Frontier State

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As compelling as these moody vistas appear, they remain mostly an attraction for North Dakotans, and it took some doing by local enthusiasts to persuade the powers in Washington that a national-park designation was warranted. The effort, which began in 1919 with Theodore Roosevelt’s death, finally saw success with the 1947 establishment of the park in his name. Today it consists of two units, the North and the South, connected by the scenic Route 16.

Medora, the town that edges the south unit, came into being in 1883, when an opera buffa character, the French Marquis de Mores, was drawn to the area to start a meat-packing operation. He named Medora for his wife, built his “château,” which still stands, on the heights overlooking the town and a great rim of Badlands outcroppings, and he placed his refrigeration plant and other operations in the town. Medora saw the expected boom during the three years that Roosevelt and the marquis busied themselves with their respective ventures. Thirteen saloons opened, as did three hotels, and a weekly newspaper flourished. And then, by 1886, as the ranching and meat-packing businesses collapsed, just about everything else shut down too, and all that remained was memory. “Remember Medora?” asked a rancher of TR as he stopped at a neighboring town on a 1912 campaign tour. “There’s nothing left of it but a hole in the ground and two loss.”

Across the Missouri River stands Fort Abraham Lincoln, the last post of Gen. George Custer, who departed from there for the Little Bighorn.

In the 1950s Medora got another chance at life when Harold Schafer, founder of the Gold Seal cleaning products company and one of North Dakota’s proudest homegrown success stories, took an interest in the crumbling community. He started by purchasing and restoring the old Roughrider Hotel, once and now again the town’s social center, and he went on from there, pouring money into his project with increasing fervor. “I also found out Medora didn’t have any water or sewer,” Schafer told a reporter recently. “I was talking with the mayor … and we watched a lady come out of city hall with a Sears and Roebuck catalogue and head for an outhouse. That got us started, and I made him a deal to put toilets in city hall, and that got things going for getting running water and sewers in Medora.”

The town you see today is hands down the state’s biggest tourist attraction, now supported by a foundation Schafer spun off after selling his company in 1986. It’s worth stopping here overnight to visit the Roosevelt cabin and the marquis’s château, to drop into a couple of small museums, and to spend the evening at the wonderfully hokey variety show that celebrates Medora’s past. This is held in a newly refurbished outdoor amphitheater high in the hills, with the encircling Badlands as backdrop. The present Medora isn’t a perfect replica of the town at the brief height of its 1880s prosperity. It has a modest motel, with a pool and miniature-golf course, and a dozen or so souvenir shops have sprung up where once the rowdy saloons held sway. You have to remember that this is today’s version of a boom town reborn, and you can only wish Medora’s ninety-four hardy residents the best of frontier luck. After all, most of us would tolerate a T-shirt shop for the sake of indoor plumbing.

—Carla Davidson TO PLAN A TRIP