Roosevelt: North Dakota’s President
President Theodore Roosevelt was a wealthy, upper-class gentleman from New York City, but North Dakotans have always claimed him as “our president.”
Roosevelt fully returned the state’s admiration, said Justin Fisk, director of marketing for the Theodore Roosevelt Foundation in Medora.
“He said, ‘I never would have been president if it had not been for my experiences in North Dakota, ‘ “said Fisk.
Roosevelt was a young New York state legislator when he first visited western North Dakota on a hunting trip in the fall of 1883. The avid sportsman wanted to hunt buffalo before they went extinct. At the end of the two-week hunting trip, he was enthusiastic about what he had seen of the landscape and about potential business opportunities in the open range cattle industry. Roosevelt invested in the Maltese Cross Ranch near Medora before he returned home to New York.
Just a few months later, his world came crashing down when first his mother, Mittie, died on Valentine’s Day 1884, followed 11 hours later by his beautiful young wife, Alice, who passed away shortly after giving birth to their first child.
The following summer, the devastated Roosevelt left his baby daughter in the care of his sister and returned to Dakota Territory in need of a change of scene and healing. His Maltese Cross Ranch was a great success. Roosevelt bought more cattle and a second ranch, the Elkhorn Ranch, about 35 miles away from Medora.
Roosevelt later said that the next three years were the making of the future 26th president, said Fisk and Joe Wiegand, who performs as Roosevelt for the National Park Service.
Roosevelt appeared as something of an oddity when he first arrived in Dakota Territory, said Fisk. The wealthy New Yorker wore eyeglasses that no one else in Dakota Territory needed in 1883, a custom-made leather “dude” outfit, and pistols made of ivory. Roosevelt had a high pitched voice and spoke with an Eastern drawl. To many of the native westerners he met, he seemed snobbish and affected.
One colleague remembered that “you could have spanned his waist with your two thumbs and fingers,” wrote Edmund Morris in his biography “The Rise of Theodore Roosevelt.” Morris wrote that the cowboys thought Roosevelt’s toothbrush and razor and his very neat bed roll all were odd. But he won their respect during one cattle drive when it became clear that he could ride for days without a break, stay up all night watching the cattle, and then be back at work early the next morning after gulping down his breakfast.
Following the roundup, he returned to New York to visit his family during the summer of 1885, and newspapers noted a marked change. Skinny and anemic Roosevelt was now “rugged, bronzed and in the prime of health,” one journalist wrote, according to Morris. He seemed calmer and carried himself differently. Even his accent had changed to the “flat accent” of people in the West.
Wiegand said Roosevelt’s image also had started to change after his encounter with a bully at a bar in Mingusville, Mont. As the story goes, the man was using a clock in the bar for target practice and had intimidated other patrons in the bar to keep buying him drinks. When Roosevelt entered the bar, the bully pointed at him and said that “Four Eyes” would buy the next round. Roosevelt, who had been boxing since he was a young boy, turned toward the bar as though he were going to obey. But then Roosevelt turned around and clocked the bully, who hit his head on the corner of the bar as he went down and was knocked out. Roosevelt and others in the bar hogtied the man, took away his guns, and put him in the shed. The man got free somehow and left town on a freight train the following day. After that, according to Wiegand, Roosevelt was better accepted. Where before he had been taunted as “Four Eyes” and “Storm Windows,” now he was called “Old Four Eyes” as a term of endearment and remembered as the man who dealt with the Mingusville Bully.
Of course, Wiegand said the story of the Mingusville Bully might have been a bit of a tall tale, since Roosevelt was the only one known to tell the story.
While he was in Dakota Territory, Roosevelt also wrote for national magazines about his experience in the West. He became a deputy sheriff in Billings County and chased various outlaws. His later focus on conservation as president was also evident in those early days as a rancher. He helped organize local ranchers to address problems with overgrazing, according to Roosevelt’s biography at Wikipedia, and the group he formed later evolved into the Little Missouri Stockmen’s Association. He formed friendships that lasted for the rest of his life. Some of the “Rough Riders” of the 1st United States Volunteer Cavalry, whom Roosevelt later fought with during the Spanish-American War in 1898, were men he had known in Dakota.
Though Roosevelt called his time in Dakota Territory the “romance of my life,” the sojourn eventually had to end. His herd of cattle was wiped out during the winter of 1886-1887 and he lost a large part of his initial investment, Morris wrote in “The Rise of Theodore Roosevelt.” Roosevelt also had remarried, to Edith Kermit Carrow, in December 1886, and soon was father to more children with her. He kept an investment in his ranch in Dakota until about 1898, according to Wiegand, at which time he decided to sell. Wiegand said Roosevelt may have been trying to get his affairs in order before he went to Cuba to fight during the Spanish-American War. In later years, he instructed White House staff that if any of the men he had known in Dakota should visit, they should be treated like a head of state.
During the following years, Roosevelt’s political career thrived. He became the New York City Police Commissioner and helped clean up corruption in the force. He was appointed Assistant Secretary of the Navy in 1897, led the Rough Riders in battle during the Spanish-American War, and then returned to become governor of New York. In 1899, he was nominated the Republican vice presidential candidate on a ticket with William McKinley as president. The McKinley-Roosevelt ticket won the election. Roosevelt later was sworn in as president when McKinley was assassinated by an anarchist in September 1901. At 42, he was a young and energetic president, with an attractive wife and six children whose antics were covered by the press.
During his administration, he made conservation of the nation’s natural resources a top priority. Land was set aside for numerous parks, forests and monuments. Another of his accomplishments was to begin construction of the Panama Canal. In 1906, he received the Nobel Peace Prize, for helping to negotiate the end to the Russo-Japanese War.
The people of Medora were always proud to claim a connection with him.
On a spring evening in April 1903, Roosevelt was aboard a train that was touring the western part of the country. There was time for a brief whistle stop in his old stomping grounds.
“The entire population of the Badlands down to the smallest baby had gathered to meet me,” Roosevelt recalled later. “They all felt I was their man, their old friend; and even if they had been hostile to me in the old days when we were divided by the sinister bickering and jealousies and hatreds of all frontier communities, they now firmly believed they had always been my staunch friends and admirers. I shook hands with them all and I only regretted that I could not spend three hours with them.”
The visit is recounted at www.mandanhistory.org/areahistory/1903trvisittondak.html
North Dakotans continue to relate to Roosevelt today.
“There’s something about people in the Midwest,” said Wiegand. ” It’s still an outdoor life.”
Roosevelt learned from living in a region where a deal could be struck with a man’s handshake and honesty and square dealing, along with a strong work ethic, were of great importance.
Those are the values that Wiegand still sees in North Dakotans.
Fisk said that many North Dakotans still relate to Roosevelt’s balanced approach to conservation.
“Conservation means development as much as it means protection,” said Fisk.
He said North Dakotans believe in using developing resources for the common good, yet using those resources in a responsible way.
This year marks the 100th anniversary of the National Parks System, and Wiegand’s Teddy Roosevelt Show will be a prominent part of the celebration. Some libraries in North Dakota offer park passes to state parks that can be checked out at participating libraries. The pass provides entrance to any state park and waives the daily vehicle fee of $5. Passes are good for seven days. More information can be found at parkrec.nd.gov
During his performances, Wiegand portrays Roosevelt and answers questions as the president without breaking character.
“He’s an amazing performer,” said Fisk. “He knows absolutely everything about Theodore Roosevelt.”
Wiegand, who lives in California with his family, began performing as Theodore Roosevelt in 2004. Earlier in his career, he worked in public policy and on political campaigns. He said he has long had an interest in the life of Theodore Roosevelt. It also helps that he looks a great deal like the president. He said he has grown into the role.
Wiegand has been performing in Medora for the past few summers. His national tour is sponsored in part by the Theodore Roosevelt Foundation. He also performed last fall at the Norsk Hostfest in Minot.
July 12 will mark the start of his summer matinee performances in Medora, where there will be a gathering of Teddy Roosevelt impersonators from across the country.
“A summer in North Dakota is incomplete without a trip to Medora,” said Wiegand, who encouraged everyone from the area to attend the Theodore Roosevelt Show.
More information about Wiegand’s performance schedule can be found at teddyrooseveltshow.com
Andrea Johnson is a staff writer for the Minot Daily News.
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