BISMARCK, N.D. – When Theodore Roosevelt came to Dakota Territory in 1883 to hunt bison, locals saw him as an Eastern tenderfoot with no clue on handling the hardships of frontier life. He turned adversity into adventure, later writing: “It was here that the romance of my life began.”
“I have always said I would not have been president had it not been for my experience in North Dakota,” wrote Roosevelt.
Now, enthusiasts of the 26th president are working to establish a Theodore Roosevelt Presidential Library in the North Dakota Badlands. They acknowledge it will be a challenge, but they’re working to raise millions, digitizing Roosevelt papers by the tens of thousands and promoting the majestic surroundings that Roosevelt so loved.
“The reason we put this library where we did, in western North Dakota, that’s the landscape that shaped and formed him into the Roosevelt we know,” said Clay Jenkinson, a leading Roosevelt scholar and re-enactor who is working as a consultant for the Theodore Roosevelt Presidential Library Foundation.
Roosevelt was a native of New York, where his birthplace and primary adult residence are national historic sites. But an effort a decade ago to establish a library there fizzled, and North Dakotans – who are eager to capitalize on ties to state natives such as baseball great Roger Maris, Western author Louis L’Amour and bandleader Lawrence Welk – saw an opportunity.
Roosevelt’s four years on a ranch in the North Dakota Badlands, when he was in his 20s, deepened his love for nature and made him a champion of wildlife conservation. He came to the area to recuperate from the deaths of his wife and mother on the same day. After his return to New York, he went on to serve as the state’s governor and the U.S. vice president before becoming president when William McKinley was assassinated in 1901.
Roosevelt’s old turf in North Dakota is now a national park in his name – a rugged area of hills, ridges, buttes and bluffs where millions of years of erosion have exposed colorful sedimentary rock layers. The park is home to a wide variety of wildlife, from prairie dogs to wild horses and bison. It is North Dakota’s top tourist attraction, drawing more than 700,000 visitors annually.
The library is planned in Dickinson, with the museum about a half-hour drive away in Medora, a tourist town on the park’s doorstep.
The project has $15 million in hand from the state of North Dakota and city of Dickinson, which would like to capitalize on one of the most popular presidents who doesn’t already have a library. Organizers hope to raise another $85 million in private donations – a formidable challenge.
The Theodore Roosevelt Association, formed by Congress in 1920 to perpetuate Roosevelt’s legacy, is monitoring the fundraising effort.
“This is a very ambitious project and we want to make sure they have adequate funding, so we’re not backing something that turns out to be a half-done project,” said association CEO Tweed Roosevelt, Theodore’s great-grandson.
Presidential libraries are something of a modern phenomenon. The National Archives administers 14, starting with Herbert Hoover. By law, libraries for presidents before that have to be built without federal support.
Unlike the major libraries, a Roosevelt library wouldn’t have a trove of original documents because most already are in established collections. The Theodore Roosevelt Center at Dickinson State University has digitized nearly 60,000 records, photographs, film clips and audio recordings.
The project would also include virtual exhibits and a full-scale re-creation of Roosevelt’s Elkhorn Ranch cabin, an 1,800-square foot cottonwood log structure hand-built by Roosevelt and his ranch hands.
“My biggest wish is to show the many sides of TR – the adventurer, the reformer, the naturalist, the soldier, the scholar, the family man, the list goes on and on,” said great-great grandson Kermit Roosevelt III, a University of Pennsylvania law professor.