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Medora Musical eyes near-record attendance year; attractions to see upgrades

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MEDORA -- Wade and Kim Hesch and their son, Easton, had the full Medora experience on their agenda last month.

The Valley City family went west with complimentary tickets to the Medora Musical and plans to sightsee, golf at the Bully Pulpit Golf Course, and enjoy food and drinks.

The peaceful ambience appealed to the family while they were walking outside Pacific Avenue shops on a Thursday morning.

"I just like the quiet, the small shops, the scenery. I've enjoyed the musical when we've gone to it before, so I'm looking forward to seeing that again. It's been a while," Kim Hesch said.

The long-running Medora Musical is expected to have its second- or third-best attendance year. As of Aug. 30, the musical had sold 116,904 tickets for all 2021 show dates. The musical's season ends Sept. 11.

Choral charge

More than 124,000 people attended the musical in 2015, its 50th anniversary and record attendance year.

Medora attractions and businesses have kept busy amid the coronavirus pandemic. And the Theodore Roosevelt Medora Foundation has projects in the works for upgrades with an eye toward the future.

Pandemic and wildfire

The tourism season began in May and is expected to last well into fall due to new attractions this year, including a Johnny Cash "Ring of Fire" show, Foundation Chief Marketing Officer Justin Fisk said.

The foundation also is planning how to keep the Rough Riders Hotel and Theodore's Dining Room open in fall and winter, something not done for years, he said.

People have found or rediscovered the Badlands in the pandemic, from Theodore Roosevelt National Park to the Maah Daah Hey Trail, according to Fisk.

"They rediscovered the simplest pleasure of just getting outside with your family, and I think many of them decided they're going to keep that as part of their routine," he said. 

Medora visitors enjoy a horse-drawn cart ride through the streets of town in July 2021.

The foundation has met the business activity with fewer seasonal employees than in years past, hiring 287 this year -- 28 fewer than planned and 40 fewer than hired in 2019. 

Fisk attributed the 2021 staffing shortage to fewer applicants, both domestic and international, the latter of whom require visas to work in the U.S.

"Wage increases, referral bonuses, sign-on bonuses, and countrywide recruiting all helped us and the team this year, but we were never able to get enough people into the applicant pool to get us to fully staffed," he said.

A wildfire on April 1 led to the temporary evacuation of Medora. The blaze threatened but spared the amphitheater that's home to the musical. The foundation had to replace fencing, and some charred wood remained along the walkway.

The musical still opened on time in June, and due to the ongoing drought has followed the daily fire danger rating in regard to fireworks displays, Fisk said. Few shows have been affected by adverse weather, he said.

Burning Hills Amphitheater Manager Kinley Slauter said, "I think everything from the pandemic to the wildfire to, really, a lot of things that are going on in people's lives sort of reminded them that it's a great place to come, get away for a weekend, relax, and whether it's the show or national park or getting ice cream, whatever people's tradition is, we're lucky that the Medora Musical has been a part of that."

Access Medora

Accessibility improvements are gaining steam at foundation attractions, part of a new initiative called Access Medora for upgrades in line with the Americans with Disabilities Act.

One project added an ADA-compliant ramp and accessible restrooms to the Old Town Hall Theatre. 

A $1.4 million project will add a dual, high-capacity elevator to the amphitheatre. Plans are to begin construction this fall and finish in spring 2022, Slauter said.

The elevator will be able to carry hundreds of people in and out each night of the show, he said. It also would help emergency service personnel.

The 2,800-seat amphitheater already has an elevator and a golf-cart shuttle, but the elevator is small-capacity and the shuttle must maneuver around pedestrians, Slauter said. The venue also has an escalator.

Funding for the elevator project comes from $1 million from the Engelstad Foundation, Slauter said. The Medora Foundation plans to work on additional funding sources for the elevator and the greater initiative, he said.

Future efforts include family and companion-care restrooms and a coordinator to consider what amenities to add to hotel rooms.

Golf course

An upgrade campaign is seeking donations for improvements to the Bully Pulpit Golf Course, which is prone to muddy, silty flooding from the Little Missouri River. 

Work has so far finished on a dike and control structure, but the project also includes replacing 4½-5 miles of cart paths with concrete; eliminating, modifying and creating some holes; and improving facilities.

Project organizers hope to have new holes in play in spring 2022, depending on how grass grows in the arid climate.

"This campaign is to help Bully Pulpit last into the future and continue to grow and make itself better into the future," PGA Head Golf Professional Patrick Rominger said. 

Fundraisers "are on our way to raising about $10 million for this entire project, which includes some of the work we've already done, and we've had some in-kind donations from a lot of different, great companies," he said.

PGA Head Golf Professional Patrick Rominger discusses improvements to the Bully Pulpit Golf Course.

The project is ongoing, depending on "when we're able to raise the said funds for this project," though it's just begun, Rominger said.

"It's going to take some time to get those six-, seven-figure gifts from these individuals that we're looking for in order for us to make and continue on with some of these larger projects that we want to continue," he said.


Dakota Cyclery had record mountain bike rentals and guided tours last year, and also has seen increased bike repairs, owner Jennifer Morlock said.

Amid the pandemic, people on road trips to see national parks, all 50 states and the rugged Maah Daah Hey Trail in the Badlands created "a perfect storm" for the full-service bike shop, she said.

Many visitors happened upon the shop spontaneously, she said.

"The place is intoxicating. It gets into your soul," Morlock said of the Badlands. 

Doug Ellison, who owns the Western Edge Books, Artwork, Music business, said "what we're really missing are the Canadians. We used to see a lot of Canadian traffic, mainly going to and from the Black Hills." 

The U.S.-Canada border has had restrictions on nonessential travel since March 2020, though Canada did open to visitors in August. The U.S. remains closed to nonessential travel at its northern border.

Outdoor activities have been going "full steam," and Interstate 94 traffic seems "as good as ever," Ellison said.

Larry and Julia Marple, who have portrayed President Theodore and first lady Edith Roosevelt for eight years in Medora, have noticed more people hiking, driving into the national park and attending their free outdoor programs. 

Last year, Julia Marple crafted face masks from a pattern published in a Fargo newspaper during the 1918 flu pandemic, which the Roosevelts experienced. The Marples gave distanced performances and spoke about the Spanish flu. They still carry the white face coverings.

"We would tell people this isn't our first pandemic," Julia Marple said.

"Hopefully the last," her husband added.

Reach Jack Dura at 701-250-8225 or


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