The home that put in the greatest mileage, during of the first decade of the 20th century, was a North Dakota log cabin where President Theodore Roosevelt had lived.
In 1904, his cabin south of Medora was moved to St. Louis, Mo.. In 1905, it ended up in Portland, Ore., and, in 1906, was relocated to Fargo. Later that year, it was moved to the Capitol grounds in Bismarck, where it remained until it was sent back to Medora in 1959.
In 1883, Roosevelt was a young New York assemblyman who yearned for a new adventure. Hearing that the mighty bison of the American plains were rapidly declining, he made plans to go on a hunt before they became extinct.
In September, Roosevelt arrived at a camp on the Little Missouri River in what is now Billings County. Soon after his arrival, he was introduced to Sylvane Ferris and Bill Merrifield, two ranch hands for Hiram Wadsworth. Wadsworth had two ranches, a large one north of Medora and a smaller one south of Medora.
While on his hunting trip, Roosevelt became excited about the opportunity for pursuing an open-range cattle enterprise in the Dakota Badlands. He asked Ferris and Merrifield if they would oversee a cattle ranch for him, but they told him they were already committed to running Wadsworth’s southern ranch.
However, the two ranch hands said they would be happy if they could get a release from their employer. To make matters easy, Roosevelt purchased the ranch south of Medora from Wadsworth and his partner, W. L. Hawley. This allowed Ferris and Merrifield to remain on the ranch.
The name of the ranch Roosevelt purchased was Chimney Butte, but it was often referred to as the Maltese Cross because of the shape of the cattle brand. Before Roosevelt returned to New York, he instructed his ranch hands to build a new cabin. He also purchased 150 head of cattle from Wadsworth.
The cabin’s exterior was made from ponderosa pine logs and the interior had wooden floors and three separate rooms. The upstairs was a sleeping loft for the ranch hands.
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Originally, Roosevelt planned to leave the running of the ranch to Ferris and Merrifield, and he would occasionally visit to see how things were going. However, on Feb. 14, 1884, Roosevelt was hit with a double-whammy while back at his home in New York. The two most important women in his life died on the same day — his mother and his beloved wife, Alice.
To help him recover from the grief, Roosevelt believed he needed to get out of New York and, with a home in the rugged Badlands, he had the perfect place to find solace.
Roosevelt returned to the Badlands in 1884 and spent much of his time at the Maltese Cross ranch. He also purchased another ranch, 35 miles north of Medora, that he called Elkhorn. After living for periods of time at his ranches during 1884 and 1885, Roosevelt returned to New York to run for mayor, and his employees were left to manage his growing cattle herds.
The winter of 1886-87 was disastrous for many ranchers in the area. Because of heavy-crusted snow and the extreme cold, many cattle died. Roosevelt lost most of his herd and, for the next few years, contemplated selling his Dakota holdings.
In 1891, Merrifield dissolved his partnership with Ferris, and in 1898, the title to the Maltese Cross passed from Roosevelt to Ferris, who later sold the cabin to Jack Snyder, a local cowboy. With the death of President William McKinley on Sept. 14, 1901, he was succeeded by Roosevelt, his vice president. Because Roosevelt now served as the nation’s chief executive, there was a new interest in the log cabin that was his home while he lived in Dakota Territory.
Early in 1904, preparations were made for the Louisiana Purchase Exposition (World’s Fair) at St. Louis later that year. In order to have an exhibit at the fair, North Dakota purchased Roosevelt’s former cabin and had it disassembled and shipped to St. Louis prior to the opening of the fair on April 30.
Before the closing of the fair on Dec. 1, North Dakota received a request to have the cabin shipped to Portland for the celebration of the Lewis and Clark Exposition, which was to run from June 1 to Oct. 15, 1905.
The next stop for the Maltese Cross cabin was the North Dakota State Fair in Fargo. In 1905, the North Dakota Legislature authorized that the fair would be held on an alternate basis, with Grand Forks hosting the fair on odd numbered years and Fargo on even numbered years. Since Roosevelt’s cabin had been a big hit in both St. Louis and Portland, it was figured to be a major attraction in Fargo.
The cabin was then relocated at the Capitol grounds in Bismarck, eventually ending up east of the Liberty Memorial Building. For years, Roosevelt’s cabin was neglected until maintenance of it was given to the Daughters of the American Revolution in 1919.
After the establishment of the Theodore Roosevelt National Memorial Park in 1947, the Legislature transferred the cabin to the National Park Service two years later and moved it to Medora, north of the visitor’s center. The Park Service restored it to the appearance it had when Theodore Roosevelt lived there.
(Written by Curt Eriksmoen. Reach Eriksmoen at email@example.com.)