Medora, North Dakota

August 13, 2005
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I had heard of Medora, but not too much. Now I was seeing billboards along the interstate urging me to come visit, telling of “pitchfork fondue” and a musical extravaganza set in the badlands of Theodore Roosevelt National Park. More than 2 million people have done it, noted one sign — an impressive number in a state that doesn’t have nearly half that many people living in it. My guidebook referenced Medora, which surprised me, because of its size — just 100 people.

Everything is relative, I guess. Since 44 percent of all North Dakotans are spread around on farms, when you get 100 of them together in one place, I suppose the place really deserves to be referenced. Medora’s genesis also struck me as unique: A young French nobleman, with a scheme to revolutionize the meat-packing business, founded it in the late 1800s. He planned to slaughter cattle just off the range and ship the cows as butcher-ready beef rather than ship them on-the-hoof to slaughterhouses back east. He tried it; it didn’t work, but the town hung on, ironically, as a loading dock for live cattle. Experience Historic Medora — North Dakota’s Number One Attraction. Exit Now, the sign read.

It was mid-afternoon when I drove into town, crossing over the Little Missouri Scenic River. The river forms the edge of Chimney Park and a pretty picnic area, the site of the Frenchman’s slaughterhouse. All that remains of it is a tall brick chimney — better a place for family picnics be named for a chimney than for a slaughterhouse. The road in is spaced with old-fashioned streetlights like those on Main Street in Disneyland. In fact, the whole place has a Frontierland feel about it. I parked near the Badlands Motel, which consisted of four long buildings with rooms opening onto its parking lot. A car in front of every door told of few empty beds in Medora tonight. With Rusty leading the way, we set out to explore. It was hot — 100 degrees F plus. But it was the light, dry kind of heat that feels good to bones that had been in a sitting posture all day.

Lots of people, mostly families, obviously felt the same. We poked around together. Many had ice-cream cones and nobody moved too fast, lest they work up a sweat. Medora is a spic-and-span town of wood mostly — wooden sidewalks, split-rail fences, buildings fronted with old barn boards, wooden benches and tables. With no farm-country feel about it, it’s definitely not small-town North Dakota, and it’s too genteel to be rustic. Medora is properly proud of its cow-town heritage, but it’s been painted and polished, brushed and decked out to where it doesn’t show. It looks like what it is — a premier family-entertainment destination. Although it’s a county seat (Billings County) and a functioning municipality, it appears more like a movie set. I expected around every corner to see a wardrobe truck or makeup trailer with bumper stickers advertising the Universal Studios tour.

Rusty’s ears popped up when she spotted the first of many rabbits. She strained on the leash, but knew from experience that putting more energy into it was not worth it. Places like Teddy’s Village, Bully Community Center and the Rough Riders Hotel puts visitors on notice that this is undeniably Teddy Roosevelt country. Roosevelt first came here on a buffalo hunt in 1883. He was a young New York politician then. He would eventually own two large ranches here — the Maltese Cross, just south of town, and the Elkhorn, 35 miles north of here. In 1901, Roosevelt, at age 42, became the youngest president in United States history, serving until 1909.

He called his years here in the Badlands “the romance of my life,” and often credited his Dakota experiences with enabling
him to become president. The 24-year-old Frenchman, Marquis de Mores, arrived in 1883, a few years after General George A. Custer passed through here on his fatal march west to the Little Big Horn. Then de Mores’ meat-packing enterprise failed, I was told, because his competition didn’t play fair. They controlled the railroads. So his rail shipments of processed meat never got iced down en route as they were supposed to. Spoiled beef wasn’t worth much when it arrived in Kansas City or Chicago. In 1886, he and his family went back to France. Their 26-room home, the Chateau de Mores, overlooks the town and is now a state historic site. As I was coming out of the ice-cream parlor across from the Rough Riders Hotel, a voice on a loudspeaker was announcing that “President Roosevelt” was about to speak from the hotel’s second-floor balcony.

I joined the crowd that was gathering. From then on I was caught in the swirl that propels tourists here from one event to another until after dark. Next, at the community center, we were soaking up the air conditioning and enjoying a 45-minute adaptation of the Broadway play, Bully, a one-man show on the life of Roosevelt. Ray Anderson, from Apache Junction, Arizona, plays Roosevelt with great polish and gusto. After seven summers here, Anderson has Roosevelt down to a tee.

A little after 6 p.m. we were at the Tjaden Terrace on top of a high bluff overlooking the magnificent Badlands, adjacent to the 2,900-seat Burning Hills Amphitheater. We were in line for our steak fondue — a rib-eye skewered on a pitchfork. After a ride down a seven-story escalator, I found my seat in the amphitheater for the Medora Musical — two hours of non-stop, high-energy entertainment. I’d say there’s nothing like it this side of New York or Los Angeles — and certainly in no other town anywhere that consists of only 100 people.

Bill’s e-mail address: roadscribe@aol.com

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