Monday, May 18, 2015

Petrified Summer Residence

A few months ago, my colleague Kevin Williams found mention in a New Orleans publication about an unusual building material adopted in southwestern North Dakota:

"Perhaps the strangest material ever used in building a school is that found cheapest in the town of New England, N.D. The structure is built entirely of agates. Of course, we do not mean such agates as small boys use in playing marbles. It is wholly of petrified wood which is very plentiful upon the prairies. It is said that the material has been put together in the most artistic fashion, so as to bring out its beauty, and that 'when the sun shines the building glistens like crystal.'"(1)

New Orleans architects were attracted to the story, and reported on it in the local trade magazine, Architectural Art and Its Allies.

We wondered if the above-mentioned structure or other petrified wood structures were still extant, and so I contacted James Davis, head of reference services at the State Historical Society of North Dakota. He referred me to New England Centennial 1886-1986: Century of Change, which includes the image shown above.

The structure was originally the summer residence of Colonel Thomas W. Bicknell. It was mentioned in the 1928 book, Beauty Spots in North Dakota:

"Here on that east bank of the tributary known as the Cannon Ball, where it ambles leisurely just west of the city of New England in Hettinger County, stands this quaint building, 18 feet by 18 feet, with walls of rough-hewn rock, much of which is petrified wood. The windows are deep set in the walls which are over two feet in thickness. This small stone building is the only real monument left to a brave band of pioneers from the New England states who, displaying their spirit of their pilgrim ancestors, founded New England City, Dakota Territory, in 1886.

"The outbreak of the Indians, known as the Messiah Craze under the Prophet, Sitting Bull, in 1890, alarmed the settlers, who threw up earthen embankments around three sides of this stone house in case of need. The solidity of its walls and its position with the steep bank of the river just west of it, gave promise of safety in case of attack. The Indians did not reach New England City but a company of soldiers was stationed there during the winter. Besides being a residence (which it is today), a town hall, a school, and a fort, this building has also been used as a dentist's office, a blind pig (saloon), and a newspaper office."(2)

The residence is no longer standing, but you can still search for petrified wood in North Dakota, and visit a petrified wood park in nearby Lemmon, South Dakota.

The Society of Architectural Historians' Buildings of North Dakota has just been released, and you might want to pick it up before venturing on a summer road trip to America's least-visited state.

(1)Architectural Art and Its Allies II:6 (New Orleans, December 1906), p. 5.

(2)Account of Delta Rice Connolly, as it appeared in Bertha Rachael Palmer's Beauty Spots in North Dakota (1928). Reprinted in New England Centennial 1886-1986: Century of Change, cited below, p. 20.

Image above: Colonel Thomas W. Bicknell Summer Residence. Reproduced in Betty Gardner and Eleanor Olson's New England Centennial/1886-1986: Century of Change. Bismarck, ND: Richtman's, 1986. Courtesy State Archives, State Historical Society of North Dakota.

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