Small But Mighty National Park

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It’s hard to believe it was once a swamp, with gator-like dinosaurs crawling around among the water plants.  Fossil remains found by paleontologists testify that the “champsosaurus ” lived here 55,000,000 years ago.  But today the scenery, and the animals, are a bit different.

The site in western North Dakota is now 70,000-acre Theodore Roosevelt National Park.  It is not as big as Yellowstone (2,200,000 acres), and there are no geysers, but visitors are treated to a peaceful drive-through with lots of wildlife. Buttes, trees, tall grasses and the Little Missouri River are their home.

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Rock formations are lined with red ignite coal, also known as scoria.  Geologists call it “clinker.”  Montana may claim the Big Sky nickname, but there’s plenty of it here, too.

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On a brief stay at in Medora, we drove the park’s southern loop in midmorning, slowing for a group of buffalo.  This was the animal that brought Theodore Roosevelt west in 1883.  He got one of the last from the wild but helped to re-establish their presence in their original home.

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“…where the deer and the antelope play”

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Feral horses roam the park, munching on abundant salt grass, wheatgrass, and bluestem grass.

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Prairie dog towns dot the roadsides; if you roll down the car window, you can hear some morning gossip.

The land was first surveyed for a park honoring President Roosevelt in 1924, five years after his death.  During the Depression, the Civilian Conservation Corps built roads, trails, picnic areas, campgrounds and other buildings.  In 1946 it was given the name of Theodore Roosevelt National Wildlife Refuge — the next year, President Truman signed a bill to call it Theodore Roosevelt National Memorial Park.  Finally, in 1978, it received the national park status that it retains today.

The visitors’ center at the park’s entrance has a number of exhibits.  They sponsor programs on birdwatching, stargazing, and Theodore Roosevelt’s Maltese Cross cabin, which stands a little way from the back door and houses TR’s traveling trunk and other authentic furniture.

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It is a good combination of nature, history, and western culture in America.  On summer nights, in an outdoor ampitheatre on the other side of the buttes, “The Medora Musical” celebrates it all with a fantastic show.  If they could just work in a song and dance number for the dinosaurs.

Marquis of the Wild Frontier

Later this summer we’re taking a road trip to the town of Medora, North Dakota.  Ever hear of it?  There is a national park there, not large, but with enough wildlife – buffalo, wild horses, prairie dogs – to satisfy nature buffs.  The area is, in addition, appealing to lovers of history.  The town is named after an auburn-haired beauty who once upon a time married a French nobleman.

Images: Historical Society of North Dakota

Medora von Hoffman was born on Staten Island, New York, in 1856 to a Wall Street banker and his wife.  She led a privileged life, spending quite a bit of time with her family at a villa in Cannes, France.  She was accomplished not only in sewing, piano playing, and painting; but also horsemanship and shooting.  Her adventuresome spirit caught the eye of Antoine Amadee Mari Vincent Manca de Vallombrosa, whose title was the Marquis de Mores.  They were married in 1882.

The new son-in-law tried the banking business in New York, but craved the outdoors.  A relative who’d visited Dakota Territory brought back stories of the badlands (not to be confused with those further south), and soon Antoine was planning a unique ranch and meat-packing business.  He thought he could butcher beef on site and ship it east on the railroad, bypassing the cost of transporting live animals.  And his young wife was in favor of moving west.

The venture, and adventure, became a reality.  Backed by von Hoffman finances, the Marquis built a large slaughterhouse in the shadow of the rimrock just outside the Montana border.  The Northern Pacific Refrigerator Car Company took shape, as did the town, which he gave Medora’s name.  On an overlooking hill, he built a large twenty-six room hunting lodge that the locals called the “Chateau.”

Medora and the couple’s baby daughter visited the settlement in October 1883.  She moved to New York for the winter, but returned in the spring.  By all accounts she loved life in the west.  She filled the new, spacious home with furniture, rugs, curtains and dishes from St. Paul and New York City.

Tourist postcard from the 1920s showing the Chateau de Mores.

The couple had a special wagon built for hunting, which took them and their out-of-town guests to places like the new Yellowstone National Park.  It was fitted with the comforts of home, including Minton fine china.  A private railroad car to take them to more distant places was at their disposal, too.

Medora oversaw the building of the first Catholic church of Dakota Territory, in front of one of the buttes.  By all accounts she was an excellent administrator of the home grounds and hired help, as she would soon have two more children, both boys.  The townspeople thought she was more down-to-earth than her husband, who had the habit of tossing a weighted walking stick from arm to arm as he walked about town.

The Marquis’ dreams were being realized very quickly.  The town, population 250, was booming.  He had contracts for icing stations in cities all the way to Chicago.  Furthermore, he made arrangements with boats on Lakes Superior and Michigan to carry his goods (which soon were to include butter from a creamery in Minnesota) farther east.  He was also looking into shipping salmon from the Pacific Ocean in his refrigerated railroad cars.

At home in Medora, his company was buying cattle from local ranchers to butcher.  Only not quite as many as he’d hoped.  The first fall more sheep than cattle went through the stockyards.  Some of the animals were not as fat as they should be, so a feedlot program was designed.

The spring of 1885 looked very promising for this unusual frontier family.

Next post: a famous neighbor, and a turn of events.