The history of “wild-west” Medora makes up one of North Dakota’s best stories with its intimate connections to Theodore Roosevelt, the Marquis de Mores, the Badlands, cattle herds, and the National Grasslands.
The town is the heart of Billings County; in fact, Medora has been the county seat since 1886. Tourists who visit Medora routinely drive past the Billings County courthouse, a beautiful red-brick modernistic building.
Medora is a premiere tourist destination, but, strangely, Medora is Billings County’s only incorporated town, for Billings County has historically been sparsely populated. Medora is busy in summer, quiet in winter.
Billings County has prosperity today – from tourism dollars and from petroleum revenues, but there was a time in the 1930s when Billings County was in deep financial trouble.
It was on this date, in 1940 that the Bismarck Tribune reported that Billings County was ‘virtually bankrupt’ and about to dissolve as a unit of government. The county did not have enough property tax revenue to “meet current operating expenses.” In fact, Billings County officials asked the N.D. legislature to “wipe Billings County off [the] state map.”
The county lacked taxable property. Out of almost 750 thousand acres, fewer than 300 thousand acres were taxable. School lands and public domain had always been non-taxable, but the U.S. Department of Agriculture and the Park Service had now purchased over 342,000 acres of county-land that would eventually become Theodore Roosevelt National Park and the Little Missouri National Grasslands. The federal government had condemned the land as unfit for agriculture and bought it through its submarginal land-purchase program. The end result was a fiscal crisis for the county.
In the 1930s depression decade, a combination of low rainfall and low agricultural prices forced most of the farmers and ranchers off the land. When fodder for cattle could not be found, the livestock died from lack of feed or from dust in their lungs. The drought was catastrophic, and there also came clouds of ravenous grasshoppers to made agriculture in Billings County nearly impossible.
By 1939, the population fell to slightly over two persons per square mile. Being in bankruptcy, the county proposed having the federal government buy all land in the county, and liquidate Billings County.
Providentially, the rains began to fall again in 1940. Resilient ranchers revived, cattle resumed grazing on refreshed-green grasslands, and the people escaped dissolution of Billings County, just barely, by the skin of their teeth, and Medora survived as the county-seat – later to thrive as one of the state’s top tourist destinations.
Dakota Datebook written by Dr. Steve Hoffbeck, MSU Moorhead History Department.
Sources: “Early Test of New Law Urged,” Bismarck Tribune, February 16, 1940, p. 3.
“Ask Legislature to Liquidate County,” Billings County Pioneer [Medora, ND], January 12, 1939, p. 1.
“Long Dry Spell Blackens Crop Prospects in Dakota,” Billings County Pioneer, June 18, 1836, p. 1.
“75 Per Cent of Families in Billings County on Relief,” Billings County Pioneer, September 1, 1938, p. 1.
“Series of Articles Are Written on Resettlement,” Billings County Pioneer, May 21, 1936, p. 1.
“Would Wipe Billings County Off State Map,” Bismarck Tribune, October 20, 1938, p. 1.
“Judge Lebo Is Sad Over County’s Fate,” Bismarck Tribune, May 18, 1940, p. 2.
“Disorganization Law May Be Tested Soon,” Bismarck Tribune, February 17, 1940, p. 5.
“Sub-Marginal Land In West Purchased,” Bismarck Tribune, October 15, 1934, p. 2.