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How the Theodore Roosevelt Presidential Library moved from Dickinson to Medora

Roosevelt Statue in Medora

Work continues on the Theodore Roosevelt Library, being built in Medora. The scheduled completion date is July 4, 2026.

But Medora was not the original location.

Theodore Roosevelt first visited what was to become North Dakota in September, 1883. He came to hunt bison. He returned in 1884, after the deaths of his wife and mother. He had two ranches, the Maltese Cross Ranch and the Elkhorn Ranch, and stayed until he lost his cattle in the winter of 1886-87. He had said he would not have become President if it weren’t for his time in North Dakota.

Flash forward to the 2000s. During a hike in the Badlands, Clay Jenkinson had an idea.

“About halfway through, I thought, ‘There’s no Presidential Library for Theodore Roosevelt," Jenkinson said. "Roosevelt needs a Presidential library.”

At the time, Jenkinson was with Dickinson State University’s Roosevelt Center.

“And so I put that to the President of Dickinson State for whom I worked, Lee Vickers, and he said ‘Let’s see what happens here,” Jenkinson said.

Jenkinson said Dickinson State had already been working with other universities to “digitize” Roosevelt’s documents, and make them available on-line.

“And at this point, they’ve been at it for almost 20 years – and Dickinson State, the TR Center, has fully processed almost 100,000 documents,” said Jenkinson.

So, planning was underway for a Presidential Library on the DSU campus. That was thanks, in part, to a Legislative investment. Jenkinson said the campus had big dreams for it.

“We hired JLG architect to design it," Jenkinson said. "And we were going to rebuild the Elkhorn cabin, using heritage cottonwood logs, using only 1884 techniques."

Jenkinson said there was a spot for it, on the western side of the campus, where the rodeo grounds used to be.

So why DSU?

“Presidential libraries, on the whole, do better when they’re in a university town, and when they’re associated with a university," Jenkinson said.

The idea was presented to the board of the Theodore Roosevelt Presidential Library Foundation at a meeting in Minneapolis. Former State Senator Rich Wardner (R-Dickinson) was there.

"We pulled out all stops in Dickinson," Wardner said. "We had people from the University, we had people from the city. We went down there, and when the vote was made, on the Board at that time, the final vote was that the library was going to be in Dickinson.”

But then, Wardner said, Gov. Doug Burgum got involved, suggesting the library be built in Medora.

"He’s persistent," Wardner said. "He doesn’t give up. And he didn’t give up.”

And Wardner said the Board reversed its decision, giving the library to Medora.

Clay Jenkinson said there were plans to build something on the DSU campus anyway. But he said Burgum – and some other supporters – had a different idea.

“And the Governor thought, 'If we’re going to do this, let’s do it in a much more grand and ambitious way, and let’s put it in the Badlands,'" Jenkinson said. "And he was very firm about that.”

Jenkinson said he also thought the Library should have more of a North Dakota scale to it. However...

“Of course, if you’re going to build a Presidential library to one of the greatest Presidents in American history, and the money is there, and you can attract visitors, and maybe increase Roosevelt’s size in American memory, that’s all marvelous,” Jenkinson said.

But the Theodore Roosevelt Library Association says Dickinson State will continue to have a role to play as well.

“You can almost think of it as the academic and scholarly, intellectual component and archives living through the Theodore Roosevelt Center at DSU, and the experience the visitors museum in Medora at the Presidential Library,” said Library association CEO Ed O'Keefe.

Wardner said although there were some hard feelings over the decision, things will still work out OK for both Medora and DSU.

“We think that it’s going to still be a great benefit to our community to have that Library and Museum out there in Medora," Wardner said. "So, to be honest with you, people are pretty forgiving out here, and we’ve gotta move on. We’re not crying in our beer any more.”

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