Since the 1910s — or perhaps even earlier — the State Historical Society of North Dakota has been collecting military uniforms.
The collection started off small, but more than 100 years later consists of more than 1,700 uniforms — primarily military uniform jackets, pants, caps and footwear.
Each uniform, the lone Civil War uniform, the Iraqi soldier's jacket with Arabic writing scrawled inside and even their contents — the opera ticket from France or the half-burned photo of a Japanese soldier's late sons — carry stories waiting to be told.
Kept in climate-controlled storage beneath the North Dakota Heritage Center are rows of uniforms spanning from the Civil War era and one combat-associated uniform from the War on Terror.
The uniform collection probably contains the State Historical Society's oldest artifacts, said Geoff Woodcox, assistant curator of collections, who is in charge of maintaining the collection.
Uniforms are organized chronologically in space recently acquired through the Heritage Center expansion.
A majority of the uniforms were donated, Woodcox said. A Museum Collection Committee looks over any material donated to the State Historical Society. The committee tries to avoid redundancy in a current collection, but it also contemplates the history of an item.
"We consider the story behind it — that's one of the important things — it's not just the artifact, we're preserving the story behind it," Woodcox said.
Woodcox enters information on the donated uniforms and other artifacts into a computerized database. Its color, characteristics, text, measurement, even photos are all recorded, in part, to make searching for these items easier.
While doing data entry, Woodcox will occasionally find new information the donor had a misconception about, or something that a relative did. Thanks to the internet, he can learn more about items from 50 plus years ago.
"I'm able to find a complete biography about someone that we had no information in our files about them or what they did, which is sort of cool," he said.
Woodcox will sift through the pockets and oftentimes finds contents still inside. Mostly random items, including an entry pass into France, cigar wrappers and comb. Not all of it is positive, such as the used handkerchief that had visible boogers on it, or, as Woodcox called it when he found it, "historic boogers."
"To me this sort of thing provides that human context, I mean, we all leave things in our pockets," he said. "That's what's so cool ... it takes this sort of abstract story and turns it into a human story."
There's an array of uniforms from World War I, and there's almost a whole row of just World War II items, including women's uniforms from when women were officially allowed to serve. However, there's only one hanging rod containing modern uniforms — the latest from 2005.
"We have one combat-associated uniform compared to an entire row of maybe 150 World War II uniforms," Woodcox said. "I think that is definitely something that is lacking, but we have continued to make an effort."
Donations are made on an ongoing basis, including 15 this past month, according to Woodcox.
The history of one soldier is tied to one of those recent donations. Earlier this month, Kurt Peterson, 63, gave his military possessions to the State Historical Society. The donation process started this summer, and he finally turned over everything — 75 items in total — earlier this month. He gave his Battle Dress Uniform, his diplomas and certificates of training and Russian artifacts from the 1990s.
Peterson was 24 years old when he joined the U.S. Army, and he spent 15.5 years on active duty. He learned Russian at a school in Monterey, Calif., which would later become part of his job duties.
"That's probably the thing that was the hardest to give up ... my basic Russian diploma, because I had worked really hard for that," said Peterson, who is an alternative education teacher for Mandan Public Schools.
His first permanent duty was in Germany from 1982 to 1984. He also fought in the Gulf War. Peterson said he traveled across the globe for various missions, remarking that he "almost got completely around the world except for 3 degrees."
Peterson said he was glad to donate his uniform to the State Historical Society's collection and he hopes it aids in education about the Cold War era.
"Being a part of that, you know, that's really cool," Peterson said. "People from way back, and all over North Dakota, and then my two cents' worth."
The uniform collection is open to the public. For more information, call the State Historical Society at 701-328-2666. Appointments are preferred.