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The streets of the past in Bonanzaville USA.
The streets of the past in Bonanzaville USA.

Bonanzaville USA

Field review by the editors.

West Fargo, North Dakota

No one can remember how the bin of human teeth became part of Bonanzaville USA -- and that isn't surprising. Many of its relics arrived decades ago, when the attraction's curatorial policies were almost as wide open as the North Dakota sky.

Giant snow plow for North Dakota railroad tracks.
Giant snow plow for North Dakota railroad tracks.

"People didn't want to throw any of their personal history away, so it got donated here," said Beth Jansen, Bonanzaville USA's executive director. "A lot of times, in the past, things were just dropped off."

There are, said Beth, roughly 400,000 artifacts at Bonanzaville USA, although that number is open to interpretation. Do you count "bin of teeth" as one item, or each individual tooth?

Instead of Wild West gunfights on the streets of Bonanzaville USA, there are parades of historic tractors -- because North Dakota was settled by the world's first mechanized "bonanza" farmers. "And farmers never throw anything away," said Beth. The attraction's armada of still-working antique agricultural machinery is, she said, "a big deal in North Dakota."

Miniature railroad train passes road-worthy ICBM.
Miniature railroad train passes road-worthy ICBM.

Donated dentures.
Donated dentures.

Bonanzaville USA is bigger than some of the pioneer prairie towns that it honors. Its acreage is home to more than 40 buildings, most of them moved here from somewhere else in North Dakota. There's an old church, bank, one-room schoolhouse, saloon, and general store, as well as exhibits on everything from indigenous peoples to rural medicine (that's where the teeth can be found). But there are also unexpected sub-museums, devoted to automobiles, airplanes, skid-steer loaders, law enforcement, and telephones. All are packed with some of those 400,000 artifacts. Competing groups at Bonanzaville USA, each passionate about its own special interest, vie for attention, exhibit space, and funding. It can be, Beth said, "a little tricky."

The result is that Bonanzaville USA has a sometimes scrambled, but always enjoyable, smorgasbord of exhibits and artifacts. It may trigger headaches in museum professionals, but we thought it was great.

Bald dummy serves time in the Law Enforcement Museum jail cell.
Bald dummy serves time in the Law Enforcement Museum jail cell.

Take, for example, the Law Enforcement Museum, which has bottles of bootleg whiskey (smuggling from Canada was popular during Prohibition), a display about "Fargo Girl" Polly Hamilton ("John Dillinger's Last Sweetheart"), and a bald dummy convict in a striped suit sitting in a jail cell. "All firearms have been disabled and cannot be fired," reads a sign next to a display of confiscated guns, prison handcuffs, and knives hidden in hairbrushes.

Eagle and globe were perched atop a Fargo building in 1911.
Eagle and globe were perched atop a Fargo building in 1911.

In the Telephone Museum, which Beth said is overseen by a retired phone company employee in his nineties, visitors have the chance to operate a 100-year-old hand-cranked phone that works, and to ponder the "Antiques of the Future" display of 1980s phones that are already antiques. You can dial a 1940s rotary phone, then watch as the huge electro-mechanical switching equipment clickity-clack connects you to another phone only a few feet away.

And it's haunted. While several of the buildings at Bonanzaville USA were known to be ghost-infested, Beth said that the Telephone Museum caught everyone by surprise when phones in several of the other buildings began ringing from the museum's "Bonanzaville Telephone Exchange" switchboard -- when the building was closed and no one was there! A paranormal investigation, said Beth, produced a photo of what appeared to be a spectral "silhouette of a woman in a big dress" who was making the calls.

Sometimes the sign says it all.
Sometimes the sign says it all.

Bonanzaville USA has Fargo's first house (1869) and Fargo's first traffic light (1934), and the fact that someone cared enough about the traffic light to save it "says a lot about North Dakota," said Beth. There's an airplane named "Old Faceful" built and flown by a local 16-year-old in 1931; the world's one-time largest bulldozer, weighing 100 tons, so large that its Bonanzaville USA exhibit hall had to be built around it; and a 1936 Rolls Royce that belonged to the Lord Mayor of Manchester, England, which somehow ended up in North Dakota.

We asked Beth what she thought was the strangest artifact in Bonanzaville USA. The sword with a scabbard made from an Ibex horn? The tree trunk that ate a telephone wire insulator? The tiny truck carrying a nuclear missile in the model railroad display? "After a few years it all seems pretty normal," said Beth. "Probably the teeth."

Bonanzaville USA

Address:
1351 Main Ave. W., West Fargo, ND
Directions:
I-94 exit 343, then drive east a half-mile on US-10/Main Ave. W. Entrance on the right (south) side.
Hours:
Daily May-Oct. Main museum also open weekends year-round. (Call to verify) Local health policies may affect hours and access.
Phone:
701-282-2822
Admission:
Adults $12.
RA Rates:
Worth a Detour
Save to My Sights

Nearby Offbeat Places

Large ToothbrushLarge Toothbrush, West Fargo, ND - 3 mi.
Space Aliens Grill & BarSpace Aliens Grill & Bar, Fargo, ND - 4 mi.
Woodchipper from the Movie FargoWoodchipper from the Movie Fargo, Fargo, ND - 4 mi.
In the region:
Roger Maris Museum, Fargo, ND - 4 mi.

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