- Associated Press - Monday, October 31, 2016

BISMARCK, N.D. (AP) - Before Bismarck was Bismarck, it was known as Edwinton.

It took the philanthropy of the town’s madame, Elizabeth McClellan, also known as “Little Casino,” to provide the funding necessary to rename the town in an effort to attract more German settlers.

These are the types of things people will hear while on tour with the guides of Bismarck Tour Company.

“That’s our goal, to tell the story of the people who created Bismarck,” said Annette Willis, founder of the Bismarck Tour Co.

Willis formed the company in September. It started with haunted history tours in downtown Bismarck.

The company has coordinated about 10 tours in its first month and all of them have sold out, The Bismarck Tribune (https://bit.ly/2dIsluF ) reported.

“That tells me we’re off to a good start,” Willis said.

Willis started giving tours of Bismarck for the Bismarck-Mandan Convention and Visitors Bureau about 18 years ago. She and her father became two of the go-to guides for showing large groups around the city.

“I enjoy it so much,” she said. “I love history, and I love North Dakota.”

She liked taking a group of people unfamiliar with North Dakota and connecting with them through a story. She wants her customers to go back to their hometowns and tell others, “You’ve got to see that place.” She said a lot of people have no perception of North Dakota, and she wants them to go away with a good impression.

Willis, a Bismarck native, has spent most of her career in the tourism industry, including eight years with the state’s Tourism Division. She’s always wanted to work in the hospitality industry, but with a 4-year-old and a full-time job, Willis opted to be more of an organizer.

Willis has recently brought on five new tour guides. Each will host a tour with their own content, dates and pricing.

“Then I work to promote their tour,” she said, serving as the primary contact for groups, connecting them with the right tour guide for what they’re interested in.

Willis is still laying the groundwork but would like to have a Native American history tour and immersion night, featuring Native American foods and an explainer on powwow dances and dresses, a North Dakota foods tour, with dishes such as bison and walleye, a beer and wine tour and she’s hoping to have a St. Mary’s Cemetery tour, highlighting the grave sites of historic Bismarck residents buried there, such as Grant Marsh and Linda Slaughter, in time for Halloween.

“There are a lot of notable names out there,” she said of the cemetery.

The city circle tour involves seeing all the local sights, including the Capitol, discussing history and current events.

“I interject a little North Dakota humor in there, too,” she said.

“We might take it on the road,” said Willis, indicating she hopes for a western North Dakota tour and a Germans from Russia tour.

Willis sees her business as something for locals too as a fun event for groups, whether it is friends, churches, co-workers or date night.

A group of 10 is needed for a tour, but smaller groups can be joined together to get a tour started. The maximum number for walking tours is 20.

“I think it’s going to work well for us,” said Sheri Grossman, Bismarck-Mandan CVB CEO.

Previously, the CVB has only coordinated tours for larger organized groups. By having some established tours and tour times, she said it will expand the opportunity to smaller groups of leisure travelers.

“(Visitors) like to experience things unique to our area, and this would surely fit that niche,” Grossman said. “It’s one more thing in our wheelhouse of things people will be able to do while they’re here.”

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Information from: Bismarck Tribune, https://www.bismarcktribune.com

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