The Beautiful Badlands: August 23-28, 2010

We left Hazen with a bit of sadness, because so much knowledge and lore had been provided to us there. But heading back south to Rte. 94 and continuing west, we got to within 25 miles of the Montana border.

There was no return to reality, however. In Medora, we may have wound up in the closest equivalent to a real life movie set as we’ll ever experience. The story needs to be told in four acts.

Act 1: The Landscape.

Introduction to the Badlands takes place at the Painted Canyon, about 7 miles east of Medora, where a large rest stop is operated by the National Park Service. When I reached the edge of the overlook, I had the same heart stopping reaction as when the airplane first lipped the Grand Canyon in the original This is Cinerama travelogue. (No one else remembers Cinerama, do they? It was 1953, for heaven’s sake.) Most striking are the red-topped hills, smoldering with their coal innards endlessly afire. There are no flames or smoke, just beautiful rises consuming themselves. Beyond that, pictures speak better than words.

Once in town, the Badlands are a backdrop in every direction. The best view is a drive through the 26 mile scenic loop in the Theodore Roosevelt National Park. This is the South Unit, and the entrance is right in town. It hosts a museum with details of TR’s western migration – more on that below. The North Unit is anchored by Watford City, 70 miles north of Medora. Like the Painted Canyon, pictures tell the story better than words. Yet there is no way that pictures can replace the thrill of being there.

The park boasts wildlife of many varieties. We found bison, many villages of prairie dogs, and a few feral horses. Try as we could, we never found an elk or a bighorn sheep. The latter are more prevalent in the North Unit. Again, the story in pictures.

Rounding a bend near the end of our first circuit (yes, we had to go back twice), Lonesome George was rambling down the shoulder. Lonesome George is the universal name attributed to bulls that are excluded from the herd when they get old and a young punk takes over. We slowed by George for a couple of pics from the car, and after we’d gone about a quarter mile, we decided to turn around and get a second look. As we returned, he was walking down the middle of the road, but he then drifted back to the fringe for a bite to eat.

Act II: The founding of Medora.

Antoine-Amédée-Marie-Vincent Manca de Vallombrosa, later the Marquis de Mores, was a wealthy soldier and adventurer. He met his wife in Cannes and married her in 1882. The following year, at age 24, he eschewed his commission and set out for the American Badlands with a scheme: slaughter range-fed cattle on site and ship the meat in ice to New York City, where he would own a chain of butcher shops. He built stores and a hotel around his large meat packing plant and built a 26 room frontier home – a far cry from the family homestead (castle) in La Bocca. The village of Little Missouri, just across the Little Missouri River, folded as Medora became a boom town. Three years later, the business was abandoned, a victim of the Marquis’s lack of business acumen, the competition of the two major players (Armour and Swift), and lack of interest in his product. The adventurous Marquis, an accomplished dueler, was also accused but never convicted of killing a fellow townsman. He returned to France, and he himself was killed ten years later in Africa on yet another adventure, leaving his wife with three children, two of whom were born in Medora.

The Marquise, nee Medora von Hoffman, was the daughter of a New York banker. She was as adventurous as her husband – always went hunting with him and often went on her own. She was a lavish hostess. The house had many touches of wealth as well as touches of the plains. Ten rooms upstairs were assigned to guests (3), children and nannies (2) and servants (5). Downstairs were bedrooms and studies for Marquis and Marquise, plus formal dining and living rooms, kitchen and pantries. The wraparound porch on the front offered magnificent views, while the large room in the back combined a tack room with a ready room for the hunts. Son Tony, the middle child, gave the properties to the state of North Dakota after his mother’s death, and the CCC refurbished the home in the thirties. It is filled with authentic furnishings, many originals.

Act III: Old Four Eyes.

Theodore Roosevelt arrived on the frontier in 1883, the same year as the Marquis. Another re-placed aristocrat, he came to hunt buffalo and settled in, buying first the Maltese Cross ranch and later the Elkhorn ranch. TR spent as much time as he could in western North Dakota, and he credited his success as president to the lessons he learned on the frontier. As a fierce environmentalist, he reserved more land for conservation than any other president.

Old Four Eyes was also the driving force behind the Panama Canal, and its story is richly presented in a museum at the Bully Pulpit Golf Course, not far from the Maltese Cross site.

Act IV: Mr. Bubble.

Harold Schafer grew up not far from Hazen, our previous stopover. He had two admirable traits: the desire to run a successful business and a penchant for hard work. Throw in a gift for marketing intuition, and you have a guaranteed Horatio Alger story. In fact, he was the youngest person ever to win the Horatio Alger award.

In 1942, at age 30, he formed his own company around an easy-to-apply floor wax that he purchased from its manufacturer, packaged it in his basement, and marketed as Gold Seal Floor Wax. Three years later he added a second product, a pink formula he called Glass Wax. Rocketing sales put the Gold Seal Company on the map and in the limelight. He repeated his success in the 1950’s with Snowy Bleach and in the 1960’s with Mr. Bubble, the first product he manufactured himself. His consummate marketing intuition brought him into television in its very early days, with sponsorships of people like Jo Stafford, Perry Como and Arthur Godfrey.

He sold the business to Airwick Industries in 1986, but as early as the sixties he was investing in his beloved Medora. He founded the Theodore Roosevelt Medora Foundation and continued to sponsor the town. Not the least of his efforts was to build the fledgling stage show honoring TR into today’s Medora Musical, an extravaganza that performs nightly all summer in the outdoor Burning Hills Amphitheatre before hundreds of thousands of people each year. His philanthropy throughout his lifetime was as aggressive as his sales pitch. For example, there is hardly an educational institution in the state that doesn’t benefit. The Schafer Museum in town is right in front of his home (sorry, no pix), and his wife Sheila still stops by when she’s in town. His son Edward has served as a U.S. Congressman, the 29th U.S. Secretary of Agriculture, and the Governor of North Dakota.

On our last morning there, we went down to the old court house/county museum. Every room had exhibits, including the two jail cells. One of the most remarkable was a massive collection of different types of barbed wire — at least 200 samples. The director and her husband were shooting video for a new website and conned us in to being interviewed. We’ll let you know if it shows up!

So there was plenty to see and do in our final ND stop. Except for twice around the park, nothing was farther than 2 miles from our campground. Our campground had seen better days, but we were way up in back, at the base of a several hundred foot rise, with no one next to us. In town, aside from the touristy stuff and eateries, there was one store – a convenience store with gas pumps in front. That’s as close as we’ve come so far to “roughing it!”

In all, our North Dakota experience, eagerly anticipated for over a year, was one of the richest we’ve had to date.

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