Minot businessman Mark Hamilton is a man of many interests. Whether it be marveling at a herd of caribou crossing the Alaskan tundra, staring down a Cape buffalo in Africa, focusing his camera on an empty highway or cooking a tasty rack of ribs over alderwood, Hamilton becomes captivated by the moment.
After graduating from Minot State University in 1969, Hamilton entered the Minot school system as a teacher of American history. It was a good fit, particularly because of Hamilton's deep interest in the history of North Dakota. One of his early hobbies was photography, which eventually led to converting his garage into a framing studio. As word of the little studio spread, Hamilton decided to take leave of teaching and pursue one of his dreams.
"I took the gamble from the garage to the mall in one big leap," said Hamilton, referring to his opening of Wild Things Gallery in the Dakota Square Mall. "Eventually I had stores in Grand Forks and Bismarck and temporary stores at several other locations."
Kim Fundingsland/MDN •
Mark Hamilton, owner of Wild Things Gallery and Alaska Alder Grill in Minot, holds the gallery’s No. 1 selling photograph. More than 10,000 of the images have been marketed through the gallery.
After nearly 20 years in the mall, Hamilton opted to open a new gallery at a different location.
"By 2005 I got tired of the mall," said Hamilton. "You can say you are your own boss and independent, but when you are in the mall you are under their thumb and take direction from them. I just got tired of it."
Hamilton purchased a former church located near the northwest entrance to the Dakota Square Mall area and remodeled it into Wild Things Gallery and Alaska Alder Grill. In doing so, his gallery expanded from 1,500 square feet to 5,500 square feet. He added a gourmet coffee shop, more gift items and a collection of books on Western history. Much of the work on the decor of the gallery was done by Hamilton himself.
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"This store is a real personification of me and my interests in history, particularly the western expansion and the Indian wars period," said Hamilton. "We have lots of Native American history right here in North Dakota and I've always been fascinated with that."
The move to a new location was not without some growing pains. "Captain Hambones Coffee" eventually added soup and fresh bread. It proved to be such a success that Hamilton removed his book shelves to add additional dining space. Then, calling upon his experiences from 30 trips to Alaska, added outdoor cooking. The Alaska Alder Grill was born.
"In Alaska we cooked our game on alderwood. That's a natural wood that grows up there. We had many meals of moose and caribou over alderwood and we were all taken in by the taste of it," recalled Hamilton. "There was something really unique about it. At our grill people can now get something they can't get anywhere else and it has taken off. It's been tremendously successful. We cook outdoors all year round, even in the dead of winter when it is 20 below."
Hamilton's love of the outdoors and enthusiasm for every task he undertakes has also led to developing friendships with some very notable personalities. Among them is one remarkable man that captured Hamilton's attention. He is Sioux Falls native Joe Foss, a Congressional Medal of Honor winner, former governor of South Dakota, former commissioner of the American Football League and one-time leader of the National Rifle Association.
"That man made the most indelible impression on me. He's the most interesting character I've ever been around," said Hamilton. "The first year he was here he had just come from Jimmy Doolittle's funeral. He marched alongside Doolittle's casket down Pennsylvania Avenue."
Foss and Hamilton spent time together, mostly duck hunting over prairie potholes. The rugged Foss shared many of his World War II experiences with Hamilton.
"He shot down 18 Japanese Zeroes and four Japanese bombers while serving with the Marine Air Corps at Guadalcanal," remarked Hamilton. "He was shot down four times himself. He told me stories about Pappy Boyington of the famous Flying Tigers, even when Boyington punched him hard and knocked him down outside Boyington's restaurant in California."
Former Minnesota Vikings football coach Bud Grant and Tweed Roosevelt, great-grandson of President Theodore Roosevelt, have also made friends with Hamilton and have made several visits to Minot. Wild Things Gallery published a painting commemorating T.R.'s charge up San Juan Hill and the awarding of the Medal of Honor. Grant shares Hamilton's love of duck hunting. Following one duck hunt, Grant returned home and made a phone call to Hamilton.
"He called and asked me to go to Africa to hunt. He said it would be just the two of us" recalled Hamilton. "Who wouldn't go? I mean, hunting in Africa with Bud Grant, it doesn't get any better than that."
Hamilton took Grant up on his offer, eventually making a second trip to Africa and, as usual, making friends along the way. His gallery displays several trophies from his African safaris. Operating out of the gallery, he is a booking agent for Mokore Safaris based in Zimbabwe.
"There's nothing like Africa," stated Hamilton with a convincing smile. "Every day I was there it's like, what new experience am I going to have today?"
One experience that started on a lonely highway in southwest North Dakota has proven to be pretty remarkable. During a trip on a seldom traveled roadway south of Belfield, Hamilton was so awestruck by the lack of vehicles and the surrounding terrain that he stopped his car and grabbed his camera.
"There is this wonderful, open, big expanse of open country. It's a great part of the world," said Hamilton. "I just love that country, the only thing is I'm 150 years too late."
After returning home, Hamilton went through the images on his digital camera and saw something that caught his well-trained eye the photograph of an empty highway.
"I got to thinking what other people in big cities have to go through to go to work and I came up with the title. I called it North Dakota Rush Hour Commute, made some prints and they started selling really well," said Hamilton, almost in disbelief. "Then I made some panoramic postcards of it and that worked. I've been in the gallery business for 26 years and this is the best selling item I've ever had in the store. We've sold over 10,000 postcards."
The enterprising businessman has come a long way from working late nights in his garage, sleeping a few hours and then heading into the history classroom. He said some of the credit for his success comes from advice by renowned artist Les Kouba. Kouba's words of wisdom included engage yourself in something that's fun and interesting because you spend so much of you life at work, learn all you can about your profession and be willing to work harder than anybody else at it. For Hamilton, that has been remarkably easy.
"This has always been a labor of love for me," said Hamilton. "This gallery and restaurant is really a unique place. There's really not another restaurant like this anywhere."
He's right. Where else would you find a full mount of a caribou as the centerpiece of the most requested table in the establishment?