Brush off your cowboy boots and visit a town whose colorful past includes stories about a French nobleman and a future U.S. president.
By Francis E. Caldwell
If you travel through the hinterlands of North America long enough, eventually you’ll stumble across a sparkling gem hidden away somewhere. We discovered Medora, North Dakota, population 100, a true diamond in the rough, entirely by accident while touring the Great Plains in our 30-foot motorhome.
Medora is in the far western part of the state, only 24 miles east of the Montana state line, off Interstate 94. We were on our way to Theodore Roosevelt National Park, exited the freeway, and found ourselves not only in charming Medora, but up to our boot tops in rich Western history.
This little whistle-stop sprang suddenly out of the sagebrush beside the Little Missouri River in the late 19th century during the great railroad push westward. Like most frontier towns in the American West, Medora started with railroad steel, rough-and-ready men, and cattle.
However, unlike most Western towns, Medora’s beginnings involved an aristocratic prince charming (actually, a dashingly handsome, rich marquis) and his beautiful, talented wife, Medora. Both possessed grandiose visions “” visions considered too outlandish by local cowboys to succeed.
Adding to the town’s fame is that Medora and the surrounding Badlands were a favorite hangout of Theodore Roosevelt, who first visited the area in 1883. He bought a ranch seven miles south of Medora and renamed it the Maltese Cross. Eventually he owned a second ranch, Elkhorn, 35 miles north. Actually, Roosevelt didn’t spend much time there “” certainly not as much as he would have liked. In 1901, at age 42, he became the youngest president in U.S. history. Roosevelt credited his political success to the outdoor experiences he found in North Dakota.
Medora’s fairy-tale beginning involves Antoine de Vallombrosa, the Marquis de Mores, a wealthy 24-year-old French nobleman, and his wife, Medora von Hoffman, daughter of a wealthy New York banker. The couple arrived in Dakota Territory in 1883. At the time it was the rage for European noblemen (at least those who could afford it) to visit the newly opened American West. Some came to hunt. Others bought or staked land and engaged in the cattle business. Marquis de Mores arrived with plans to revolutionize the way cattle were marketed. Instead of shipping them by rail to processing plants in Kansas City and Chicago, he planned to butcher them in Medora and ship the meat in refrigerated railcars to Eastern markets. Since mechanical refrigeration was new, his idea was considered revolutionary.
Marquis De Mores founded the town of Medora, built its Catholic church, and constructed a 26-room chalet (which he considered a hunting lodge) that overlooked his large meat-packing plant. He also funded a home for his in-laws; brickyards; and other buildings required for the town. He even started a stagecoach line to Deadwood, South Dakota, as well as other businesses.
While the meat-packing business lasted, the Medora operation was the talk of the Midwestern and Eastern money men. But unfortunately, the cowboys were right. The marquis faced stiff competition from Chicago meat packers, especially after they ran newspaper ads stating that people preferred corn-fattened beef to that which was grass-fattened. The Marquis’ business ventures lasted a glorious three years before he and his family returned to France in 1887.
Both the marquis and marquise were avid big game hunters. While living in Medora they made frequent trips into the Badlands in search of trophies. They expected to return, at least to hunt, so they hired caretakers for the magnificent chateau, probably one of the most elegant (and best-preserved) homes anywhere west of the Mississippi.
Except for support from the railroad and a few local ranchers, Medora might have faded away, as so many towns did in those days, melting into the gorgeous sunsets. Instead, a handful of locals, infected by an overdose of Western civic pride, stayed on.
In 1896 the marquis was killed while pursuing another grand scheme in Africa. His abandoned meat-packing plant burned to the ground in 1907. Medora’s fate languished, but didn’t completely wither, although it came close.
The creation of Theodore Roosevelt National Memorial Park in 1947 supplied a small but welcome boost to the local economy. People were eager to travel again after the gas rationing and travel restrictions imposed during World War II had been lifted, but this park took a backseat to Yellowstone and others.
The locals realized that if tourism was to become the town’s lifeblood, visitors needed a reason to visit Medora. They cast around, searching for the missing ingredient, although it was right under their noses.
In 1936 the de Mores family had donated the chateau and site of the packing plant to the state of North Dakota; today it is called De Mores State Historic Site. The 128-acre site includes the well-maintained chateau, which still contains most of the original furnishings; Chimney Park, located on the grounds where the meat-packing plant once stood; and de Mores Memorial Park in downtown Medora. Medorans set their sights high and went to work.
First came construction of the Burning Hills Amphitheater in 1958. It rests in a natural basin on the hill overlooking the old chateau. There, the theatrical production “Old Four Eyes,” the story of Roosevelt’s life in the Badlands, was presented to mark the 100th anniversary of his birth. The music festival was an immediate success, and by 1965 it had outgrown its facilities.
At about that time a third person who would figure prominently in Medora history stepped forward to help make the town what it is today. Harold Schafer was an entrepreneur, North Dakota history buff, and founder and chairman of the Gold Seal Company of Bismarck. In 1962 Schafer and his family, who already were fond of Medora, decided the place had much to offer and began investing in the town, intent on restoring its Wild West glory. With the business experience and talent necessary to create a huge and financially successful company, Schafer coaxed his ambitious dream into reality with injections of cash “” reportedly $10 million over a 40-year period “” and help by others who shared his enthusiasm for charming Medora. An ambitious restoration and modernization project began.
In 1986 the Schafer family and the Gold Seal Company donated their holdings in Medora to the non-profit Theodore Roosevelt Medora Foundation. The foundation now maintains the Burning Hills Amphitheater; takes care of historical properties; runs the town’s tourism Web site, www.medora.com; and also funds other projects that keep the town humming.
The dream that Medora might someday amount to something, besides a little cow town in the Dakotas, became reality when tour buses began unloading people by the thousands.
Today Medora is still a relatively sleepy little town “” during the off-season, that is. During the tourist season, June through Labor Day, the population explodes. Tourism generates 90 percent of sales in Medora. Yet despite the influx of visitors, townspeople have worked hard to keep it a place where folks enjoy themselves without all the glitz and hoopla of other tourist destinations.
Medora is for music lovers, history buffs, and nature fans. Golfers, mountain bikers, and hikers will find the area pleasing, too, but Theodore Roosevelt National Park is the main attraction. Since the popular Medora Musical doesn’t start until after dark, visitors have plenty of time to drive the loop road in the park, visit museums, and shop in the many unusual stores before showtime.
Consider these attractions around Medora when you visit.
Theodore Roosevelt National Park provides views of the savagely beautiful Badlands, where the buffalo still roam and the deer and the antelope still play. A 32-mile scenic nature drive on surfaced roads circles inside the park. Bison, wild horses, elk, deer, and small animals often are seen. Several black-tailed prairie dog colonies are situated along the road and easily photographed. During the spring (mid-June at the time of our visit), prairie wildflowers are spectacular.
The Medora Musical at the Burning Hills Amphitheatre attracts approximately 120,000 visitors annually to see this professionally produced musical extravaganza in a new 2,900-seat outdoor amphitheater. Held nightly between June 3 and September 4 this year, the play is dedicated to Theodore Roosevelt and the North Dakota Badlands he loved. It is recognized as an American Bus Association Top 100 Event. An outdoor barbecue meal, the Pitchfork Fondue, is offered near the amphitheater. Call (800) 633-6721 or visit the Medora Web site for reservations and information.
We can truly say this was the most enjoyable outdoor entertainment we’ve ever experienced, including horsemen driving a herd of wild elk. It doesn’t get much better than that.
“Bully, The Play” gives visitors an entertaining look at the life of Theodore Roosevelt. It’s presented daily throughout the summer at 4:00 p.m. at the Medora Community Center. This one-act, 45-minute show is performed by impersonator Ray Anderson, who also plays Roosevelt at the Medora Musical.
The 4-M Review, a vaudeville-style show, is named for the four Ms in “Medora’s Magic, Music, and Mirth.” The 4-M Review is offered on Saturday and Sunday afternoons throughout the summer at the Old Town Hall Theater.
Chateau de Mores is open daily during the summer, with guided tours offered through the refurbished 26-room chateau. Get a glimpse of how the wealthy lived on the uncivilized plains more than 100 years ago.
The home that the Marquis de Mores built for his in-laws, the von Hoffman House, has been preserved and is now a museum full of antique dolls. Self-guided tours of the Doll House Museum are available daily throughout the summer.
The Harold Schafer Heritage Center and the Sheila Schafer Gallery provide visitors with a close-up look at this remarkable man, his family, and his achievements. Tickets to the Medora Musical and other attractions are available there as well.
The North Dakota Cowboy Hall of Fame is a must-see. This brand-new $3.3 million facility is a center for ranching, rodeo, and the Western lifestyle. It contains a museum with Western culture exhibits, a library and archives, a children’s activity area, and a gift shop. A tentative opening date in mid-June 2005 was set as of this writing.
Medora is a small town, but it offers a variety of dining choices. The dining room at the Rough Riders Hotel is widely recognized for its typical Western fare and turn-of-the-century decor. Theodore Roosevelt dined and slept there. For more Western “flavor,” try a buffalo burger at the Cowboy Cafe.
Yes, even more can be found, but exploring Medora on your own is part of its charm.
The spirits of the Marquis de Mores and Teddy Roosevelt still linger in the Badlands. So, polish those pointy-toed boots, dust off your ten-gallon hat, and mingle in the Western lifestyle of North Dakota’s plains and Badlands. And be glad that Medora preserves the legacy of the great American West.
Theodore Roosevelt Medora Foundation, C10375
P.O. Box 198
Medora, ND 58645
E-mail: [email protected]
Medora Chamber of Commerce
P.O. Box 186
Medora, ND 58645
The following is not a complete list, so please check your favorite campground directory or the FMCA Business Directory, published in the January and June issues of FMC and online at FMCA.com.
P.O. Box 198
Medora, ND 58645
Red Trail Campground, C4936
250 E. River Road S.
Medora, ND 58645