It has taken more than a decade of dedication and perseverance, but the North Dakota Cowboy Hall of Fame Center of Western Heritage and Cultures: Native Americans, Ranching and Rodeo is ready to preserve the stories of the legendary western lifestyle that has made a lasting impact on the state's heritage. The Hall of Fame, scheduled for its grand opening on August 6, is not only a center of heritage and history; it is a home for the legends of the plains, and a place where future generations will be able to take a journey through northern plains history.
The Dream Begins
The dream of a North Dakota Cowboy Hall of Fame began in October 1994, as Bismarck educator and former rodeo rider Phil Baird was accompanying longtime Mandan western-shop owner Evelyn Neuens and her sister to the 40th anniversary celebration of the Minot Ys Men's Rodeo. After participating in the festivities, Baird realized that this moment might potentially be lost if it had no permanent place of preservation. He also recalled his efforts to gather information for a rodeo documentary book. "North Dakota has many significant contributors to Native American history, rodeo, and ranching, and I was very hard pressed to find documented information. I realized that the state's western heritage would be lost if action wasn't taken."
On the ride back to Bismarck that October afternoon, Baird pitched his idea of a Hall of Fame to Neuens. "I was asking a woman who was 80-plus years old to take a leap of faith and join me in this extraordinary venture. I thought she might be hard to convince." But Neuens, who grew up in the Badlands of western North Dakota, knew the value of ensuring that generations to come would be able to experience the heritage of the American West. Her western spirit took over and she replied, "Phil, let's do it!"
Neuens went on to become the founding president, a position now held by Baird. He says initially it was going to be a Rodeo Hall of Fame, but the board realized that rodeo originated out of the ranching lifestyle, and before cowboys tamed the lands, the Native Americans claimed the wide-open plains of North Dakota. The one thing that tied them all together was the horse culture. For these reasons, the Hall of Fame evolved into being the premier center of western history and the horse culture of the Northern Plains, encompassing its evolution from the days when buffalo roamed the plains to the homesteading era to present-day ranching and rodeo.
Wheels of Progress
Neuens and Baird were nervous before the first organizational meeting in January 1995. "We hoped there would be enough interest to get the project off the ground," says Baird. Typical of the western way of life, when there is a cause, the people come. Ten people committed to the original board of directors. Without money or resources, the group began making plans. "We had an extraordinary board made of state leaders that were very committed, but this was a big task for strictly volunteers," says Baird. "We realized we needed someone who could solely dedicate time and energy to this project."
The board found that energy and dedication in Darrell Dorgan, and brought him on board as executive director in 1998. "This was the key benchmark in the advancement of the effort," says Baird. Dorgan says that he and the board share a common fascination with and interest in heritage and history. "I have made great friendships. These are amazing people," says Dorgan.
The dogged dedication and perseverance of Dorgan, the board of directors and nearly 1,500 members has brought the dream to reality.
The Dream Unfolds
"This project has been a great team effort," says Dorgan. "The energy surrounding it is tremendous." From the initial meeting, to fundraising, to site selection, to its near completion, western heritage enthusiasts from across the state have rallied behind this project.
After much consideration, historic Medora was selected as the location of the Hall of Fame that would house and preserve the traditions, legacies, and stories of North Dakota's greatest contributors to its western heritage and culture. "We wanted it to be located where people were going to see it. In addition to being North Dakota's premier tourism destination, Medora is also in the heart of cowboy country," says Dorgan. Russ Danielson, a director from Harwood, agrees. "It is ideal for exposure, and everyone enjoys visiting Medora. This will give tourists one more attraction to look forward to visiting."
Bismarck architect Arnie Hanson spent a considerable amount of time researching and visiting rodeo and cowboy halls of fame across the nation before designing the $3 million, 15,000-square-foot, two-story complex. "This was a unique project for me," says Hanson. "I was given the chance to design a building to accentuate the beautiful sculptures that will be displayed outside. It is the first time I've had the opportunity to blend art and architecture."
Hanson says from an architect's point-of-view, this project has two distinctive features: its modern design and the shape of its exterior. "This is a modern, state-of-the-art building that uses colors and material to blend into its natural surroundings of bluffs and hills, not the other buildings in the area."
Hanson used the color of the almond clay, which can be seen dispersed throughout the Badlands, as the basic color of the building. The stone base is created from petrified stone found between Dickinson and New England. "The building really picks up the color and texture of the Badlands," says Hanson.
A 5,000-square-foot patio, surrounded by a five-foot cedar trimmed fence, will provide an area for entertainment, weddings, receptions, and meetings. "We already have events scheduled for the patio this summer," says Dorgan. The cedar trim proudly displays brands - the signatures of modern-day ranchers. Nearly 30 members of the Hall of Fame and the North Dakota Stockmen's Association were among the first to leave their marks, with more to come in the near future. The patio area can easily accommodate groups of up to 200 people.
Construction of the multimillion-dollar complex began in April 2004 and a work-in-progress preview was given on May 28 in conjunction with Medora's annual Cowboy Poetry Gathering. Dorgan says the center has been open since mid-June, and the August 6 grand opening will be held in conjunction with the annual Hall of Honoree inductions. The doors of the Hall of Fame will be open yearly from May through September, and tours and use of the facilities can be arranged by appointment during the remaining months.
A Walk through the North Dakota Cowboy Hall of Fame
The extraordinary combination of architecture and art highlighting the outside of the Cowboy Hall of Fame is a perfect introduction into the two stories of interior wonders. "The Hall of Fame will be a physical presence that will not be easily forgotten once it is experienced. It will provide a concrete and convincing account of our state's heritage," says Minot artist Walter Piehl, a board member and trustee.
The first level features an interpretive theater modeled after a 1903 photo of Theodore Roosevelt in Medora, a gift shop, and permanent and traveling exhibit galleries. Two state-of-the-art conference rooms occupy the second floor, along with the centerpiece of the North Dakota Cowboy Hall of Fame - the Hall of Honorees.
The main floor exhibits will take visitors on a journey through the history of the horse culture, beginning with the Native Americans, leading to Texas trail drivers and homesteaders, and finishing with the stories of ranchers and rodeo cowboys of past and present. "The traveling exhibit gallery will allow visitors a new and different learning opportunity on a yearly basis," says Dorgan. The 2005 featured exhibit will be a collection of 100 sculptures by nationally noted artist Robert Scriver.
The Hall of Fame also provides the region with second-to-none meeting space for groups of up to 100. A board room and a conference room are located on the second floor. "This is a great asset to the area," says Randy Hutzenbuler, Theodore Roosevelt Medora Foundation president. With floor-to-ceiling windows allowing a view of some of Medora's greatest attractions, Hutzenbuler refers to the board room as one of the most beautiful meeting rooms in all of North Dakota. "What better atmosphere can be created than being able to view the Chateau de Mores, the old de Mores packing plant, cemetery hill, and the entrance to Theodore Roosevelt National Park?"
The second floor is also home to the 75 North Dakota legends featured in the Hall of Honorees.
Hall of Honorees
Stepping into the Cowboy Hall of Fame Hall of Honorees, visitors will, for an instant, experience the lives of the men, women, animals and events that have made lasting impressions on the horse culture and western heritage of North Dakota.
For the past seven years, the Hall of Fame trustees, consisting of 200 individuals in 12 regions across the state, have selected for induction to the Hall of Fame seven to 10 outstanding honorees for their contributions to North Dakota's western heritage. "The Hall of Honorees crosses minority and ethnic barriers, featuring the outstanding contributions of Native Americans, men, women, animals, and events," says Dorgan.
Dan Kalil, a trustee from Williston, expresses the importance of the Hall of Honorees: "We cannot lose these stories of the brave and resolute people who carved their living from a landscape so huge and domineering."
And, thanks to the determination by people from across North Dakota to make a dream become reality, the legacy of North Dakota's legendary western lifestyle is not likely to be lost for a very long time.
For more information on the North Dakota Cowboy Hall of Fame Center of Western Heritage & Cultures: Native Americans, Ranching and Rodeo visit www.northdakotacowboy.com or call 701-250-1833.