5607 or by email at

Mike Nowatzki

Mike Nowatzki reports for Forum News Service. He can be reached at (701) 255-5607.