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Renovated Theodore Roosevelt National Park ranch mixes new features with old

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MEDORA -- Blake McCann looked out on a bison herd from the attic window of the Peaceful Valley Ranch house in Theodore Roosevelt National Park. 

"Best view of the park from a building," the park's director of resource management and science said before heading down a narrow, ladderlike staircase to the ground floor.

New paint and fixtures and a gleaming white interior greet visitors to the renovated ranch house dating to the 1880s, when young, future president Theodore Roosevelt ranched and hunted in the western North Dakota Badlands.

The $5.5 million rehabilitation and stabilization project on the ranch house, bunkhouse and barn of the Peaceful Valley Ranch began in spring 2020 and finished this summer, funded by park and National Park Service recreation fees.

"It's an effort that required a lot of people thinking about how to make it happen, and for me, to have a site that we now have stabilized and preserved the character of going forward, it makes me incredibly happy to have that as a resource here in the park for historic value and also for our visitors to experience," McCann said.

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Bison outside ranch
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Blake McCann
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Horseshoe mural

Now park officials are looking to the site's future, eyeing an education facility for science, technology, engineering, arts and math programs; partnerships with Native American tribes; teacher workshops; distance learning; or outdoor skill-building, according to Acting Deputy Superintendent Maureen McGee-Ballinger.

"The focus there would be some kind of educational facility," she said.

'Blend new and historic'

The Peaceful Valley Ranch "has been a focal point of the area for a long time," McCann said. It was the park's headquarters from 1947-59, and was listed on the National Register of Historic Places in 1994.

The buildings were constructed years apart, saw additions over time and served different purposes over the years, including housing. 

For decades until 2014, the property hosted horseback trail rides, "amazing and priceless experiences" for park visitors, according to Bob Tescher, of Bismarck. His parents, Alvin and Betty Tescher, ran a guided horseback trail riding concession from 1967-82 at the ranch site.

Blake McCann, director of resource management and science for Theodore Roosevelt National Park, gives a tour of Peaceful Valley Ranch in Theodore Roosevelt National Park.

His best memory is his dad welcoming visitors in the ranch house kitchen for coffee and meals.

"If somebody came in a total stranger, they left a friend, and some of them lifelong friends," Tescher said.

Preparation for the project reaches back to at least 2014, including evaluations of the structures, the landscape as it relates to the ranch, and a geophysical survey involving ground-penetrating techniques to look for foundations of past buildings.

"To set a project up like this, it really takes a lot of information to do it right, and that was our goal," McCann said.

The work was extensive, from replacing and chinking logs on the barn and the bunkhouse, to jacking up and restabilizing the buildings, to fully raftering the barn and replacing its floor. The contracted project also upgraded accessibility at the site.

The ranch house was repainted a creamy white. Workers gutted the wallboards covering the bunkhouse's log walls, and rebuilt the fireplace inside.

The project aimed to keep intact the integrity of the buildings, such as the barn, not built to current standards, McCann said.

"It was built by people trying to do the best they could with the materials they had," he said, pointing out timbers thought to be reclaimed from a bridge. 

To fit in new features, such as lighting, the key was to incorporate them thoughtfully, he said. For example, new conduit lines painted brown follow vertical elements of the barn. 

Park officials also consulted with the state's Historic Preservation Office about the best design for raftering the barn.

"It’s hard, really, to blend new and historic features, and we certainly don’t want to push something off that’s new as historic, so a great solution is finding these ways to have the new elements fit in a least impactful way," McCann said.

Memories

Pieces of the past also came to light during renovations.

The wall of the staircase closet of the ranch house has a penciled note about butter, dated 1916. 

Archaeologists unearthed bottles, bottle caps, coins and other objects around the ranch.

Carvings resembling brands were uncovered on log walls when wallboards came out in the bunkhouse. 

Tescher's family was allowed to go through the ranch during renovations and found the height chart their father kept in a closet.

One of Tescher's sisters was given the French doors their parents had in their bedroom of the ranch house.

Tescher, who saw the ranch two or three times during the project, called the workmanship "excellent."

He'd like to see a trail ride concession return to the ranch. He remembers the thousands of people who experienced the park's views on horseback, many of them on their first ride.

"Take that away, it seems inappropriate for buildings that are ready for that type of use," Tescher said. Meeting visitors on trail rides "really opened up my eyes to the world," he said.

Wally Owen, who for 20 years ran the horseback riding outfit from the ranch, said trail rides offered a "wilderness experience." Interpretive guides for years offered history of open-range ranching to visitors.

"It was really run like an open-range ranch, and we did blacksmith demonstrations and horse training and breaking demonstrations," Owen said. "We'd bring in our own interpreters, professional interpreters at times, to do these things. It was more than just a trail ride, it was an open-range ranch experience for people." 

He'd like to see the site be used for an interpretive center and trail rides again.

"It'd be nice if they could continue that type of experience for people," he said. 

Road repairs

Parallel to the ranch project have been plans to repair road failures along a closed section of the park's South Unit scenic drive. 

U.S. Sen. John Hoeven, R-N.D., and U.S. Interior Deputy Secretary Tommy Beaudreau last week discussed the maintenance issues while visiting a section of the roadway that slumped due to erosion in May 2019.

The Federal Highway Administration began preconstruction work on the road last year. Construction is expected to begin in spring 2022 and ideally finish by the year's end, according to Hoeven's office. 

The $39 million, 5-mile project is covered by the federal Restore Our Parks Act of 2020. 

Theodore Roosevelt National Park recorded 551,303 visitors in 2020. 

Reach Jack Dura at 701-250-8225 or jack.dura@bismarcktribune.com.

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