MEDORA, N.D. (KXNET) — Ever since its inception in June, KX’s One-Day Destinations series has taken you on trips to some of the most significant and eye-catching places throughout the Peace Garden State. However, in recent times, we’ve branched out and covered everything from Minot to Knife River — meaning the door is now open to more off-the-beaten-path locations ripe for photography and visitation. In the case of today’s column, we can now visit a location our travel writer has been wanting to for some time — the city of Medora, otherwise known as North Dakota’s premiere tourist destination. How does such a small city maintain such a gigantic presence in ND Tourism? The answer is one that lies in its history, as well as the famous faces who have endorsed it over the years.
The story of Medora officially began in April of 1883, when Antoine de Vallombrosa — better known as the Marquis de Mores — founded it on six acres of land, and christened it in honor of his wife (the former Medora Von Hoffman). From there, he financed several businesses in town, including a hotel, multiple stores, and most importantly, a meat packing plant and slaughterhouse. His original plan was to use the town to set up a range-to-slaughter plant, where cuts would quickly be loaded onto refrigerated train cars and carried to markets in the East — creating both a way for citizens to get high-quality meat for lower prices and a method of capitalizing off the growing cattle boom in the west. While a promising idea, it, like many of the Marquis’s business ventures, ended in failure, and in 1886, he returned to France with his family. However, it’s important to note that the history of the area itself goes back even earlier than the Marquis’s misadventures, and even includes an entirely different town.
“Medora is North Dakota’s number one tourism spot,” explains Medora City Council member Doug Ellison, “but along with that, there’s a lot of history here, which attracts a lot of people. Back in the fur trade days, the French trappers gave the Badlands their name. One of Lewis and Clark’s men came down the river in 1804, and a lot of hunters came out after that. The railroad came through in 1880, and that really opened the area up for settlement. There was a military post here at the time, and a small town called Little Missouri sprang up around it. Soon after that, the Marquis arrived. Visitors had always come to the Badlands, and that helped spread the tourism activity early.”
During this same time period, Theodore Roosevelt — the man who would later become one of the most respected and admired presidents of the United States — arrived in the area to hunt buffalo, and became so enthralled by the area that he purchased two ranches nearby. Roosevelt would later go on to say that these years were “the romance of his life”, and credited his experiences in ND (and Medora in particular) as the reason he was able to hold the highest office in the country. The city latched on to this, and proudly wears its love for Roosevelt on its sleeve to this day.
Despite being abandoned by its founder, Medora continued to be an active part of North Dakota’s landscape over the years– especially in Billings County, where it serves as the county seat and its’ only incorporated place. From the 1920s to the 1940s, the city was kept alive by three large coal mines. In 1962, it would receive a major upgrade and modernization when Harold Schafer, owner of the Gold Seal Company (best known for Mr. Bubble bubble bath), set out to restore it. Nowadays, his work in uplifting and upgrading Medora is carried out by the Theodore Roosevelt Medora Foundation — the city’s acting leaders — and the independent business owners who call the area home.
“When people come to visit,” Ellison continues, “they need services. A place to stay, a place to eat, and things to do. That sparked Medora’s development into a tourist town. We’re a town of just over 100 permanent residents, but we see over a quarter million people a year come through. Tourism is up and down — some years are better than others, of course — but generally, it’s a good tourist attraction, and it supports a lot of businesses here.”
Their efforts, it seems, have certainly come to fruition: Medora is often referred to as North Dakota’s premiere destination for state residents and those just passing through alike, and sports everything from museums to musicals — a very rare feat in a state like ND. Although it’s much smaller than the likes of Bismarck, Minot, or Fargo in terms of both population and physical size, it more than makes up for this through the sheer number of guests it draws, both from inside and outside of the country. As a Medora resident for over 30 years, Ellison, who is also the owner of Western Edge Books in town, has seen this worldwide draw firsthand.
“A lot has changed since I moved here,” he recalls. “The south side of Medora has been developed much more, with streets and infrastructure. The north side has expanded, and plenty of new businesses have come to town.”
As a result of this tourism and development, the tiny territory packs a surprising punch when it comes to both entertainment and natural splendor — which, coincidentally, also makes it a perfect place to visit as one of our One-Day ND Destinations. Or, perhaps Two-Day ND Destinations would be a more fitting term in this case — as it turns out, the city of Medora and the badlands surrounding it are so jam-packed with sights, sounds, shows, and scenery to snapshot that our travel correspondent was unable to complete it all in a single day. As such, we’ll also be splitting this edition of the column into two halves as well, beginning with some of the highlights one can expect from the cultural and artistic side of the city. If you haven’t visited it yourself already, we hope that this will sway you to do just that, and show how much more there is to Medora than meets the eye.
The Biggest Little City in ND
For an area with such a reputation as a tourist hotspot, it may come as a shock to some that Medora’s population is actually rather low — according to Ellison, there are only 100 or so permanent residents who live there at any given time, many of whom own or staff the local businesses and organizations. A large number of the town’s employees are actually from study/work abroad programs from around the world, and during our own trip, we met young employees from Poland, Romania, Moldova, and plenty of other countries. As is typical for a tourist town, the area boasts a large number of local businesses and souvenir stores — and stepping inside the small buildings presents visitors with all kinds of delights, ranging from house-made taffy to presidential history books to ‘official’ Teddy Bears in honor of the man who inspired the popular children’s toy.
It isn’t a good vacation spot without good places to eat, of course, and Medora has plenty of those, too, including full bars, sit-down restaurants, and ice cream parlors. Arguably the most famous of these is Pitchfork Steak Fondue — where guests can enjoy a steak quickly cooked in a bath of hot lard, a selection of side dishes, and a spectacular view. The eatery is also located right next to the butte on which the Medora Musical takes place, and as a result, is often combined with the show to create a scenic summer evening.
For those who don’t wish to wait until the evening to be entertained in Medora, however, the city also offers plenty of historic and humorous events for guests to enjoy. The Old Town Hall Theater offers not only a magic show, but a conversation with the area’s favorite former president himself — the Teddy Roosevelt Show features world-renowned Roosevelt reprisor Joe Wiegand as he shares stories, wisdom, and wit from the Bull Moose himself.
There are also multiple free events that occur in the town throughout the summer. The Adventures with the Roosevelts series offers guests the opportunity to sit down with Theodore and Edith Roosevelt over tea or games as they discuss raising children, their marriage, and more, and The Great American Folk Show provides guests with an evening of tales and songs from around the nation featuring native North Dakota performers. For those seeking an early morning adventure, the stage play Legendary: A Campfire Tale features two longtime members of the Medora Musical and a cast of colorful characters (including Teddy Roosevelt, Harold Schafer, and popular city icon Sheriff Bear) as they help a young camper learn about the past, present, and future of Medora. Like the musical, however, these activities only take place on certain days, so it’s best to review the city’s events catalog before planning a trip.
However, even if none of these shows are open, there is certainly one fascinating exhibit in Medora which is available year-round….
Cowboy Hall of Fame (and Museum)
As events like the Mandan Rodeo have proved, North Dakota is a powerhouse when it comes to the arts of roping and riding. As such, it’s only natural that this legacy would be honored somewhere to honor the state’s contributions to the sport — and given its’ already existing themes of the wild west and rough riding, there’s no better place than Medora. The idea fits perfectly into this hot hideaway, and as a result, the Cowboy Hall of Fame has been viewed as a favorite indoor attraction for many who come to town.
Despite what the name may imply, much like Medora itself, there is far more to the Cowboy Hall of Fame than just a photo gallery. The first floor of the building is actually a full museum, and houses a series of exhibits chronicling the history and heroes of rodeo. In addition to displaying classic rodeo gear, saddles, and stories, the museum segment of the building pays tribute to the legendary cowboys of North Dakota with monuments, interviews, and memorabilia from their long and illustrious careers — and with the aid of videos, even allows guests to see these famous riders in action.
“It’s our job to preserve the western heritage of North Dakota,” says the Hall of Fame’s executive director Rick Thompson. “We go back to the 1800s, and pull together those history-making moments… that’s what you see inside. We really should say the North Dakota Cowboy Hall of Fame and Cultural Center. We want to bring in those things that make history as they’re happening. The things that happen today will be important things 30, 40, and 50 years from now. When we’re no longer here, we want those to be remembered.”
There’s even a small exhibit dedicated entirely to ND’s famous Chad Berger Bucking Bulls, where one can find a commemorative statue of the famous Little Yellow Jacket. This seven-foot-tall bronze idol, created in honor of the famous bull, was first revealed in his birth city of Mandan in April of 2022 before being transported to its permanent home in the museum. (Our travel correspondent would know… he also wrote the original story about its unveiling.)
It’s worth noting that the museum goes far beyond just cowboys and the art of rodeo, however: many of the exhibits feature information about the early days of life and civilization in Medora, including fossils and displays of Native American art, masks, and stories. One of the most intriguing of these is a vest that is believed to have belonged to Sitting Bull himself, although the identity of its owner has never truly been confirmed. Another early exhibit goes into detail about the processes of early ranching, homesteading, and cattle driving, and includes (among other things) a replica cabin, a selection of cowboy clothing, and an old-school cattle scale.
Rest assured, though, that the Hall of Fame aspect is still alive and well inside the building. Venturing up to the second floor of the establishment presents visitors with a fitting hall of fame decorated with custom-made metal sculptures, as well as plaques, wall displays, and photographs of memorable cowboys and rodeo all-stars throughout the sport’s history. While not everyone will recognize these names, it’s fascinating to see just how many cowboys played important parts in promoting the art of rodeo, and the impact they still have on ropers and riders to this day.
“The epitome of professional rodeo is world champions,” continues Thompson, “and in North Dakota, we’ve had three: Brad Germinson, Alvin Nelson, and Wayne Herman. I think everyone’s goal is to be a world champion when they’re a young kid. It’s not an easy thing to obtain, but that’s the dream. We want to celebrate the people who have represented our state, and the effect they’ll have on the next generation of dreamers.”
In a sense, the Cowboy Hall of Fame serves a unique parallel to the Medora Musical. While both serve the purpose of educating visitors about the history of the western US in an eye-catching manner, the Musical does so by shining a light on iconic historical figures and events limited to the area. The museum, in contrast, offers a more focused, in-depth look at the actual culture of Western life throughout the years, as well as how its legacy is upheld through nationwide sports. When one takes in both of these attractions during a visit, they can not only gather an understanding of Medora’s most famous figures and tales, but also of the world that surrounded them — as well as how the memories of these early practices live on to this day. And true to this ideal, it’s time to tie the past, present, and future of Medora together by taking a look at what many consider to be its biggest offering.
It would simply be wrong to take a trip to Medora during the summer without spending the night at the town’s most famous attraction… which, ironically, isn’t actually located in the town itself. On a nearby butte overlooking the badlands lies the Burning Hills Amphitheatre, where an extensive old west-themed set, and the setting sun serve as the backdrop for the Medora Musical — a show-stopping end to any trip to this tiny western town.
The Medora Musical was yet another creation of Harold Schafer in his attempts to help transform the town. Unbeknownst to many, however, the venue actually existed much earlier. The National Memorial Park and Badlands Association used to host a show known as ‘Ol’ Four Eyes’ (which also retold the life of Theodore Roosevelt in the badlands of ND) in the same area, but after they discontinued it in March of 1965, Schafer purchased both the theater’s assets and the area it was built on. The following May, Harold married Sheila Chinn Limond, a theater major from the University of Minnesota, and the two would set to work on creating what we now know as the Medora Musical. The first show, as one might expect, was a monumental success — and although time has gone by, it remains an iconic part of Medora’s cultural scene during the summer months. But what is it that keeps bringing people in — and moreover, keeps them coming back year after year?
The Medora Musical focuses on the founding and important events that took place in the city throughout history — including the exploits of Harold Schafer, Joe Ferris, and Theodore Roosevelt– and features a cast of talented singers, dancers, and even horses that change every season. The multiple-hour revue covers all aspects of musical theater, including choreographed routines from both the Burning Hills Singers and the Medora Cloggers as well as live accompaniment from the theater’s own Coal Diggers Band. While the general focus and storyline of the Medora Musical have remained relatively unchanged since its inception, slight alterations are made every season.
“The show has grown, but in many ways, it’s still similar to the original performance from 1965,” says the Theodore Roosevelt Foundation’s Director of Entertainment and Attraction Kinley Slauter. “I’d characterize it as more of a variety show than just a musical. A lot of the elements that are in it today were in it from the start — like the gospel number, the patriotic number, and the focus on Theodore Roosevelt. Recently, we’ve made a conscious effort to improve the music selection, and you’ll hear more modern songs from different genres besides country. We’ve been getting great feedback about this year’s show, and we have a fantastic group of vocalists and a stellar band to thank for that.”
This year, the Musical honors the 125th anniversary of Roosevelt’s famous charge up San Juan Hill in Cuba (the very same event that the show’s climax is based on) by including more focus on the future president’s stories and affairs than in some previous years. Additional extra features for the 2023 season include three featured acts (the Canine Stars, the Paul Bunyan Lumberjack Show, and comedian Michael Palascak), as well as multiple new songs and dance numbers. Although one would think that sticking to one idea for over 50 seasons would be grating, especially for those who have spent multiple years on this same stage, returning cast members say that this balance between the old and new can actually be helpful for the performers and the guests.
“This is my seventh summer at the musical,” says Burning Hills Singer Damon Fichter, “and I’ve been going to it my whole life. Over the years, you start to notice some bigger changes, but it still feels like not much is different. It’s the same base every year, so you have the same things to look forward to, but the music always changes. Whether there are changes to the script or the music every year, it’s always something. It’s such a family tradition for so many people here growing up that these changes don’t usually matter in the grand scheme of things, as long as you can still enjoy the atmosphere and the incredible setting. Honestly, it’s one of the main reasons that performers like me come back, too… sometimes doing the exact same thing every day of every year can be exhausting, but we keep it fresh on stage. I might get tired if I did the same performance every summer, but I’m always excited to see what’s new whenever I come back.”
When one adds together the stunning performance, the venue itself, the mix of old and new, and the tourism it brings to the small town itself, it’s no surprise that the musical would serve as Medora’s pride and joy.
“Being a tradition of so many for so long now, especially in North Dakota, there’s pretty palpable pride for the musical,” Slauter states. “On any given night, you’ll hear guests say that state residents are always recommending it. It’s fantastic to have that sort of support, and be a part of so many people’s traditions. I think it’s awesome to get paid to do something you love, and that’s absolutely true for both me and the performers — being a part of something that is so important to so many people, both visitors and team members is a feeling unlike any other. And while the art of the show has grown from its more modest start to a full-blown spectacle, its heart, to me, remains the same.”
The show has undoubtedly changed throughout its many years, but as far as tourists, North Dakotans, and performers alike believe, its messages of faith, patriotism, and imagination have always remained the same — and presumably, will continue to remain so as long as Medora itself.
If you’re hoping to see the musical this year, there’s still time to head out and get tickets before the season ends. Performances of the 2023 Medora Musical will continue until September 9th, and tickets are available on the show’s website. There are only a few nights left at the time of writing this article, so be sure to see it while you still can.
Despite the abundance of outdoor events featured in many travel pieces regarding the city (including this one, to be fair), it’s important to note that Medora isn’t just a summer vacation spot. There are plenty of things to do in spring, fall, and winter, even without taking the musical or other outdoor fare into account. The restaurants, shops, and museums of the town are always open, as is the nearby national park. This means that there’s always something to enjoy, making it North Dakota’s equivalent to a perfect one-day ND Destination any time of year — if not for the scenery, then for the unique mix of small-town charm and big-city entertainment unlike anything else in the state.
For those looking towards the future, Medora has one final surprise in store: it’s been chosen as the building site for the Theodore Roosevelt Presidential Library, which will serve as another indoor attraction hosting memorabilia and relics from the president’s past. While construction is still ongoing, one is already able to view the building site during their typical explorations of the city, as it’s located only a mile west of the Burning Hills Amphitheatre on the same plateau. Currently, the grand opening is scheduled for July of 2026 — which lines up perfectly with the 250th anniversary of the United States.
“We’re hoping and assuming that that will be a big draw,” states Ellison, “and help put not just North Dakota, but the entire state on the map.”
Despite all this advancement, though, the residents of Medora strive to maintain their charm, and become a place that is both wonderful and welcoming. Judging from the responses they have received, it appears that they are doing quite well in that regard.
“A lot of people comment that even with all the visitors that Medora has,” Ellison concludes, “it still has that small-town feel to it, and that’s good to hear. We do strive to keep that essence here, and from what people say, we do a good job at that.”
A trip to Medora wouldn’t be complete without spending some time in the great outdoors, especially by venturing into Theodore Roosevelt National Park and the other interesting outdoor attractions located nearby — and rest assured, we’ll be discussing them in time as well. Next week, KX News continue our One-Day ND Destinations series with a look at the more natural side of the area. But until then, let us know some of your favorite places to visit in Medora to eat, shop, and visit on our Facebook pages, and keep an eye out for the second half of this super-sized travel series soon!