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Rare first-edition journal bestowed to N.D. library

Posted on 9/4/2013

By Lauren Donovan, The Bismarck Tribune

Art Thompson has a burning question after traveling the Lewis and Clark Trail this summer: "How did the book get into mother's attic in the first place?"

Thompson followed the explorers' trail from St. Louis to the Pacific Ocean, looking for the perfect home for a rare first-edition of the journal written by expedition Sgt. Patrick Gass.

The sergeant was the first to publish a book following the expedition and he lived the longest to talk about it, dying at the ripe old age of 98.

Thompson's copy came from a trunk in his mother's attic among a jumble of other leather-bound books. A friend recognized the value of the Gass book, though the rest were worth a buck apiece to someone who wanted a faux library.

The book came to light 30-some years ago and since then, the Elmira, N.Y., man has been thinking that such a special book deserved a special place.

After searching the Lewis and Clark Trail from one end to the other, he and his family chose to give the book to the Lewis & Clark Interpretive Center at Washburn, where it will be housed in the center's new library addition.

There, it will be the single most valuable book in the collection - and the oldest, said director David Borlaug.

The public will have the opportunity see the 1807 edition when the center's new library within a 9,000-square-foot addition is dedicated Sept. 21-22.

Thompson, 67, said he and his wife, Connie, made the trip of a lifetime along the trail, always keeping the purpose of the journey in mind.

They chose Washburn partly because the interpretive center doesn't have a copy and the new library will make a great home, he said.

"We knew the staff would appreciate it as much as we did and make it available," Thompson said.

Another reason has to do with Gass himself.

"He was a carpenter and his talents were instrumental in building Fort Mandan," he said.

The replica fort, where the explorers and the expedition lived the winter of 1804-05 among the Mandan and Hidatsa Indians, is on the Missouri River, near the Lewis & Clark center.

First editions of the Gass journal have sold for upward of $20,000. But Thompson said the value of the book to him and his two living sisters was not the most important consideration.

"To us, it was more important to have some say in where it ends up," he said.

Borlaug said the Gass book will be among the center's top tier of Lewis and Clark artifacts, which include a button from William Clark's uniform and a hasp from one of Clark's field notebooks.

"To have a first edition of the first book of the expedition gives us real bragging rights," Borlaug said.

Thompson said the 30-day trip on the explorers' trail and back satisfied his quest to find a home for the book, but now he's looking for something more.

"The journey hasn't ended for us. Now, we're more curious than before. We don't know how the book got into mother's attic. The curious thing was a little-known private - he's usually the last one listed - was named John D. Thompson and he was under Sgt. Gass' command. Could he be related to us?" Thompson said.

Thompson wonders, "It is possible the book was in our attic because of John (Thompson)? Is it possible (Gass) gave it to (Thompson)? The journey continues."

Borlaug said the addition will be formally dedicated at 10 a.m. Sept. 21 and there will be music and free admission both days.

Click here to learn more about the Sept. 21-22 dedication and Grand Opening Weekend of the Interpretive Center Expansion.

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