N.D. State Fair Association wants Pioneer Village off fairgrounds

The North Dakota State Fair Association wants to move the Pioneer Village museum off the state fairgrounds and use the vacated land to expand the State Fair.

However, Ward County Historical Society members, who operate the museum, said they don’t have the money to relocate the 13 buildings on the grounds and finding land near Minot to relocate the museum could prove difficult. The area’s ongoing growth means that land is both scarce and expensive.

The issue came to a head at the regular meeting of the State Fair Board on Thursday, where fair board members refused the Ward County Historical Society immediate permission to move a historic red school house to the museum. The Graham No. 1 country school, built in 1887, was originally located six miles southeast of Foxholm and was the first school in use in Ward County. It was donated to the museum by Robert Sandstrom of Lonetree to replace a country school building damaged in the 2011 Souris River flood. The historical society had planned to move it to the grounds sometime in late December, but the State Fair Board objected because of its own plans for the museum land.

Instead, at its Thursday meeting, the board voted to ask fair board attorney Pete Hankla to draw up a memorandum of understanding between the fair board and the historical society. The agreement is to include a set of terms and conditions under which the school house could be moved to the fairgrounds and who would be responsible for moving it if the Pioneer Village is eventually relocated. The two sides also will agree to discuss relocating the pioneer village. All nine members of the State Fair Board will be asked to vote on the proposal, which would be worked out with the historical society board.

“Like I said, I’m probably going to vote ‘no’ on the final product anyway,” said fair board member Neil Fleming of Cavalier, who made the motion.

Fleming, talking via speaker phone from Florida, spoke at length about his objections to moving the little red school house to the fairgrounds and his negative feelings about the past actions of the Ward County Historical Society.

Fleming said the fair association owns the land that the museum is located on but the historical society has failed to seek permission from the fair board to move buildings to the grounds or for other activities.

Bruce Brooks, treasurer of the historical society, said the current board members have only been on the board for about one year and can’t answer for the actions of previous members of the historical society. Brooks said board members were not able to find any documentation that the historical society has ever been expected to ask permission to move buildings onto the site and several buildings have been moved there in the past three decades.

A 1966 contract between the State Fair Association and the organization then known as the Northwest North Dakota Historical Society stated: “That the North Dakota State Fair Association will allow the Northwest North Dakota Historical Society to maintain and operate its building located on the fair grounds.”

Fair board members, including Fleming and Chuck Meikle of Spiritwood, appear to interpret that contract as giving the historical society permission to maintain just one building, while historical society members had interpreted the contract as referring to all of the buildings in Pioneer Village.

Pioneer Village was heavily damaged in the 2011 flood and historical society members have been attempting to restore the damaged buildings, focusing first on the exteriors for the sake of appearances. Brooks said the museum received $300,000 from the Federal Emergency Management Agency for restoration work on the building but must come up with a local match. The museum has also been successful in raising about $30,000 from the community to put towards restoration work, said Brooks. In addition, the historical society receives about $21,000 in Ward County tax dollars for museum upkeep.

Ward County Historical Society site director Sue Bergan said the historical society is required by FEMA to carry flood insurance for 25 years on the museum buildings that have been restored.

None of the FEMA dollars can be used to improve or expand the museum, Brooks said, and it could not legally be used to relocate the museum buildings somewhere else. If the museum is required to relocate, there is a chance that FEMA could require the museum to return the $300,000 it received for restoration.

Bergan said it would likely cost more than $1 million just to relocate all of the buildings from the Pioneer Village.

“Is that little piece of land that we’re on worth well over $1 million?” asked Bergan.

Gary Knell, Hazen, chairman of the State Fair Board, said the land probably is worth $1 million. The State Fair Association’s master plan for the fairgrounds is to eventually build a new convention center in that location that would be attached to the State Fair Center. Knell said the fair board is in a difficult position because it has been directed by the State Fair Association general membership to begin negotiations with the historical society to relocate Pioneer Village. State Fair Manager Renae Korslien said no firm plans have been drawn up for such a convention center, no approval has yet been given and no money is yet available. Knell said the master plan calls for it to be put in place in under five years.

Bergan said she noticed that the land to the south of the museum went largely unused during last year’s State Fair. One fair board member said it was used for parking during the evening hours during last year’s fair.

Historical society members said they are eager to work with the fair board for the betterment of both the State Fair and the historical society’s museum. New historical society board members have ideas about events that could be held on the museum grounds during the State Fair next summer that would attract more people, they said.

“I would love to work with the board,” said Bergan. “I don’t think there has to be a conflict of ownership.”

Angie Thompson, vice president of the Ward County Historical Society, said she doesn’t want to see the historical treasures of the Pioneer Village destroyed and says it feels like the State Fair Board is mainly interested in profit. Thompson said visitors love the historic items at the Pioneer Village and have urged historical society members to rebuild the museum after the flood. Brooks said there were more than 1,000 visitors to the museum during last summer’s State Fair, who donated more than $1,200 to the museum’s flood recovery efforts. That was without the annual picnic that the museum has traditionally held at the museum during the State Fair. Brooks said historical society members want to make the museum as attractive and educational a place as possible.

Fleming and other fair board members said they respect the historical value of the Pioneer Village and believe the buildings ought to be preserved; they just want them relocated.

Brooks said the Ward County Historical Society is willing to begin looking at the possibility of relocating the Pioneer Village, provided that land can be found in Minot so people can still visit the museum in a central location. Locating the museum even five miles outside of Minot would not be good because no one would visit it, he said.

Brooks said the little red school house should be moved to the fairgrounds in the meantime and could be enjoyed by visitors to the museum while future plans for the museum are being discussed. Fair board members seemed afraid that would set a precedent and Hankla, their attorney, warned them that the State Fair Assocaition could be held liable for paying to eventually remove it from the fairgrounds if they allow it to be relocated there.

Historical society members fear that the historic country school that has been donated to the museum could be lost forever if it is not moved to the state fairgrounds soon.

One fair board member suggested that the historical society look into moving the schoolhouse to one of the other pioneer village museums in the county, such as the one in Kenmare, for the time being. Brooks said he doesn’t know if any of the other museums have room for the school house or would have the money to relocate the school house.

No decision was made at the State Fair Board meeting about when the board will meet to review the agreement drawn up by Hankla or will vote on whether the historic country school can be moved to the state fairgrounds.