Carpenter's family examines North Dakota Capitol's Monkey Room

2013-10-24T17:12:00Z Carpenter's family examines North Dakota Capitol's Monkey RoomBy NICK SMITH | Bismarck Tribune Bismarck Tribune

Family members of the late Ernest E. Peterson spent part of their Thursday afternoon at the North Dakota state Capitol scanning a wall full of monkeys, rabbits and horses.

Three of Peterson’s surviving children and their relatives came to the Capitol to view a small, quirky piece in the design of the 1930s building known as the “Monkey Room.”

The room’s nickname is derived from the wavy grain markings in the wood paneling on the walls. Upon closer inspection — and a little imagination — the markings resemble an array of animals at several spots in the wall.

The late Ernest Peterson had worked to build the room in 1933 when the Capitol was under construction. The Monkey Room is a private entryway for the secretary of state to enter his office.

Secretary of State Al Jaeger greeted three generations of Peterson family members to show them the room their father built 80 years ago, but which they had never seen in person.

Peterson lined the walls of the Monkey Room using pieces of a rare wood known as California Walnut, Jaeger said.

Peterson’s daughter, Colleen Dolores Erickson, admired the work her father had done from her wheelchair, calling it “lovely” as she admired the craftsmanship.

“I’ve been here to the Capitol before. I hadn’t really had a tour like this before,” Erickson said. “Very impressive.”

The pieces of wood lining the walls had been assembled using a process known as bookmatching, taking two or more pieces of wood and placing them so the surfaces mirror each other in appearance.

Bookmatching is typically done on such objects as walls, guitars and violins.

Peterson’s son, Clarence Peterson, remarked how seamless the panels on the walls were. He noted that unless he looked very closely, he couldn’t even tell where one panel ended and the next one began.

Jaeger said the wall was very skillfully done by their father, a carpenter by trade. He said such work was done by hand rather than mechanically as in modern days.

“Your dad was quite the craftsman,” Jaeger said. “What he did in here ... that’s an example of someone taking pride in their craftsmanship.”

The three looked on as Jaeger pointed first to what appeared to be a wide-eyed horse peering back at them, then something that resembled a buffalo.

Moving over to the next pair of panels, Jaeger showed the family what had garnered the Monkey Room nickname. As family members snapped photos, he pointed to a cluster of lines in the wood grain resembling eyes, ears and the bushy facial hair of a monkey.

Alongside the larger monkey face were symmetrical fist-sized shapes that bore the appearance of spider monkeys.

Other animals visible in the panels included rabbits, foxes and — in a panel that Jaeger said he noticed years ago — one that resembled the popular comic strip cat Garfield.

Ernest Peterson died in 1981 at the age of 92. During the Great Depression, he’d worked on the Monkey Room and other parts of the Capitol alongside numerous others for a wage of 80 cents an hour.

The third visiting Peterson child, Dona Peterson, said Thursday’s trip was a year in the making. A previous attempt by Peterson’s grandson to gather the family a year ago fell through.

“We wanted to do it; all of us had things to do this week except today,” Dona Peterson said.

With all three of them in their 80s, she said, it was a good time to finally see their father’s unique little piece of Capitol history because “we’re not getting any younger.”

Reach Nick Smith at 250-8255 or 223-8482 or at nick.smith@bismarcktribune.com.

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