It’s 2016 and we are excited to see if we can romanticize and fantasize 1885. After a 30 mile gravel road drive from Interstate 94, we parked at a campsite and walked. We followed the slowly degrading road, from blacktop to gravel to a two-track trail. The grass was not mowed, the site was not lit with powerful overhead street lights. There were no pop machines, no shaded picnic benches.
We had heard Theodore Roosevelt’s ranch site was undeveloped, and that was fine with us.
It meant we had a greater chance of seeing his formative Badlands estate much like the way it was for him. What was the magic here that took a broken man and transformed him in to a “man’s man,” a bold combat vet, a corruption-fighting politician and a U.S. President?
It takes a bit of imagination to get out of the digital noisy world of the 21st Century to feel, smell, hear and burrow in to the 19th Century. You can do it at TR’s Elkhorn Ranch site.
“The whole country seems to be one tangle chaos of canyon-like valleys, winding gullies and washouts with abrupt, unbroken sides, isolated peaks of sandstone, marl, or ‘gumbo’ clay, which rain turns in to slippery glue, and hill chains the ridges of which always end in sheer cliffs.” — Ranch Life and the Hunting Trail
Roosevelt wrote of the region as having a “melancholy beauty.” “The lives of men in such places are strangely cut off from the outside world,” he wrote in Ranch Life and the Hunting Trail. That is what healed him after losing his wife and his mother in the same day. Its healing was so thorough and so strengthening he credited his Elkhorn Ranch days as giving him the fortitude to run for President of the United States.
“Nebraska and Dakota, east of the Missouri River, resemble Minnesota and Iowa and the states farther east, but Montana and the Dakota cow country show more kinship with Texas” —Ranch Life and the Hunting Trail
It’s that untamed spirit that prompted us to find our way from our primitive campsite, a mile up the road to the site of where Roosevelt wrote extensively.
“By mid-October Sewall and Dow had moved onto the site of the Elkhorn Ranch and were cutting and collecting cottonwood logs for the ranch house. Working through the winter, they completed the building by the spring of 1885. The house was 30 feet by 60 feet, with seven foot high walls, and contained eight rooms and a piazza (porch) along the east wall. Several other buildings were constructed on the site: a barn consisting of two 16 x 20 stables with a 12 foot roofed space connecting them; a cattle shed; chicken house; and a blacksmith shop.”
That’s the same sense of rawness that organizers of the Theodore Roosevelt Presidential Library at Dickinson State University (DSU) are duplicating. They are rebuilding the Elkhorn Ranch cabin exactly as it was — and in exactly the same methods of 1887 – by hand, not power tools.
In October, this year, organizers invited everyone to come in and try their hand at using 19th Century tools on the cottonwood logs that will become the Elkhorn Ranch cabin. It’s not an easy task to find and handle the tools of 100 years ago.
Thanks to Roosevelt’s diary, work crews know exactly the step-by-step procedure he used to build his 1887 cabin.
Not just any carpenter can do it, though. That’s why organizers are fortunate to find Dick Bickel. The South Dakota man and his work crew will cut and shape the logs for the walls.
They’ve gone so far as to use cottonwood trees that were cut from along the river and hauled to the work site — and they’re looking for more. (Excuse their departure from original techniques as they used a modern semi-truck to haul in the logs.)
It’s a mighty humble start for what is expected to be a $100 million facility.
Architects propose a building that carries the sweeping curves and lines of the Badlands with the colors and appearance of the natural earth.
Constructing the Elkhorn Ranch cabin is the first step in bringing the $100 million Theodore Roosevelt Presidential Library closer to reality on the northwest side of the DSU campus. You don’t need to wait for the site to be completed. Even though it is 2016, and the completion date is years away, it is still possible to experience 1885 without the museum.
If you were given the choice, would you rather go to the original site, the planned museum, or both?
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