THE DYNAMIC DAKOTAS
MARY MOORE MASON WALKS THROUGH RAPID CITY, SOUTH DAKOTA WITH 42 FORMER US PRESIDENTS AND THEN FOLLOWS ONE OF THE MOST CHARISMATIC TO HIS LOG CABIN IN MEDORA, NORTH DAKOTA.
Aformer US President is here to greet me on almost every street corner in downtown Rapid City, South Dakota. Beside me is film star-turnedpresident Ronald Reagan, dapper in western garb; nearby, Thomas Jefferson is working away on his Declaration of Independence; on down the street John F Kennedy is handing a toy airplane to his young son, John; and then there’s George Washington, resplendent in his Revolutionary War uniform. Why are they here?
It all began with Abraham Lincoln. Noticing the appeal to Rapid City visitors of the life-size, seated statue of ‘Honest Abe’ in the town, newly-arrived businessman Don Perdue decided that more people would come to and perhaps settle in the community if it became the ‘City of Presidents’. In 1999, with the support of local realtor Dallerie Davis, the arts community and various benefactors, the decision was made to produce and install bronze statues of all former presidents within a decade. In the spring of next year they will be joined by Barack Obama, the 43rd U S president to join the parade.
The statues are not just static, quite individual works of art – they double as bases for special events. On the anniversary of D-Day, soldiers arrive to lay flowers by the statue of the World War II Allied Forces high commander and future president ‘Ike’ Eisenhower; on the eve of former President Reagan’s death, there was a prayer vigil at his site plus commemorative flowers, flags and jelly beans (one of his favourite treats); on International Women’s Day, posters bearing the images of the various First Ladies are placed next to their respective
spouses; on cold winter days, scarves are sometimes placed around the presidents’ necks; and now, as I stroll down the street, balloons are attached for no apparent reasons to a number of statues.
Perdue told potential visitors: “You have seen four presidents on Mount Rushmore National Memorial, now come to Rapid City and see the rest of the family,” but I decide to reverse the procedure and head 24 miles south to Keystone … and there they all are – the four gigantic, mountaintop, carved heads of Presidents Washington, Jefferson, Theodore Roosevelt and Lincoln.
Indulging in a vanilla ice cream cone, inspired by a recipe bought back from France by President Jefferson, I stroll with a guide down the flag-bordered promenade at the base of the monument, learning more all along the way. The great endeavour took sculptor Gutzon Borglum and his team of about 400 people from 1927-1941 to complete and was not just a tribute to four great presidents but to what Borglum said they represented – “the founding, expansion, preservation and unification of the United States”.
Hikers who want to get closer to the top of the monument can now do so via the new Blackberry Trail, which connects with the established Centennial Trail.
What a help that might have been to Cary Grant and Eva Marie Saint in their effort to escape from the mountaintop lair of villainous James Mason in Hitchcock’s great 1959 thriller North by Northwest.
But then we would not have had the pleasure of viewing them slithering down the face of Abraham Lincoln.
ON TO NORTH DAKOTA
Perhaps the most flamboyant of all former presidents, Teddy Roosevelt also crops up in the picturesque town of Medora, North Dakota. I’m briefed on local lore by Medora expert Daniel Gannarelli over cocktails in The Rough Riders Hotel, where Teddy once stayed. Then I admire the president’s bronze statue, garbed in Rough Rider uniform, on a local street corner and his small, neat Maltese Cross Cabin just inside the South Unit of Theodore Roosevelt National Park. Named for a carving in one of its logs, it was moved here from a more remote place.
The wealthy young New Yorker first came to the area to hunt bison in 1883. So charmed was he by the starkly beautiful Badlands scenery that he bought a ranch, which, along with another, purchased later, became his sanctuary the following year after the death of his mother and wife (the latter in childbirth) on the same day.
Medora was founded by another remarkable man, the young, French Marquis de Mores, a sometime friend, sometime adversary of Roosevelt. Naming the fledgling community after his wife, the daughter of a wealthy New York banker, he set about establishing a ranching and meat-packing empire. Alas, it failed in 1886 and the family returned to France, leaving behind only the ruins of the packing plant and the ‘Chateau De Mores’, which, I discover, is really a 26-room frame farmhouse filled with Victorian furniture and memorabilia.
To understand Roosevelt’s love of the area better, I set out on a 36-mile drive through the South Unit of the 70,000acre National Park that bears his name. Among the dramatic hills of multicoloured clay and grasslands leading down to the Little Missouri River are grazing bison and wild horses, ‘towns’ of busy little prairie dogs and an abandoned ranch. At the park ranger’s advice, I opt not to venture onwards to the site of Roosevelt’s Elkhorn Ranch as it can only be reached by 25 miles of steep, unpaved roads and there are no remains of the original eight-room ranch house.
Although Roosevelt’s ranching endeavours eventually failed, the riding and leadership skills he acquired in the process stood him in good stead when he established and led the Rough Riders equestrian troops during the Spanish-American War. Returning a hero from Cuba’s Battle of San Juan Hill, he was drafted into politics and, during his 19011909 presidency, used his love of nature and the outback to work with Congress in the creation of five national parks, 150 national forests and dozens of federal preserves. As he said in 1918: “I never would have been President if it had not been for my experiences in North Dakota.”