There are plenty of wind farms on the prairie. Taking in a large farm as we cross Saskatchewan (the little white "sticks" in this picture), it looks like there is a fairly solid ceiling above us. But a quick glance at the shadows confirms that the clouds are widely scattered. We'll get a slightly closer look at some windmills later in the story, on the way to Lake Itasca.
After an hour or so, we're back over badlands. Here, the Little Missouri River continues to etch its way into North Dakota. This terrain is similar to what we saw back in Drumheller, but much more widespread.
A couple of weeks before our arrival, a tornado touched down in Dickinson,
doing its damage with almost surgical precision. Cleanup was already well
underway, but some of the damage will take a while to repair.
In 1883 Theodore Roosevelt came to the Dakota Badlands to hunt buffalo. Within ten days, he had shot his buffalo, acquired primary interest in the Maltese Cross Ranch, and entered the booming cattle business. Five months later, his wife died shortly after their daughter Alice was born. Just a few hours earlier, his mother had died in the same house. Roosevelt's lifelong way of dealing with grief was to firmly turn his back to it. Leaving his daughter in his sister's care, T.R. "retired" to the Maltese Cross and began building his main ranch, Elkhorn, where he vowed to make ranching "my main business."
This pine cabin was Roosevelt's home at the Maltese Cross, seven miles south of Medora. It was considered luxurious in the Badlands of the late 19th century: wooden floors, three separate rooms. The steeply pitched roof was also unusual. It sheltered a sleeping loft for the ranch hands.
We were told about the cabin's impressive travels. During Roosevelt's presidency, it was exhibited at the St. Louis World's Fair and at the Lewis & Clark Centennial Exposition in Portland, Oregon. It was moved to the North Dakota State Fair grounds in Fargo; then to the grounds of the state capitol in Bismarck, where it remained for 50 years. The cabin now stands at the entrance to Theodore Roosevelt National Park near Medora.
If the ranger looks protective in the previous picture, it's because he feels honored to guard Theodore Roosevelt's beloved writing desk. Roosevelt wrote prolifically. The Naval War of 1812, which he published in 1882, is still an important historical reference. He also wrote several works about his brief ranching career in the Badlands, including Ranch Life in the Far West, which is still in print.
The winter of 1886-87 was especially brutal. Most of Roosevelt's cattle died, ending his ranch life. He returned to his home in New York, where he entered politics. He never lost his love for the Badlands, returning occasionally to hunt. He later wrote, "If it had not been for my years in North Dakota, I never would have become President of the United States."
While he was there, Medora's most famous resident preferred a quiet life at his Elkhorn Ranch. Back in town, let's get acquainted with Medora's most flamboyant family.
Born to a nobleman's family in Paris, the Marquis was well educated in France. His tutors schooled him in the classics, and also in the ways of the working man's world. After college, he attended St. Cyr, France's leading military academy. He became a cavalry officer, and was sent to Algeria to help quell an uprising. He fought a duel in Algeria, the first of many in his lifetime. But it was peacetime, and de Morès was bored. He resigned his commission in 1881 and returned to Paris, where he tried his hand at investing. Unlucky timing lost him a large sum. He was luckier in love, though, meeting his wife at this time.
Medora was the daughter of a wealthy New York banker. She was highly educated and had many talents: gifted artist, skilled equestrian, sharpshooter, accomplished pianist. She was wintering in Cannes with her family when she met and married the Marquis.
The couple moved to New York, where the Marquis took a position with his father-in-law's bank. His cousin, Count Fitz-James, had been hunting in Dakota Territory, bringing back vivid and exciting stories that captivated the Marquis. So he conducted a study of the cattle business, which was booming at the time, and convinced Baron von Hoffman to invest in a new idea.
De Morès found an excellent location where the Northern Pacific Railroad crossed the Little Missouri River and bought 44,500 acres there to begin his ranching career. He started building a town there, naming it for his new wife. No doubt, this pleased his prime investor.
At the time, beef was shipped on the hoof and slaughtered in Chicago. The cattle lost a lot of weight en route and had to be fattened again for slaughter. This cost money, and de Morès saw a way to keep some of it for himself.
The Marquis's innovation was to slaughter his stock at the source and ship the beef in refrigerated cars. This model of his packing plant shows a conventional slaughterhouse in the center. The three large buildings at the left and right ends are icehouses.
The Marquis built the 26-room "château" on a bluff across the river from his new town and factory. The factory site is just out of this scene on the left side. The house remains as a monument to just how pleasant life could be, in a place that was then very wild.
Visitors arrive at the rear of the house. The front has a view that is not spoiled, even by approaching traffic. The family entertained lavishly here, conducting hunting trips that would be better described as catered safaris. What looks like an enclosed porch on the first floor, is one large L-shaped room that was used to get ready for these excursions.
The butler would signal the next course with a bell in the adjoining kitchen. The stove burned constantly, so there was always hot water in the house. This also allowed the cooks to prepare slow-cooked dishes like stew and pot roast.
No electricity in the 1880s, but the house was well lit.
While the Marquis and Medora lived here, they had two children. Census records indicate that the household also included a cook, laundress, chambermaid, two waiters, three nurses, and a lady's maid.
There were bathtubs for guests and family. It should be obvious which tub belonged to the Marquis. It has legs, so he could sit on the little platform without tipping over. This is the Marquis's dressing room; Medora also had a separate dressing room. A dressing room, especially one with a commode, was considered a mark of great luxury in the late 19th century.
This room is where the Marquis's lavish hunting trips began. The family and their guests travelled with a professional guide, a dozen horses, camping gear, and dogs. The necessary equipment was stored here, and the room was also used as a tack room. A few trophies remind the visitor of the Hunting Room's purpose.
This specially made wagon was part of the hunting expedition's equipment. Described as a "palace on wheels," it was said to be a reproduction of the coach that Napoleon Bonaparte used on his campaign to Moscow in 1812. The back seat could be turned into a bed and a table could be set for meals. Drawers in the coach contained complete sets of silver tableware.
The bedroom of the Marquis de Morès. Everything visible in this picture, including the lace canopy, is original. The walking stick leaning on the foot of the bed is bamboo, with a steel rod through its center. It weighs about 5 pounds.
Next to each bedroom were studies for the Marquis and Marquise. This is Medora's study, where she kept up correspondence and worked on her paintings. It was also her responsibility to manage the household, paying bills, supervising the servants, preparing menus, and ordering supplies.
A major change in late 19th-century life was the demise of the parlor in favor of the living room, a much larger. more open space. This room reflects both aspects of the de Morès family lifestyle, aristocratic and rustic.
The Marquis and Medora were the town's leading citizens, but they were not universally loved. He was a titled aristocrat, hardly like a Dakota citizen. She was the daughter of a New York banking millionaire, also titled. The Marquis had a strong sense of honor, and was always quick to defend any treatment that branded him as an outsider. Sometimes, this brought trouble.
In June 1883 the Marquis and some of his employees confronted three drunken hunters who had been shooting up the town. After the fray that followed, one of the hunters, Riley Luffsey, lay dead. The Marquis and two of his men were charged with murder, but the charge was dismissed. Two days later, the Marquis was arrested again, and was again found innocent. Two years after that, he and an employee were indicted for Luffsey's murder, and spent two weeks in jail at Bismarck before they were again found innocent.
While he was jailed in Bismarck, de Morès wrote to Theodore Roosevelt. Roosevelt was an occasional visitor at the château; although the men sometimes quarrelled about land and cattle, they regarded each other as friends. The Marquis asked if Roosevelt was behind his indictment, concluding that "between gentlemen it is easy to settle matters of this sort directly." Some people saw this as a challenge to a duel, but Roosevelt deflected it.
In another venture, the Marquis opened a freight route and stage line to Deadwood, 215 miles south of Medora. Including team changes every 10 or 12 miles and meal stops, the trip usually took 36 hours or less. At the standard rate in 1884, it cost $21.50, which was a lot of money. Drivers were changed too, but not so often as the horses. Four drivers would be used for the trip to or from Deadwood.
The family only used this grand house for three years. The Marquis de Morès had great plans, but all of his business ventures here failed. The railroad managers were cozy with the Chicago beef trust, which de Morès was bypassing with his refrigerator cars. So they refused him the rebates that were offered to his competitors, ultimately raising the cost of his product. Also, the cattle that were shipped to Chicago were then fattened on corn. People came to prefer their flavor to that of the Marquis's range-fed beef.
The business war with the beef trust was too much for the Marquis. He and his family left Medora for good in 1886, but they did not give up the house. The Marquis returned briefly in 1887 and 1889. Medora visited in 1903 with her two older children, who had once lived in the château. After Medora died, the caretakers asked her son Louis for permission to use the house as a summer boarding house, which he granted. Over the next fifteen years, the house fell into a bad state because of lack of maintenance, theft, and vandalism. In 1936, Louis gave the house and 125 acres of land to the State of North Dakota, stipulating that it be repaired and opened to the public.
Believing his business enemies were dominated by Jews, the Marquis became very active politically, founding a movement in France that fed anti-Semitic hysteria that eventually led to the notorious arrest and banishment of Capt. Alfred Dreyfus.
He was later put in charge of building a railroad in Indochina, from the Chinese border to the Gulf of Tonkin. Before the project could be finished, one of de Morès's political enemies in France put a stop to it; he was recalled to Paris in 1889.
Then he engaged again in radical politics in France, and soon went back to Algeria to organize a Moslem army to invade Britain. He was on his way to Sudan to meet with a powerful chieftain when his caravan was infiltrated by Touareg tribesmen, who hated the French. They killed him before he could complete his trip.
After her husband's death, Medora divided her time between homes in Paris and Cannes. She worked as a nurse, using her home as a military hospital during World War I. During this volunteer work, she was injured in the leg and never completely recovered. Complications from that injury led to her death in 1921.
If you're going to Medora, plan ahead. Affordable housing books
up early, and towns are far apart. We did have the opportunity to stay in the
Woolly Wagon, but passed it up. It's next to the Red Trail Campground, so
the weary traveller shouldn't fret over not having plumbing or electricity.
Theodore Roosevelt National Park comprises three parcels, spread widely over the Little Missouri National Grassland. We visited the South Unit near Medora. 60 miles north as the crow flies, the North Unit is near Watford City. The Elkhorn Ranch site is about midway between them. Roosevelt knew all of this area well when he lived here. The Elkhorn Ranch site is unimproved; only a few foundation stones remain, and drivers are advised to "ask about road and river ford conditions before travelling [there]."
For the hardy, the three sites are also connected by the 100-mile-long Maah Daah Hey Trail. This trail is accessible on foot or horseback, and by mountain bikes. These scenes are not from the trail. They're next to a parking lot.
Infrequent, hard rains attack the loosely cemented clays and sandstone, gouging new gullies and carrying off as much as 2-4 inches of surface yearly from these steep, unprotected slopes. By a process called slumping, house-sized earth masses shear from the bluffs and creep downhill. Unlike landslides, these slump blocks remain intact, moving so slowly that the shear scars weather away before the blocks finally come to rest.
Before you click – the next photo is very wide, meant to give you
an idea about the scale of this place. There is a bite-sized version
The first thing most visitors see in the park is the Painted Canyon. It's about a mile across and a few hundred feet deep. A loop trail runs down into and around it. The red "paint" is scoria, a rock formed by a process very much like baking bricks.
We've barely entered the South Unit's loop road, when we realize this day is going to be full of enchanting scenery. (More of enchantment, toward the end of this page.)
At the Peaceful Valley Ranch, you can rent horses. Or you can just walk around and check out the sagebrush and windblown trees.
Prairie dogs live in permanent "towns." The mounds hide complex, multi-chamber houses. The animals eat grass and scoop up dirt for their mounds, leaving their town site almost barren. This made them enemy to ranchers. Poisoning campaigns have left only small populations, mostly in protected areas like this one.
Having seen the hoodoos in Drumheller, we were not surprised to see the same kind of structure here.
Wind Canyon's name tells how it was formed. Next to its rim there are
dramatic views of the Little Missouri River. In the last picture, we spotted
some buffalo in the middle of the river. These are even farther away than
ones we saw at Rocky Mountain House.
Are we ever going to see one up close?
Also like Drumheller, there is coal here. Lightning, range fires, or spontaneous combustion can ignite coal beds. As a coal seam burns away, the earth above it slumps into the space the coal once occupied. The fire bakes the surrounding clay into natural brick, locally called scoria. The red color comes from iron in the clay.
This is the Coal Vein Trail, which follows the course of a seam that burned here continuously for 26 years (1951-77). It twists and climbs through three species of juniper, including the gnarled example at the top of this rise.
Bentonite, the grey material mid-frame, is also formed by intense heat – a volcano. Time, heat, and pressure from burial under other sediment have turned the ash into clay. Bentonite can absorb several times its volume in water, and is very slippery when wet. It has found use in hundreds of products, from toothpaste to candy bars.
After the fire burned out, lichens formed again on the rocks. Lichen, a symbiotic combination of fungus and alga, is a good indicator of air quality; so the Park Service keeps a close watch on its growth.
We were on that bluff for pitchfork fondue, a Medora specialty.
1. Put your steaks on pitchforks
2. Cook in vats of hot oil for about 5 minutes
After dinner, some folks walked out on the bluff to get closer to the view,
while these two young ranch hands supervised. Far below us are the
Château de Morès, the Little Missouri River, and the town
that was named for Medora von Hoffman de Vallombrosa.
This is Regent, North Dakota, population 200. Seven streets up and down, seven streets across. It's a very quiet place. Too quiet for Gary Greff, who worried that his home town might dry up and die. So he hatched a plan to help draw visitors.
Greff had left home for better opportunities, like many others. He became a teacher and a high school principal. When he returned to visit Regent, he had an inspiration and stuck around to fulfill it. The result is the Enchanted Highway, a road with a collection of sculptures much larger than life. Farmers between Regent and Gladstone have provided small patches of land for the purpose, turning 35 miles of highway into a scenic piece of Roadside Americana. Before embarking on this project, Greff had no experience as an artist, nor in any of the special techniques he used to build the sculptures.
For the most part, the Enchanted Highway looks like any other road in the Midwest – somebody drew it with a ruler, and somebody else paved it. Here we at least have some topographic relief. Black Butte (3465' above sea level) was long thought to be the highest point in North Dakota. More accurate surveys now put it second to White Butte, which is 40 feet higher. But Black Butte is more dramatic, and no surveyor can change that.
The Tin Family (1991)
farm tanks, telephone poles, barbed wire, augers
The Tin Man is 45 feet tall; his body is 10 feet in diameter. His hat is about the size of a Volkswagen Beetle. The Tin Lady's hair is barbed wire. The first sculpture on the Enchanted Highway, The Tin Family is made entirely of material that was donated or purchased as scrap.
Theodore Roosevelt Rides Again (1993)
1-¾ inch well pipe
Roosevelt is 51 feet high and weighs over 9000 pounds. A poster at the site tells the history of this, the second sculpture added to the project.
... An architect drew the design to
scale. After locating all the needed supplies, the area farmers set up a
schedule to help with bending the pipes and welding. Each piece of pipe,
weighing about 300 pounds, needed to be bent according to the drawing. This
involved moving the pipe from bender to drawing until they matched. Piece by
piece, the silhouette of Teddy Roosevelt took shape.
After all the pipes were cut and bent to the proper shape, the farmers welded them in three sections inside the shop. Next they moved the sections outdoors and welded them together. After welding them on one side they had to flip the silhouette over to weld the other side. Finally the support beams were welded and the silhouette was attached to the beams.
Moving the silhouette to the site required hoisting it on a flat bed with a crane. Local police escorted the apparatus to the site. A typical North Dakota wind delayed the setting of the project for a couple of days. The workers dug holes for the beams and built a base around them for support.
To accommodate the children, the committee decided to build a stage coach. After someone donated the base, construction of the stage coach began. It took about a month to complete.
The Regent High School '93 shop class constructed the picnic tables and bulletin boards.
The North Dakota National Guard agreed to help with the preparation of the sites. They hauled large amounts of dirt to landscape the sites so that they would be accessible by cars. They also hauled the scoria.
Pheasants on the Prairie (1997)
pipe and wire mesh (gravel screen)
The rooster is 40 feet tall, 70 feet long, and weighs 13,000 pounds.
This part of the project took three years to build. There's a much wider version of the second photo here, but it's still not wide enough to include all three chicks.
Fisherman's Dream (2007)
oil well tanks
Do you see the fisherman on the surface of a "lake" high above the prairie? He's just caught a 70-foot rainbow trout in the most recent addition to the Enchanted Highway's sculptures. Notice the fence – it's topped with waves, too.
Here you will view a site that shows an insect that has played an important
role in the history of western North Dakota. During a time in our history,
this insect nearly caused the ruin of many a farmer, eating the crops and
The grasshopper forced the farmer to find alternative crops; but more importantly, it challenged his patience and integrity, making him a better farmer.
Deer Crossing (2002)
oil well tanks
The buck is 60 feet long, 70 feet tall. After this sculpture was completed, it could not fit through the streets of Regent. The buck's front legs had to be cut off and re-welded on site.
Geese in Flight (2001)
oil tanks and oil well pipe
This one is in the Guinness Book of World Records. It's the world's largest metal sculpture: 154 feet wide by 110 feet tall, weighing 79 tons. After it was built, it cost more than $50,000 to install, mostly to rent a construction crane.
Gary Greff plans to add four more sculptures before he's done here. The next one will be a web full of spiders. He also has tentative plans for a water park, a restaurant, and an amphitheater. For now, there's a gift shop where you can buy miniature models of each sculpture.
on to Lake Itasca