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President Theodore Roosevelt's legacy seen statewide in North Dakota

President Theodore Roosevelt's legacy seen statewide in North Dakota

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When Marty Mulder had the chance to own a 20-foot bust of Theodore Roosevelt, he pounced. 

The proprietor of the Roosevelt Inn & Suites in Watford City swooped in to buy the bust from the defunct Presidents Park in South Dakota before it went to Medora. 

Since 2012, the white bust of the 26th president has featured prominently outside his family's hotel in North Dakota's oil patch. 

Watford City Roosevelt bust

This bust of Theodore Roosevelt sits outside the Roosevelt Inn & Suites in Watford City. Roosevelt apprehended three boat thieves at the mouth of Cherry Creek on the Little Missouri River in April 1886. The Roosevelt bust is from the former Presidents Park in Lead, S.D.

"It's been a nice little landmark," Mulder said. 

Roosevelt ranched and hunted near Medora in Dakota Territory's Little Missouri Badlands in the 1880s after the simultaneous deaths of his wife and mother. 

"Part of that was to give himself the opportunity to heal and to restore and — he didn't know it at the time — to become the man that went on to be president of the United States," said Ted Roosevelt, the president's great-great-grandson. 

But his legacy in North Dakota extends beyond his ranching sojourn, according to Sharon Kilzer, project manager of the Theodore Roosevelt Center at Dickinson State University.

"His footprint in the state is over the whole state," Kilzer said. "He isn't just in western North Dakota." 

The TR Center, which has been digitizing Roosevelt's papers for years, maintains an online map of the "Theodore Roosevelt Trail" in North Dakota. The map outlines statues, federal projects and wildlife refuges associated with the president, from speeches in Fargo to Chase Lake National Wildlife Refuge near Medina. 

Kilzer said Chase Lake is one of her favorites — right in the central flyway of North America. The shallow, alkaline lake is a global breeding ground for American white pelicans. Roosevelt established the refuge in 1908. 

"That's something North Dakota gives to the world, if you will, by being part of that flyway and providing the habitat for those breeding grounds," Kilzer said. 

At least four statues commemorate President Roosevelt throughout North Dakota, in Dickinson, Mandan, Medora and Minot. 

But does the state embellish its ties to the beloved president? After all, he only spent about a year in Dakota, all together.

"For me, I think he — not only here in North Dakota but throughout his life — was genuinely able to learn from his circumstances and the people around him," Kilzer said. 

"During the period he was here, he genuinely learned and grew from this environment, the physical environment he was formed by and from the people here." 

Gov. Doug Burgum has proposed using $50 million in Legacy Fund earnings with $100 million in donations to build the Theodore Roosevelt Presidential Library at Medora, the gateway to Theodore Roosevelt National Park. 

The governor has called the project "the flagship" of his Legacy Fund proposals for the 2019 session, as well as what would become "the No. 1 tourist attraction in the state of North Dakota." 

Roosevelt has become a frequent fixture in Burgum's speeches.

Burgum referenced Roosevelt in his 2016 campaign announcement, his budget address in December and in his three State of the State addresses — most recently noting the centennial of Roosevelt's death in January. 

"By immersing himself in the rugged, beautiful and untamed Badlands, he transformed himself into a bold and fearless leader whose later actions transformed our nation and the world," Burgum said in his 2019 State of the State.

The governor has lobbied hard for his library proposal, offering his first-ever testimony to a legislative committee and hosting Ted Roosevelt and other project supporters at a legislative reception, both in January.

The proposal is tied to House Bill 1018, a budget bill for the state Department of Commerce that is before the Education and Environment Division of the House Appropriations Committee. 

Reach Jack Dura at 701-223-8482 or


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