The North Dakota Horizons magazine published a shorter version of “Sentinel on the Prairie” in their Summer 2020 edition and online.
The North Dakota Cowboy Hall of fame is celebrating its 25th anniversary. One man’s dream of preserving the stories and character of the state’s forebears has become a renowned center of western culture.
Phil Baird thought about this for a long time. So many stories and moments were passing through time, drifting like the wind across the prairies. Countless hours were spent embracing all the memories and history he could. He hated the thought these stories would be lost to time. Those moments wove together the fabric of America’s western history and were part of a great national epic. North Dakotan’s, who dreamed, sacrificed and persevered, deserved to be remembered.
Phil Baird had been a bronc rider and loved the rodeo. He was on the board of directors for the North Dakota Rodeo Association (NDRA) when the idea of a Cowboy Hall of Fame came to him. He approached the NDRA, but they resisted the idea.
Driving home from Minot’s Y’s Men Rodeo 40th anniversary reunion in 1994 with rodeo icon Evelyn Neuens, thoughts of preserving this rich history still consumed him. He decided to ask Neuens what she thought of starting a North Dakota Rodeo Hall of Fame. Through a myriad of activities and organizations, Neuens had devoted herself to promoting the cowboy way of life. Never one to sit idle, she was immediately and enthusiastically on board. It’s been 25 years since they decided to pursue the dream of the North Dakota Cowboy Hall of Fame (NDCHF), with no idea where this would take them or how successful they would be.
Beginning with gatherings to gauge public interest, organizers found there was indeed a desire to safeguard these remembrances, but they discovered rodeo stories were not enough. Rodeo was an offshoot of ranching and ranching came after the great trail drives and days of the open range. Before the cowboy, the Native American’s entire lifestyle was connected to the horse. The horse tied these different cultures and peoples together.
Founding board members were recruited with a range of talents, expertise and age. In February 1995, the NDCHF had its first board of directors in place. The new board approved a fundraising plan, drafted bylaws and discussed site selection criteria for a building. The board then launched a logo contest. The logo needed to express and acknowledge all the entities the NDCHF was honoring. The winning logo, still in use today, illustrates this with the tilt of the cowboy’s head, looking over his shoulder at the history behind him while looking to the right and ahead toward the future.
The perfect spot for the NDCHF location was found in Medora, where the Theodore Roosevelt Foundation gave the organization the original Museum of the Badlands building. The decision was made to take the old structure down and design and build a new building exclusively for the NDCHF.
In 1997, Darrell Dorgan was hired as the first executive director. He wrote, produced and anchored the long running program “Prairie News Journal.” Having a longtime love of North Dakota history and the rodeo, he did not think twice about taking the job.
Fundraising for the new NDCHF building was a major focus for the new executive director. In those early years, Dorgan enjoyed the traveling program he developed with cowboy poet Bill Lowman and University of North Dakota Professor Emeritus Jerry Tweton in conjunction with the North Dakota Humanities Council. Each year a theme was chosen, and the program was presented in approximately ten cities and towns across North Dakota. The program would draw large crowds and even in January, when it was 20 below, it could fill the room. Dorgan opened the program, the crowd would next be entertained by Lowman and then Professor Tweton would give his presentation.
Raising money for the NDCHF wasn’t always easy. There were times it was nearly impossible, particularly after 9-11 and the Great Recession, but they kept at it with creativity and persistence. “You can’t fail at something once you decide you’re going to do it. You keep plowing ahead,” said Dorgan.
This was the mindset of all who were part of the organization. The NDCHF even got into the food business to raise funds. In 2002, Cloverdale Foods made a significant donation and developed the North Dakota Cowboy Hall of Fame All Beef Hotdog. Trustees did demonstrations across the state to promote the product and the dream it showcased. After 10 long years, the NDCHF was finally able to cut the barbed wire ribbon on a brand-new facility in May 2005.
There were originally four categories for inclusion in the NDCHF: Rodeo, Ranching, Arts and Entertainment, and Special Achievement. Over the years, the categories have evolved and expanded, and yearly inductions have become the cornerstone of the NDCHF. Usually, animal inductees are not present at NDCHF events, but there was the year Little Yellow Jacket, a three-time professional bull rider’s world champion bull, was inducted. His owners put him in a pen outside Tjedan Terrace where the event took place and many visitors got quite the kick out of having a chance stand by and visit Little Yellow Jacket.
Over the years, an array of outstanding and varied artifacts were collected. Not a day went by when someone didn’t want to drop off something, and it seemed, everyone had grandpa’s saddle in the basement or a deer head to donate. “Nobody wants to see a roomful of dusty saddles,” said original board member Ginny Eck.
The NDCHF board kept this statement in mind as they accepted and rejected donations. It was paramount every donation tell a story. While the NDCHF did not want a roomful, some saddles were accepted.
For many years the NDCHF had exhibits on loan such as the original Homestead Act from the National Archives and Buffalo Bill’s Serial #1 Colt Revolver. However, Sitting Bull’s headdress may have been the Hall’s most poignant relic.
Baird asked to borrow Chief Sitting Bull’s headdress from Sitting Bull College for a temporary display. His request was initially declined, but fate would intervene. After a break in at the college and the theft of a war bonnet, Baird was asked if the NDCHF would exhibit Sitting Bull’s headdress while the college worked to better secure its facility. In June 2005 sheriff’s deputies escorted the headdress on its journey to the NDCHF.
Only Native Americans can legally handle or possess eagle feathers, and this headdress held more than 70 feathers cascading to the ground. The privilege of handling the headdress fell to Baird. The magnitude of what he was doing overwhelmed him. There he was, not even a tribal elder, personally handling the headdress of Chief Sitting Bull. This was a profoundly emotional and spiritual moment for him. In the Native American culture, the numbers four and seven are sacred, and the NDCHF had the headdress on loan for four years. The headdress was returned to the college on September 21, 2009.
The NDCHF became widely acclaimed and won several awards, including the 2010 Cowboy Museum of the Year from the National Cowboy Symposium in Lubbock, Texas. In 2012, then Executive Director Ray Morrell told ProRodeo Sports News in its feature on western heritage museums, “We are the embodiment of the spirit of the people of North Dakota.”
The Museum Today
The mantra carried through to this day is the NDCHF is not simply a museum with a collection of artifacts, it is the Center of Western Heritage and Cultures: Native American, Ranching and Rodeo. More than 16,000 annual NDCHF visitors see this in the Hall’s design and three galleries: each one devoted to an aspect of the plains horse culture and the Hall of Honorees.
The NDCHF’s mission is to preserve and interpret the heritage, history and legacies of these cultures. Over the years, the NDCHF has supported and sponsored many events that expand the vision and mission of preserving and interpreting the horse culture’s history. The growth and contribution of the NDCHF in just 25 years is stunning.
The NDCHF Hall of Honorees recognizes prominent figures such as Theodore Roosevelt, Sakakawea, Louis L’Amour, and Governor Art Link but also those in history and today who while not famous, embody the character and essence of North Dakota. Every February, the NDCHF anniversary month, the organization’s annual meeting and banquet is held where members and trustees are introduced to the year’s induction nominees. Trustees vote and the slate of inductees are announced at the season’s opening event in May. Each year in June there is an induction ceremony where the new inductees join the ranks of those in the Hall of Honorees. After the planned induction ceremony in Medora this June, the NDCHF will have honored more than 200 inductees. Anniversary celebrations are planned throughout the year. While the timing of some events may change due to the COVID – 19 pandemic, the celebration of this milestone will be evident.
When asked what was the most gratifying in his 21 years with the NDCHF, Baird answered, “It’s the people you meet and the stories they tell.”
This is echoed time and time again by those involved with the NDCHF. The stories of the horse culture have been proudly captured and preserved at the NDCHF for a quarter century. The organization continues to look to the future, never losing sight of those it follows.
For more information on the NDCHF and its events as well as the Hall of Honorees visit www.northdakotacowboy.com/.