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Lost Pembina History


Water Hauling With Rustee

By Michael Rustad


Pembina, North Dakota is located about eight miles from Humboldt and

across the Red River from St. Vincent.  Pembina is a major bordercrossing

and a sister town to Emerson, Manitoba on the Canadian side.  Pembinais the

oldest town in North Dakota and celebrated its 200th anniversary in 1991. 

The early history of Pembina was as a fur trading town.  Pembinawas the site

of a Hudson Bay trading fort.  Norman Kittson, for whom KittsonCounty is

named, had warehouses to store fur and other goods.  During the1870s, the

U.S. military had an outpost at Fort Pembina. Pembina's Mayor AlbertJ.

Christopher led the movement to found a museum.  He was also a state

representative and a person with vision and leadership.  The PembinaMuseum,

in its day, was the best museum in the upper Red River Valley.  ThePembina

Museum had far more treasures than today's Grand Forks Museum which seeksto

reenact history.  Unlike the Grand Forks Museum, the old PembinaMuseum had

an intangible charm.  Pembina was a hub of activity before GrandForks was



     I associate the Pembina museum with tripswith my Dad, Rustee Rustad.  

Dad would frequently bring one or more of his children along with himon

trips hauling water.  We would have long talks during those trips. My Dad

was an incredibly good natured and social being with lots of friends. I

think that our little trips hauling water was my Dad's attempt to getto know

each of his children.  We had very little money for my first 12or 13 years.  

As a result, Dad often had 3 or 4 different jobs.  He farmed full-time,drove

water truck, and worked at any odd job he could find.  I think thathe used

those water hauling trips as his way of spending quality time with thekids.  

Dad often sang as he drove. Although my Dad did not have a good singing

voice, he enjoyed singing and wanted us to join along.   Hisfavorite

standard-bearers were:   "You are my Sunshine,"  "LittleBrown Jug," and the

"Red River Valley."  We would often talk about politicsor difficulties we

were having in school during those trips.  We would often take abreak to go

arrow-head hunting or undertake some other activity.  Dad wouldalways take

us to Short's Cafe or the Pembina Cafe for a soda or ice cream.  Sometimes,

we would have a half hour shopping for baseball cards while he loadedup with

water.  We met all kinds of people on Dad's water route from wealthyfarmers

to eccentric farmer bachelors.  Dad had such a way of everyone thateven the

most unpleasant bachelor farmer would smile when he saw Dad drive intothe

yard.   We often talked about Red River Valley history on thesetrips.  Dad

was a great collector of Indian artifacts.  He found stone fishbooks,

spearsheads, buffalo-gun bullets, and many other objects along the RedRiver


He enjoyed sharing his passion about Indian history with his sons and

daughters.  My sister Jamie was probably the most interested inartifacts and

accompanied him more than any other child in our family.


     It was my Dad who created the spark ofinterest in history through our

visits to the Pembina Museum.  We would visit the Pembina Museumtogether

frequently while on water hauling trips.   We often went toPembina because

my Dad filled up his truck with water at the Pembina Waterplant.  Hiswater

hauling business was at its peak in the late 1950s and early 1960s.  Pembina

had a water treatment plant managed by his friend Mr. Monette.  Dadwould

purchase tanks of water usually in Pembina or Noyes.  He would thenhave a

regular route of customers all over Minnesota and North Dakota.  Mosttowns

and farms in the Kittson County lacked a water supply.  My Dad wouldsell

water for $5 a tank and this was how he made a living until the early1960s.  

Dad had a thriving business but he could only charge a princely sum of$5 a

tank because of intense competition from other entrepreneurs.


      We would  take a break on aslow day water hauling and visit the

Pembina Museum.  We would also stop at Elmer Barry's garage veryoften to see

his collection.   The Museum was not particularly well organized,but it was

always orderly and interesting.  It was truly a boy's paradise withswords,

buffalo horns, arrow points, canteens, rifles, saddlebags, and many artifacts

from the military outpost at Fort Pembina.  The old museum was atreasure

trove of history.  When the old museum was finally closed becauseof the

floods and the intervention of the State of North Dakota, many of

Christopher's treasures were removed to Bismarck and warehoused.  


     Today, there is an antiseptic museum alongwith tower.  The displays

are pale imitations of the Smithstonian or Field Museum's interpretrative

museums--quite professional but antiseptic.  The new Museum haslost its

sense of being connected to organic living history.  Elmer Barry'sgreat

colection of historic museum was housed next o his garage.  I spentmany

happy days with  Dad sharing stories about Indian culture and FortPembina.  

Elmer had at least one good story about every artifact.   Theold museum had

a Red River Valley Cart and cannon.  There was an unbelievable displayof

Indian artifacts and leather leggings etc.  Later, Elmer's collectionwas

moved to the old museum.  The old Museum had interpretative displays

renacting life on Red River Valley in the age of the Indian.  Icoveted the

f;ur-covered hunting knife!  There were also a lot of displays onthe

Canadian/U.S. fur trade.  The age of the buffalso was also depicted. There

were old pictures of Fort Pembina and artifacts from each war.    


     My Dad was a great collector, in the traditionof Mr. Barry. Dad, too,

could be regarded as a collector.  He had a nostalgic side and theinterest

in history found in all great collectors.  One of his all-time great

acquisitions was the 1930s era school bus that he rode in when he wasa boy.  

We used that schoolboy first as a playhouse and later as a teenage hangout! 

My brother turned the school bus into a place where you could sleep awayfrom

the "big house."  Dad also collected old cars, bathtubs,chickenwire,

barrels, tools, firearms, coins, stamps, and arrowheads.  Still,he was not

even close to being as comprehensive of a collector when compared toElmer

Barry's prodigious efforts.   Barry had bathtubs from the 1890s,oil lamps,

old pianos, buffalo robes, cash registers, piano rolls, and every imaginable

object from everyday life:  dishes, cutlery, etc.  Barry wasa true genius

and today's social historians would see him as a collector with a vision.  

Moreover, Elmer's artifacts and the old Museum helped my Dad and I forgea

bond of common interest that endures to this day.


     The old museum was up close and personal. You could look down the

barrel of a gun once shot by a soldier at Fort Pembina.  Elmer Barrywas not

a trained historian nor did he seek to profit from his collections.  He

collected artifacts for the sure pleasure of sharing a historical tradition. 

You could touch the beaded leather pouches made by Indians.  Today,the

living history section of the Pembina Museum may be historically correctbut

it is packaged, boxed and not very charming.   The museum oftoday is worth

visiting but there is much lost history because it is does not contain

Barry's collection.   I think that Upper Red River Valley residentsshould

petition the state to return Pembina's lost artifacts so future generations

can touch a buffalo horn or an Indian axe.


Prof. Michael Rustad, 12 Feb 01

nk that Upper Red River Valley residentsshould

petition the state to return Pembina's lost artifacts so future generations

can touch a buffalo horn or an Indian axe.


Prof. Michael Rustad, 12 Feb 01