Uncovering the Origins of the TR Presidential Library

Often, the Theodore Roosevelt Presidential Library Foundation (TRPLF) board members and staff are asked why a presidential library for Theodore Roosevelt is being built in Dickinson, North Dakota. Why here, why now, and why not in his home state of New York? These are simple questions with complex answers.

Undoubtedly, Oyster Bay, New York, would be a good place for TR’s presidential library. Roosevelt certainly loved Sagamore Hill, his home on Long Island. Yet his second home was in the rugged badlands along the Little Missouri River in western North Dakota.

Theodore Roosevelt 1884

Many people know that TR first visited the badlands in 1883 to hunt bison. He believed the “wild west” was disappearing along with the vast herds of buffalo that once roamed the Plains, and he wanted to get his trophy before it was too late. Something about the untamed west and the unfenced prairie spoke deeply to his soul, and he decided during that fall hunting trip to enter the cattle business. He invested in the Maltese Cross Ranch south of what is now Medora.

Many people also know that when he lost both his young wife and mother on the same day in 1884, he returned to the badlands and immersed himself in hard work and solitude to heal, establishing a second ranch, the Elkhorn, north of Medora.

In a 1904 letter to Senator Albert Fall, he wrote, “Do you know what chapter…in all my life…looking back over all of it…I would choose to remember, were the alternative forced upon me to recall one portion of it, and to have erased from my memory all other experiences? I would take the memory of my life on the ranch with its experiences close to nature and among the men who lived nearest her.”

The TRPLF Board firmly believes that TR himself would have been gratified to think that his presidential library would be built near the place that gave him one of the finest and most satisfying experiences of his life.

The beginnings

In 2005, conversations between Dickinson State University (DSU) leaders and Humanities Scholar Clay Jenkinson sparked an idea to begin a series of initiatives to raise the profile of Theodore Roosevelt in North Dakota and promote a deeper understanding of this remarkable, complicated, and compelling man and statesman.

Jenkinson had recently moved back to his home state and was passionate about the connection between TR and North Dakota. Theodore Roosevelt had, and continues to have, an enormous impact on the state, but even more captivating is the impact his experiences in what was then Dakota Territory had on him. It was during his sojourn in the west that Roosevelt began to formulate his conservation ideals, and it was also there that he came to admire and respect Abraham Lincoln’s “common man.”

The TR Initiative at DSU began by sponsoring scholarly programs and publications. It also undertook the creation of a digital archive to capture all things Roosevelt – correspondence, diaries, photographs, political cartoons, films, audio clips, scrapbooks, and other media – and to make them freely accessible worldwide via the internet.

Development and success

In 2009, this initiative was formally recognized by the North Dakota State Board of Higher Education as the Theodore Roosevelt Center. Over the past decade, the Center has digitized nearly 170,000 Roosevelt-related items. Nearly 44,000 of these records are currently available free of charge to anyone with internet access, anywhere in the world. This nationally acclaimed digital archive has become a go-to source for scholars, educators, and others interested in Roosevelt.

“Had we fully understood the breadth of this endeavor, it’s quite possible that we would not have had the courage to begin,” said TR Center Project Manager Sharon Kilzer with a laugh.

The success of the TR Center’s work inspired the 2013 North Dakota State Legislative Assembly to appropriated seed money for the construction of a national Theodore Roosevelt Presidential Library. The appropriation required that additional funds be raised from non-state sources. In June 2014 the city of Dickinson committed the funds to meet the challenge. In 2014-15, Hilferty and Associates, a leading museum consulting firm, helped create a master plan for the project. Shortly thereafter, the Theodore Roosevelt Presidential Library Foundation, an independent, not-for-profit 501c3 corporation, was created to finance, build, and operate the Presidential Library.

In 2016, the TRPLF secured a 27-acre parcel of property in Dickinson, on the northwest corner of the DSU campus.

Building for the future

The TRPLF has hired Mortenson Construction as the project management firm and JLG Architects as the architect of record. Fundraising is underway by national firm Ter Molen, Watkins and Brandt, and Fahlgren Mortine has been chosen as the national public relations firm.

Jenkinson is leading programming planning to determine what stories will be told in the TR Presidential Library and how they will be presented. This planning will inform both the design of the building and the exhibits. This summer, a flurry of activity will begin on the site with the authentic reconstruction of the Elkhorn Ranch Cabin replica.

When the TR Presidential Library building is complete, the TR Center will be housed within its walls. Coming full circle, the initiative that inspired the presidential library will take its rightful place front and center in the facility, and symposia and other educational activities hosted by the Center will be held there. Moreover, the visiting public will have a place to fully immerse themselves in all things Roosevelt through the digital archive, the museum that will tell the story of his entire life, and by visiting the nearby badlands where, he said, the romance of his life began.