History and the Cottonwood Harvest

Sandi and Joe Frenzel have no regrets about cutting down an old-growth live cottonwood tree on their Little Missouri Cattle Ranch along the banks of the river where Theodore Roosevelt once rode. The tree is one of many harvested from heritage ranches in the North Dakota badlands that will be used to build the authentic reproduction of TR’s Elkhorn Ranch Cabin at the Theodore Roosevelt Presidential Library (TRPL) in Dickinson.

“I’ve always been intrigued by Theodore Roosevelt,” said Sandi Frenzel. “When I found out about the project, I wanted to have a log in that cabin.”

TRPLF Roosevelt Scholar Clay Jenkinson, left, and Jonathan Odermann use a cross-cut saw to cut down a cottonwood tree at the Little Missouri Cattle Ranch as Joe Frenzel looks on.

The idea that Theodore Roosevelt would have ridden his horse across the land she and Joe ranch is close to her heart, she said. The Frenzels are starting their 20th year running a Black Angus cow-calf operation.

A self-proclaimed people person, Sandi said what draws her to the ranch is the stunning views of the badlands, the solitude, and the connection to nature.

“There’s spirituality in the badlands that TR understood, and I get it,” she said. “I’m not sure what it is, but I felt it the first time I went there as a child. You are closer to nature out there.”

She doesn’t have a preference about where the log she and her husband donated is used in the cabin, just so it is part of the cabin. And it will be. All of the logs donated by ranchers have been carefully marked and, as cabin construction begins, a diagram will be made indicating exactly where each log is placed. This diagram will become part of the permanent exhibit at the Elkhorn Ranch Cabin, along with the story of a winter’s log harvest in the badlands of North Dakota.

John Hanson

John Hanson

The driving force behind the log harvest operation was one man – John Hanson.

Hanson and his wife, Jennifer, own and operate the Logging Camp Ranch near Amidon, ND.

Hanson was motivated to become involved in part because of his great esteem for Theodore Roosevelt.

“TR had a mind and heart and content of character that I admire. He is an iconic American,” Hanson said. “He got things done.”

He wanted to help, he said, and he believed other ranchers would want to help, too.

“We could all work together and do something meaningful. You have to make a difference and you can’t make a difference not doing anything. The only way is to go do it,” he said.

In true TR fashion, Hanson began by contacting ranchers to ask if they would be interested in donating a tree. He then spent countless hours arranging visits, harvesting, and transporting the logs to the TRPL site in Dickinson.

He not only succeeded in helping to harvest more than 40 logs from 34 heritage ranches, he also had what he called “the time of his life.”

“I got to explore places in the badlands that I had never seen before and that I would not have had the opportunity to see,” he said. “It was wonderful working with all the ranchers, meeting them, hearing what they have to say. The hours I spent doing this were some of the most pleasurable hours I’ve spent in my life.”

The Little Missouri River flows from south to north. In the more than 250-mile span that Hanson traveled along the river to harvest logs, the furthest upriver was the Olson Jorgenson Ranch near Watford City, ND. This ranch was established in 1897 by Ole T. Olson, and is situated near the spot where Theodore Roosevelt apprehended the thieves who stole his boat just a year before, in the spring of 1886. It is likely Roosevelt passed right through part of the ranch on his trek to capture the thieves. 

Hazel Jorgenson has lived on the ranch her entire life. Her grandparents built a log cabin at the ranch in the late 1890s and her father, Gordon, was born there in 1902. 

Like TR’s Elkhorn, the cabin was built of cottonwood logs that grew along the riverbank. Later, Hazel and her husband Kelly ranched there with her parents, and eventually took over the ranching operation.

When she was asked to donate a live cottonwood tree to be used in reconstructing TR’s Elkhorn Ranch Cabin, she was in favor of it. She said she went out and looked at quite a few trees in several locations along the river that she thought would be suitable for the project. On a cool, mild day, with not much wind, the right tree was chosen and harvested. 

Hazel Jorgenson stands by the tree that was harvested from the Olson Jorgenson Ranch near Watford City, ND.

“It was a beautiful tree,” she said. “I wanted a log in the cabin to come from our ranch. I thought it would help restore history.”

The history of the ranching community and its connection to Theodore Roosevelt reverberates in the badlands along the Little Missouri River and in the cottonwood logs that will be used to build the first structure at the presidential library.

John Hanson said it best, perhaps, when he said, “I believe in the importance of TR in western North Dakota. I believe in peripheral things like the presidential library. The Elkhorn Cabin project is part of a larger project and that’s the whole point. How many times is the cabin going to be reconstructed? Once. There’s one train leaving town and you better be on it!”

To learn how you can “get on the train” and contribute to the Elkhorn Ranch Cabin project, click here.