I read in a tourist guide to the area that the biggest fossil in North Dakota is located in the Visitor Information Center in Watford City. Tom and I drove past the exit for Watford City half a dozen times before we finally took the time to check it out. After all, how can I recommend it to visitors to North Dakota if I haven’t even seen it.
Watford City has a population of 8,000 people, which makes it the 10th largest city in North Dakota. The cities, in order of population, are: Fargo, Bismarck, Grand Forks, Minot, West Fargo, Williston (the one closest to us), Dickinson, Mandan, Jamestown, and Watford City. Before the latest oil boom, Watford City only had 1,700 people, so it has grown a lot in the last ten years.
We found the Visitor Information Center without any trouble, but were a little confused. The outside of the building says “Ice Cream – Museum – Gifts – Bottle Shop.” In case you don’t know, a Bottle Shop is a liquor store. We thought maybe the liquor store was next door to the Visitor Information Center, but no, it was in the building right next to the ice cream counter. Watford City used to be a dry town, but the town council decided to open a liquor store with the proceeds benefiting the restoration of downtown. So the Visitor Information Center – and liquor store – are in a new building at the edge of downtown. An interesting solution to urban decay.
We found what we were looking for inside the Visitor Information Center: the biggest fossil in North Dakota. At one time a good portion of the state was a cypress swamp, so the biggest fossil is the petrified stump of an old cypress tree. The area of the ancient cypress swamp is the place where the oil boom is happening now. Although we found the biggest fossil, it was a little hard to see because it was surrounded by things that blocked our view of it. The woman who was working in the information center told us that was so no one could touch it. Okay . . . it seems like there might be better ways to do that, but it was still pretty cool to see it.
After admiring the biggest fossil in North Dakota for a while, Tom and I toured the Pioneer Museum upstairs. It was more impressive than most of these kinds of museums. They had some very cool old stuff, set up in little tableaux. Another display in the basement of the building highlighted oil development and farming in the area.
I was most impressed by their timeline. They had a timeline for pioneer settlement in the area, as I expected, but they also had a Native American timeline on the same boards. It was easy to see how the pioneer settlement affected the Native Americans and how the Native Americans sought to protect their lands. For instance, after the Mandan, Hidatsa, and Arikara tribes agreed to settle on the Fort Berthold reservation, the government passed the Homestead Act, which reduced the size of the reservation from 12 million acres to less than 700,000 acres. Then they came in and built a dam whose water covered all the arable land on the reservation. Way to make a bad situation even worse! In the 100 years between agreeing to move to the reservation and the dam completion, the three tribes went from 12 million acres to slightly over 500,000 acres, none of it arable.
Tom and I really enjoyed our visit to the Watford City Visitor Information Center, Museum, and Bottle Store. It is an odd combination, but it works for the community and the museum seems to be better because of it. And we were glad to see the biggest fossil in North Dakota.