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Bison, Badlands and ‘weird-looking buttes’
Medora and Teddy Roosevelt National Park
After immersing ourselves in President Theodore Roosevelt’s early life at the Old Town Hall in Medora, a friend and I drove a few miles to the entrance of the 70,416-acre national park named after him in western North Dakota. Visitors there can enjoy miles of hiking and mountain biking trails, campsites, abundant wildlife and buttes, tablelands, valleys and unusual rock formations leftover from glaciers, wind and rain.
Heading out about 6:30 a.m. to beat the heat, we drove the 36-mile loop in the park’s South Unit at the edge of Medora listening to the birds singing and prairie dogs chirping from the tops of their dirt mounds, and we saw lots of bison along the road - some of the 500 in the park.
Up close, we could hear the huge, shaggy-haired bovines snorting and pulling up the grass they were munching.
Continuing our drive, we came upon wild horses and watched them run around for a while.
Later, a park guide at the visitors center took us through the restored Maltese Cross log cabin where Roosevelt lived and wrote while grieving over the deaths of his first wife and his mother.
That evening we dined at Pitchfork Steak Fondue up in the hills on the outskirts of Medora. The chefs dipped pitchforks loaded with rib eye steaks into cauldrons of steaming oil. The delicious steaks were served with all the fixings, and guests sat at picnic tables overlooking the buttes.
Early the following day, we headed to the North Unit, an hour northeast of Medora. This part of the national park was more remote, and we saw antelope, long-horned cattle (the same breed Roosevelt raised when he was a North Dakota rancher), deer, and with binoculars, bighorn sheep high up on the buttes.
The French connection
While Roosevelt, who grew up in New York, worked hard to fit into the cowboy culture of Medora, that wasn’t the case with the wealthy Marquis de Mores who came from France for big game hunting the same year as Roosevelt.
Maintaining his aristocratic bearing, de Mores bought thousands of acres of land on both sides of the Little Missouri River and founded the town of Medora, which he named after his wife. He opened a refrigerator and meat packing company to ship dressed beef to the Chicago market and set up stagecoach business from Medora to Deadwood, S.D.
But his timing was wrong and his employees weren’t loyal. When he bucked the open grazing tradition and fenced in his property, the locals protested. A fight ensued and eventually de Mores went back to France.
In the meantime he had built a 26-room home in the hills overlooking town. He and Medora loved hunting in the Badlands and entertaining Roosevelt and other European and American notables in their luxurious summer house, known as Chateau de Mores. Today the home is a state historical site, donated to Medora by their son Louis.
It is open to the public with many of its original furnishings.
Re-enactors tell how the family lived and entertained. Stagecoach rides are available from the chateau parking lot.
Nearby, golfers can enjoy the spectacular views at the Bully Pulpit Golf Course, which is built into the cliffs and valleys of the Badlands. Inside is a small Transportation Museum that documents Roosevelt’s role in the building of the Panama Canal.
In downtown Medora, we checked out the North Dakota Cowboy Hall of Fame and the Rough Rider Hotel where we sat in comfy chairs in the lobby to look at the large collection of books by and about Roosevelt.
Then in the outdoor Burning Hills Amphitheatre, we watched the famous Medora Musical, a lively and family-friendly performance that paid tribute to Roosevelt and the Old West.
Tryouts for the productions have been held in the Twin Cities and several years ago, Molly Callinan of Arden Hills was selected to sing and dance for two summers. Her photos are on posters of past musicals in the Harold Schafer Heritage Center.
The center pays tribute to Schafer and his wife Sheila, who fell in love with the rundown Medora in the 1960s and spent millions to make the town the tourist draw it is today. We talked to Sheila.
So for all the history buffs and nature lovers who enjoy being out in the vast open spaces of Roosevelt’s favorite buttes and valleys and who find it exciting to see wild animals up close or to attend a rousing musical, Medora and Theodore Roosevelt National Park make a great vacation, and they’re just a day’s drive from the Twin Cities.
Oil under the park
Little did Roosevelt know what lay under the buttes of his beloved Badlands.
But nowadays, people driving near Medora can’t help but see evidence that oil is big business in North Dakota. The prolific Bakken Oil Field runs under the entire area, even Theodore Roosevelt National Park.
While there is no drilling allowed in the national park, we passed many oil and drilling rigs, pump jacks and trucks carrying water or oil on Highway 85 between the South and North Units, as well as Interstate 94. We saw signs of a housing shortage — trailers and other temporary housing along the road.
But the drilling is paying off; North Dakota is now the nation’s No. 2 oil producer behind Texas. It leads the U.S in population growth and thousands of jobs have been created in the last decade.
Prosperity has its challenges, however, and the long-term environmental impacts on western North Dakota are uncertain.
Dandy, cowboy, president
After a long day hunting or working on his cattle ranch in the Dakota Badlands, Teddy Roosevelt sat in a rocking chair at his ranch house overlooking the Little Missouri River, “gazing sleepily out at the weird-looking buttes opposite until their shape and outlines would grow indistinct and purple in the after-glow of the sunset,” he once wrote.
My introduction to Medora and the “weird-looking buttes” of Theodore Roosevelt National Park in North Dakota began with a captivating one-man performance in Medora’s Old Town Hall Theater last fall by re-enactor and White House performer Joe Wiegand as Teddy Roosevelt.
He said Roosevelt’s wealthy father told his asthmatic son to involve himself in physical activity to strengthen both body and mind. Roosevelt, a young graduate of Harvard and then Columbia law school, had a sense of adventure and was lured by advertisements about the West in newspapers in his home state of New York. He took the new train service to the Dakota Territory in 1883 to hunt buffalo before they became extinct. He arrived with a Brooks Brothers hunting outfit and Tiffany ivory-handled knife, and seemed a misfit among the tough cowboys. After two weeks and a series of mishaps, he finally shot a buffalo.
Before returning home to New York, he bought a ranch just south with plans to build a log cabin.
Then in 1884, his wife and his mother died within a few hours of each other in the same house in New York. Totally distraught, Roosevelt returned to the North Dakota Badlands and his rustic new cabin for solace.
That same year, he bought a second ranch to the north of Medora. He thought he’d be a rancher and worked hard, toughened up physically and proved his mettle. With a 40-pound weight gain as well, he pronounced himself as “strong as a bull moose.”
But the fierce winter of 1886-87 was devastating for his cattle and most of the herd perished. The land was also overgrazed.
Roosevelt discovered the Badlands were more environmentally fragile than he realized, and he saw the need for conservation.
In the meantime, he had fallen in love again and married in December 1886. So with a new wife and the death of his livestock, he left the Badlands for New York politics.
Over the next few years, he rose through the state ranks and gained prominence in the national Republican Party. He was elected vice president, and with President McKinley’s assassination in 1901 he became president.
“I never would have become president if it had not been for my experience in North Dakota,” the ebullient Roosevelt said later. He credited Medora, the Badlands and his cowboy experience with turning himself into a tough, hard worker — a man who later fought in the Spanish American War leading the Rough Riders in Cuba in 1898. Against great odds, he got the Panama Canal built, and he received the Nobel Peace Prize in 1906 for mediating the end of the Russo-Japanese war. He also made sure millions of acres were set aside for national parks, including his beloved Badlands of North Dakota.
Pamela O’Meara can be reached at email@example.com or at 651-748-7818.