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Medora's trip through time: Preserve America funds help western ND town connect visitors with the past

Medora Area Convention and Visitors Bureau CEO Leona Odermann looks at a sign depicting the popular tourist destination in the early 1900s. The sign, Odermann's personal favorite, is part of a collection of 32 interactive signs made possible by grant money secured by the city in 2008.1 / 2
Chuck and Laurinda Warczak of Las Vegas look at an 1884 photo taken outside of St. Mary's Catholic Church in Medora.2 / 2

MEDORA -- Looking back at the rocky cliffs outlining the northern edge of town after glancing at an 1884 photo taken outside of St. Mary's Catholic Church, Chuck and Laurinda Warczak didn't notice much difference.

"It looks basically the same," Laurinda said. "It must have been quite a time to be out here back then."

The fact that the tourist couple from Las Vegas could easily picture themselves in the 1880s version of Medora on a sunny spring day more than 130 years later is exactly the type of experience local leaders are aiming to provide.

A new tool used to help bridge the gap between Medora's past as a picturesque Western town and popular modern day tourist destination is a collection of interpretive signs located at 32 different stations around the city.

Completed in October, the weather-resistant signs were made possible through Preserve America funds secured through a $250,000 grant from the U.S. Department of the Interior and National Park Service.

Citing everything from locations and landmarks like the Joe Ferris General Store (which was frequented by Theodore Roosevelt) and Stockmens State Bank to legendary Medora personalities like Riley Luffsey and Margaret (Barr) Roberts, the signs are ready to tell the town's story to visitors during what is sure to be another busy summer.

"We wanted to promote education and tourist enjoyment of our area," said Medora Area Convention and Visitors Bureau CEO Leona Odermann. "Because we're so historically significant, we thought it would be a great idea to give people something else to do while they're in town. With Theodore Roosevelt National Park so close and open all year, we have visitors here all year and these signs are a great way for people to learn about Medora."

Dubbed "Sharing Medora's Horizon," the project features most of its signs in Medora's downtown area, but several are located west of the Little Missouri River, a short stroll from the main TRNP entrance.

"The Preserve America Signage is a great asset to Medora," said Doug Ellison, the city's mayor. "We have 32 interpretive signs, with perhaps more to come in the future, that really highlight Medora's history and the area's history in general. It's a self-guided tour that people can take year-round."

Much of the work to secure the grant -- which also funded a number of other projects from the printing of a collectable set of Medora playing cards with different historical sites to a live camera feed that can be accessed on the city's website -- was done by Leona and her husband James Odermann of Odermann Communications Co.

Leona said the project also received a lot of help from the city and from organizations like the Billings County Historical Society, North Dakota Cowboy Hall of Fame, the Theodore Roosevelt Medora Foundation and others.

"We had a core group that worked with us and we had a lot of people involved in things like proofing and editing and deciding on what pictures to use," Leona said. "It was a labor of love for the people of Medora and it also helped us to decide what important pieces of our history we wanted to tell our visitors.

"What's neat is that I have one of the signs right outside my office," Leona said. "People will be walking by and you see them stop and read the sign. It makes you feel good because people are learning about the history of this special place. Whether we're talking about tourists or school groups that come here, we know that what people are reading and seeing is accurate history."

Bryan Horwath
A Wisconsin native, Horwath has been covering news in the Oil Patch of North Dakota since 2012. Horwath currently serves as the senior agriculture and political reporter for The Dickinson Press and, despite the team's tendency to always let him down, remains a diehard Minnesota Vikings fan.
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