The Medora Musical, Part Three

Medora was founded in 1883 by the Marquis de Mores, a impoverished French aristocrat with rare entrepreneurial imagination, driven by the burning, if unlikely, ambition to “restore” himself to the French throne. Darkly handsome, he snared Medora von Hoffman (daughter of a New York banking scion), and whisked her and her $3 million dowry to the Dakota Badlands. In his mind, it was the perfect place to establish a personal fiefdom, to put in motion the business machines that would guarantee a big financial future. He built a 26-room ranch house and filled it with opulent furniture and rich oriental carpets. From his shiny plate glass windows he could watch the horizon vanish into the vast, unsettled terrain on the edge of Western settlement and expansion.

Ahead of his time?—a megalomaniac of absurd proportions? Who can say anymore. He was certainly major entertainment for New York society, who watched and reported as venture after venture began with fanfare and ended in failure. He envisioned raising and slaughtering the grass-fed cattle of the local ranchlands, and transporting the beef via refrigerated train cars to clamorous demand nationwide. Effectively, Medora would become the next Chicago. Chicago’s industry refused to budge—within three years, bad weather and drought killed the cattle anyway. (The 26,500 foot meatpacking plant stood empty for 30 years, until—according to legend—some boys from Chicago, emissaries of smoldering embers of resentment, burned the place down. All that remains is a single smokestack, lone and magnificent like the Washington monument, reaching up towards the sky in the middle of something that looks like it’s never been anything other than a field.)

By 1887, other settlers who had resentfully followed the Marquis and his money into Medora were bitterly glad to see him leave, fed up with his pottery out of Badlands clay, his plan for cross-country salmon shipping, his failed Cheyenne-Deadwood Stagecoach line, the temper that killed two local stockmen, the wealth that let him get away scot-free. He left the Medora venture behind him and pursued new failures in France and Indochina, ultimately meeting his end at the hands of Toureg natives in the Sahara Desert, during an unsuccessful attempt to drive the British out of North Africa. .

After the Marquis left, Medora quickly declined. The desperate winters of ’87 and ’88 killed any remaining cattle. With no cows and no nutty Frenchman throwing around his in-laws’ money, Medora should have just disappeared, blown into dust like a thousand other ghost towns begun in jerry-rigged fashion; towns never meant to last, born around brief industry, fertilized with dreams of easy money and new lives, killed by the sweat of struggling with a strange, unknowable, unconquerable land. Medora and the Marquis might have been only an entertaining and cautionary footnote in the mad history of the settling of the American West if not for its most famous, if briefest, resident: Teddy Roosevelt.

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