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Medora: North Dakota’s #1 Tourist Destination

Posted by Annie Bennett, Co-Editor 6/14/2021 10:34:06 AM

According to the 2020 U.S Census, Medora’s population is only 139 people, however, during the summer months, the small town grows immensely. Medora is North Dakota’s number one tourist destination, and each summer season, visitors come from around the state, nation and world to the small community in western North Dakota.

Medora, located just off Interstate 94 near the Montana border, is known for its ties to Theodore Roosevelt, the 26th U.S. President; the Medora Musical, a Broadway-style show highlighting patriotism and the western charm; and other family-friendly entertainment. “Medora is important to North Dakota because it is a true legacy of the North Dakota nice spirit and living the Roughrider spirit of working hard at work worth doing,” says Kaelee Knoell, marketing manager for the Theodore Roosevelt Medora Foundation (TRMF).

 

Boom, Bust and Resurrection

“Medora had three periods: boom, bust and resurrection,” says Knoell.

In 1883, the Boom Period started. The Marquis de Mores, an entrepreneurial Frenchman, moved west, claimed the area and named the town Medora, after his wife. The couple built their chateau and started a meat packing plant. Around the same time, Theodore Roosevelt moved to the area and established his two ranches. “It was a time of the true wild west. There were no real rules on who owned land, and everyone was cattle ranching,” says Knoell.

In 1907, the de Mores’ meat packing plant burned down, and the couple moved back east. The Bust Period started in 1908, when the community experienced a severe drought, no running water or electricity and cattle overpopulation.

Medora had dirt roads and no running water until 1962, the start of the Resurrection Period spurred by Harold Schafer, a businessman from Stanton. Schafer was successful in multiple business ventures including the Gold Seal Company and Mr. Bubble. “Harold bought the Rough Riders Hotel from Nita Organ, a widow, whose husband, Ivan, had won it in a poker game,” says Knoell. “He restored the hotel, and this sparked his desire to make Medora what is it today.”

In the winter of 1958, Schafer worked with a producer from Minneapolis to create a family-friendly patriotic show that paid tribute to Theodore Roosevelt. On July 1, 1965, Schafer’s dream came true and Teddy Roosevelt Rides Again: a Medora Musical premiered. 

In 1986, the TRMF, a public non-profit organization, was formed from a multi-million-dollar gift from Schafer and his family. The TRMF now manages many activities, hotels and restaurants in Medora including the Medora Musical, Gospel Brunch, Rough Riders Hotel, Medora Campground, Badland Pizza and Saloon, and many more. “Harold really brought new life to Medora with hotels, restaurants and shopping,” says Knoell.

Since this resurrection period, the de Mores Chateau has been renovated and many wonderful museums have also been built in the community.

 

The Old and the New

“Part of the charm of Medora that I get to hear in my job is people saying, ‘I love Medora because it never changes.’ It is a fun balance between people who have been coming to see the Medora Musical for 50 years and those who have been coming for a few years,” says Knoell. “Medora may feel like it never changes, and it has that old world feeling, but there really is so much that has been added over the last 50 years.”

She notes the town has changed greatly, including the addition of new shows downtown, the Bully Pulpit Golf Course, the Chateau de Mores historic site and the Maah Daah Hey trail.

Medora’s latest project is the Point to Point Park. “Point to Point Park got its name from a game Theodore Roosevelt used to play with his kids all the way up to French Diplomats and people of great social standards. The theory was ‘spin a dizzy kid and wherever they go you follow’ and you must find a way to go up, through, under, but you must never go around an obstacle,” says Knoell. “It is a fun tie to the history of Theodore Roosevelt.”

Point to Point Park will be completed in three phases. Phase One, which opened in 2020, includes a new 18-hole mini golf course, Little Bully Pulpit, which is modeled after Bully Pulpit Golf Course. The first nine holes are located where the entire old mini golf course was located on the east end of the town, and the back nine holes are carved into the buttes. Last year, the renovated mini-golf course set a record of 3,000 games in one day. The first phase also included a zipline that goes up half-way up the large butte that overlooks Medora.

Phase Two’s attractions will open this summer and include Pancratz Trail. The trail starts on the east end of Medora, near the mini golf course. “The two-mile loop leads you to the top of the bluff that overlooks Medora,” says Knoell, adding the hiking is free and open to all ages. “There is an old story about when Harold took his son, Ed, up there. Harold said, ‘Wow, look at that view’ and Ed said, ‘There is nothing there.’ It is ironic, as now there is so much to see.”

Phase Three is expected to open in July 2022, and includes a lazy river, zero-entry pool, splash pad, and jump pillows.

 

The Medora Musical

The Medora Musical is the largest attraction in Medora. Over the past five years, the show’s attendance has averaged 117,000 attendees annually. “Attendance numbers have grown quite a bit since the musical started in 1965,” says Knoell. “The musical used to open in July and now we start the show in June.”P1002609.jpg

From 1965 to 2020, more than four million people have seen the Medora Musical. “Medora has added many different attractions over the last 50 years, but a few major milestones have been made,” says Knoell. “The Medora Musical celebrating its 50th anniversary in 2015 was a major achievement.”

She adds the Medora Musical is one of the longest running outdoor shows in the United States. “In the start, Schafer bought buses, brought them to Medora and paid people to see the show. It is fun to see the show evolve to a world-class, Broadway-level show.”

In 1991, renovations were made to the Burning Hills Amphitheatre, home of the Medora Musical. The facelift included replacing wooden-plank benches with seats, pouring concrete for the stage and adding a seven-story tall escalator, which is nation’s longest running outdoor escalator.

“Recently MedP1002174.jpgora received a $1 million gift from the Englestad Foundation to add dual elevators,” says Knoell. “It will really help those with mobility issues and being able to welcome more guests.”

Construction will start this year and the elevators will be open in 2022. “We have so much pride in the show we put on and in a town that people can come visit and always have a good time,” says Knoell.

Even with COVID-19’s impact on the state and community in 2020, the Medora Musical went on; however, parameters were put into place for both staff and guests to still feel comfortable, safe and welcome. Some of these COVID-19 protocols were really beneficial, notes Knoell. “Adding an additional early Medora Musical show has been loved by families with small children. Kids are still able to see the show and get to bed at a decent time,” she says. “Guests will be spaced out during the show and dismissing guests row-by-row after the show also really helped traffic down the hill.”

She says the two shows will run most weekends throughout the summer.

 

Additional Attractions

Medora has many different activities for history buffs, sport enthusiasts, outdoor adventurers, musical lovers, and foodies. “No matter what your interests are - history, musicals, outdoor recreation - it all comes together in Medora,” says Knoell, adding, in addition to offerings by TRMF, the community is home to many privately-owned businesses. In 2004, Bully Pulpit Golf Course opened, offering breathtaking views of the North Dakota Badlands. Bully Pulpit was rated one of the top 100 golf courses in 2013 by Golf Digest. “A new campaign, Legacy PB, will move some holes on the course away from the Little Missouri River to better preserve the riverbed, prevent flooding issues and repair the course,” says Knoell.

She notes this summer, some temporary holes will be used, and the full course will be open next spring. Construction on this project started in 2020 and will be completed in 2022.

The Pitchfork Steak Fondue is held nightly overlooking the Medora Musical Amphitheatre. Steaks are put on to a pitchfork and fondued for guests to enjoy. “The meal also includes a buffet of fresh fruit, salad, coleslaw, vegetables, baked beans, garlic toast, baked potatoes, brownies, cinnamon-sugar donuts, lemonade, and coffee,” says Knoell. “The most steaks ever fondued was 1,700 in 40 minutes.”

Another upcoming addition to the community is the Theodore Roosevelt Presidential Library, with plans to break ground in early 2022 and open in 2025. Knoell says she is looking forward to the Theodore Roosevelt Presidential Library’s impact on musical attendance numbers and other attractions in town.

 

Diverse Visitors and Staff

“There is something so special about Medora and the Badlands. It is an escape from everyday life,” says Knoell,

She notes 60 percent of Medora’s visitors are North Dakota residents and 40 percent are from across the country and the world. “Medora is unique because it has so many ties from de Mores and his wife being from France and bringing that history over to Theodore Roosevelt coming out and being a primpy New Yorker and then finding his way becoming the cowboy president to Harold Schafer being a businessman and rebuilding the town. There are so many influences in the town that have helped us keep the western heritage while still evolving the town,” says Knoell.

Many of the individuals working in Medora each summer also hail from across the world. “We have a really diverse work culture. In a typical year, we normally have employees from every state and 26 countries,” says Knoell.

Due to COVID-19, however, more roles have been filled with local employees instead of international staff. To keep the town and its many attractions running, Medora has 55 year-round employees, 310 seasonal employees and 600 volunteers. “It takes a lot of people to make it happen,” says Knoell.

“Although it feels like Medora never changes, we are always adding new things. We are reflecting on the past 50 years, but we are also looking forward to ‘Vision 2065,’ which will mark the 100th anniversary of the Medora Musical,” Knoell continues. “We have fun plans in place to expand western heritage, outdoor adventure and family fun. It is the Medora that was there when I was a kid, but it will continue to grow so families have something to look forward to.”

Tickets for the Medora Musical and other events are on sale now. For more information and for a full list of attractions visit Medora.com or call 1-800-MEDORA-1.

 

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