Fairgrounds, Historical Society dispute heats up

A dispute over the Pioneer Village at the North Dakota State Fairgrounds looks like it is headed to court.

Talks broke down Tuesday morning between the North Dakota State Fair Board, which wants the Pioneer Village moved off the fairgrounds, and the Ward County Historical Society, which wants to leave the museum where it’s at.

“We have no plans to put forth to move because it is simply impossible both logistically and financially to do so,” Glynn Breuer, president of the Ward County Historical Society, told the Fair Board.

Herbert Meschke, the historical society’s lawyer, said he has advised his clients that they are under no obligation to move under the terms of a 1966 contract, which states that “the North Dakota State Fair Association will allow the Northwest North Dakota Historical Society to maintain and operate its building located on the fairgrounds.”

State Fair Board member Neil Fleming said there seemed no reason for further discussion “if their bottom line position is ‘we’re not moving’ and ours is ‘we want them out.’ “

The State Fair Board’s master plan includes a plan to eventually build a large convention center on the fairgrounds in the location where the exposition and dairy barns, Jaycees Building and 4H Building are currently situated. The fair board also wants to relocate the road that currently runs by the Pioneer Village Museum on the fairgrounds, which would require moving the museum off the fairgrounds, The Fair Board had set a September deadline for the historical society to come up with a relocation plan.

Meschke, a retired state supreme court justice, told the State Fair Board that there is some ambiguity in whether the word “building” refers to one or several buildings. However, he said case law generally favors the precedent that has been set up until the time of any disagreement over a contract and the historical society has operated its historical buildings on the fairgrounds for 47 years. Fleming and other fair board members dispute that interpretation of the contract.

Fleming, from Cavalier, said that the museum grounds are in poor condition compared with the buildings on the rest of the fairgrounds and also complained that historical society members have not asked permission to move buildings onto the fairgrounds.

Bernice Galusha, a historical society member, said she was on the historical society board in past years as well and it is not true that the historical society failed to ask permission to move buildings onto the grounds.

“We did have approval to bring in other buildings,” said Galusha. “…Maybe it was a handshake (agreement). I don’t know. But we did get approval.” Two decades ago, she said one-time board member Harold Porter, who was a prominent Minot businessman, spoke with the Fair Board and got their agreement to allow the Pioneer Village to continue operating on the fairgrounds. She said many agreements were done with a handshake.

The State Fair Board is also still refusing permission for the historical society to move a building that was once the first country school in the county onto the fairgrounds. The country school was once the Graham No. 1 School in St. Mary’s School District, located six miles east of Foxholm. John Sandstrom bought the school house when it closed in 1960 and moved it to his farm in Lonetree, where he restored the building and its contents. John Sandstrom’s son, the late Robert Sandstrom, gave the school house to the museum to replace a school building at the museum that was destroyed in the Souris River flood of 2011. Plans had been made to move that school to the fairgrounds last December, but they were stalled when the Fair Board objected to the proposal.

On Tuesday, Breuer said that the historical society has agreed in writing to pay for the cost of removing the little red school house from the fairgrounds if it is legally required to relocate the museum. Breuer said the historical society does not have the money to pay to relocate all of the buildings at the museum.

Pete Hankla, the Fair Board’s attorney, asked why the board would allow the red school house to be moved to the fairgrounds under those circumstances. Fleming suggested to Meschke that allowing the school house to be moved onto the fairgrounds might add strength to the historical society’s position that there is a precedent for allowing the historical society to continue operating its buildings on the fairgrounds.

Historical society members said they would like to develop a good, working relationship with the State Fair Board and believe that the museum could be an asset to the North Dakota State Fair. Historical society member Bruce Brooks said that all but two of the buildings on the museum grounds are now in pristine condition. The museum will be open for people to look at during the fair, he said. Galusha acknowledged that past historical society members might not have maintained the museum buildings to a high standard in recent years. The historical society lost members who died or moved away or burned out on running the museum with such few numbers, she said. The museum grounds were heavily damaged in the flood of 2011. However, Galusha said the current historical society is committed to making the museum a real asset once again. She asked the Fair Board to give the historical society a chance to work with them. Breuer also asked the State Fair Board to reconsider its position.

Brooks said the historical society has collected nearly 1,000 signatures from people in support of leaving the museum on the fairgrounds and there have also been letters to the editor advocating that position. Fleming appeared skeptical that the petitions are representative of majority opinion.

“Lawsuits have a way of leaving scars and they’re expensive,” Meschke told the Fair Board. He said the State Fair Board clearly has greater resources than the Ward County Historical Society but the historical society is prepared to take the matter to court if need be.

Both sides remained entrenched in their positions at the end of the meeting and it looked likely that the dispute might have to be settled in court.