Medora balances tourism, history, life
MEDORA -- This small town in southwest North Dakota that finds itself in a unique position.
A western town nestled in a valley along the Little Missouri River in the Badlands, Medora once hosted the man who would become our 26th president.
It’s now a summer sanctuary where families can eat ice cream, stroll through the past and catch a show at the top of a hill. But it’s also a city where people run businesses, teach school and bank.
Medora and those that live there have to balance their day-to-day lives with its historic nature and the tourists that have made the city famous.
“It is a balancing act,” Medora Mayor Doug Ellison said. “We try to preserve our history and hang on to that historical aspect and yet, at the same time, we need to be progressive and offer modern conveniences. It’s interesting. It’s a bit of a balancing act and hopefully we achieve it.”
Because the city is surrounded by Theodore Roosevelt National Park, there are only so many places it can grow, said Leona Odermann, CEO of the Medora Convention and Visitor’s Bureau.
“We in Medora just want to have a balance between what is true, authentic history and what we need to to do help our visitors, and the people who want to enjoy Medora,” Odermann said. “I think they’re very careful within the town and with the boards to make sure what we do is for the good of what’s here, and what we want to present to the public.”
The entertainment provided in Medora is not only fun and family friendly, but accurate, Oderman said.
“It’s always based on what actually happened here,” Odermann said. “People want true history, and that is something we work very hard and strive very hard to present.”
There has been some controversy in the past year regarding a couple of projects in Medora.
The Medora Zoning Commission ultimately turned down an application by the Medora Community Center to put up an LED sign, worrying about the effect it would have on the historic nature of the city.
“That goes back to that question, ‘How historical and western do we want to stay?’” Ellison said. “There was good arguments for it and arguments against it. It was kind of a divisive discussion, which is good. You hear both sides of an issue.”
The city government decides these issues on a case-by-case basis, Ellison said.
“The people who work and live here are very dedicated and very passionate about Medora and what we want to present,” Odermann said.
Safety was the main concern when the Theodore Roosevelt Medora Foundation decided to raze the Badlands Pizza Parlor building and construct a new structure that will house the Pizza Parlor and a new ticket office, said Kinley Slauter, historic preservation manager for the Theodore Roosevelt Medora Foundation.
“We always try to work within that same framework in terms of the size and the scale and look of the building,” Slauter said. “When we do projects we generally try to use materials that were available or are consistent with those used on historic buildings in town.”
Before everyone and their grandmother had a mobile phone, cellphone towers were a bit of a controversy for the city, Ellison said.
“That kind of was a typical question,” Ellison said. “I still don’t like the looks of the cell tower up on the hill, but it’s gotten to the point where it’s kind of a necessity. Everybody has cellphones, everybody wants contact, so you make accommodations. It’s not historic, but yet it’s a modern convenience, almost a necessity at this point, for emergency services and that kind of thing, so you make a concession for certain modern technologies.”
Focused on history
Medora’s residents make it that much more special, Slauter said.
“One of the things that I love about Medora, living there, is that it’s been a community, a town, for 125 years now,” Slauter said, “and, in a way, continuing it as a community -- people continue to live there and call Medora home -- I think is a way of preserving it versus the type of historic community or area where no one lives there and it’s just preserved as an attraction.
“One of the unique things about Medora is that it continues to change and develop and yet, hopefully, will continue to say focused on the historic elements.”
Even with more modern conveniences in town, Medora remains the gateway to Theodore Roosevelt National Park, a place to escape of everything modern, Odermann said.
“Since I was a young woman, Medora has always been a draw for me,” Odermann said.
She said, as a student at Dickinosn State College in the ’60s, she would come out to Medora “sometimes by myself, sometimes with a friend,” and drive through the park before the town had turned into a tourist attraction.
“For me, (it was) the ruggedness of the Badlands and the changing of the seasons and how you can be refreshed every day just by this area. I drive to work every day and I never get tired of that drive. To me, it’s just the area. It gets into your system. It’s just part of who you are if you work out here and you really just love it.”
A look at what shaped modern Medora
The tide started to change for Medora with the creation of the Medora Musical almost 50 years ago. Businessman Harold Schafer, founder of the Gold Seal Co., maker of Mr. Bubble, fell in love with Medora after seeing “Ol’ Four Eyes” at the Burning Hills Amphitheatre. He purchased the Burning Hills Amphitheatre in 1965 and the first Medora Musical was performed that season. He created the Theodore Roosevelt Medora Foundation in the 1980s, making sure the musical continued long after his passing. The Foundation runs several other shops and attractions in Medora, including the Rough Riders Hotel and Bully Pulpit Golf Course.
The creation of the musical and the investments Schafer, father of former Gov. Ed Schafer, made in the 20th century ensured Medora’s future. Schafer died in 2001 but his wife, Sheila, the mother of modern Medora, still summers in the town she helped build.