North Dakota Today,  The Cowboy Chronicle

Sentinel on the Prairie: Celebrating Twenty-five Years of the Preservation and Protection of North Dakota History

He had been thinking about this for a while now.  So many stories and moments, friendships and connections were passing through time. They drifted like the wind across the prairies, and he hated the thought they could all be lost. Countless hours were spent visiting with folks and embracing all the memories and history he could. The stories they told may not have been notable markers in history, but they embodied the character and the essence of the generations.  These moments in time woven together were the fabric of America’s western history and an important part of a great national epic. Those who built North Dakota, 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) and had written the book; Forty Years of North Dakota Rodeo.  When the idea of a Rodeo Hall of Fame came to him, he approached the NDRA. Being a competitive organization, they couldn’t see a place for a hall of fame as part of their association.  This didn’t stop Phil from imagining a way to preserve these stories before they were gone.  Attending the fortieth reunion of the Y’s Men’s Rodeo in Minot, once again the idea of a way to preserve and bring to life this rich history permeated his thoughts. So many of the past generations were at the reunion and he came to fully understand their place in it all. 

Driving home from the reunion with rodeo icon Evelyn Neuens and her sister, Phil was ready to ask the question: what did she think of starting a North Dakota Rodeo Hall of Fame? Through a myriad of activities and organizations, she had devoted her life to promoting the cowboy way of life. She was involved with the Badlands Trail Riders, Bismarck Mounted Police, North Dakota Rodeo Association, North Dakota Stockmen’s Association, North Dakota Cutting Horse Association to name just a few. Along with the Schnell Family she began the Home on the Range for Boys Champions Ride Rodeo.  Evelyn was immediately and enthusiastically on board.  She was never one to sit idle when there was something to be done.  It’s now been 25 years since they decided to pursue the dream of the North Dakota Cowboy Hall of Fame (NDCHF). They had no idea where it would take them or how successful their fledgling dream would be.                 

They began with gatherings in Dickinson and Mandan to gauge the public interest and found there was indeed a desire to safeguard these stories for future generations. So much so it was like the spirits had been waiting for them. However, good intentions would not be enough to move forward, everything cost money. Even when the idea was first proposed, they found people were willing to support the vision and contribute some of their hard-earned dollars.    

They soon discovered rodeo stories were not going to be enough. Rodeo was an offshoot of ranching; ranching came after the great trail drives and days of the open range. Before the cowboy was the Native American of the Plains whose entire lifestyle was tied to the horse. So much so, that after the Battle of the Little Big Horn the Native Americans mourned 1876 as, “the year the horse was lost”. The horse tied these different cultures and peoples together. The history of North Dakota and its first industries was not oil or wheat – it was the plains horse culture.

Founding board members were recruited. A range of talents and expertise, as well as youth and its perspective were sought.  The founding board members were Evelyn Neuens, Phil Baird, Sherry Plummer, Dr. George Christenson, Virginia Eck, Ray Morrell, Kaye Nelson, Winston Satran, Willard Schnell, and Robert Tibor.  In February 1995 the NDCHF had its first board of directors in place and was formally established with official incorporation just a month later. Phil remembers the right people and resources just seemed to line up as they needed them.

At the first board meeting in March 1995 they got right to business; approving a fund-raising plan, drafting by laws, and discussing site selection criteria. They received their first donation. Additionally, they launched a logo contest. They had 72 entries and in May 1995 were ready to choose the official North Dakota Hall of Fame logo. The design by Dave Kallstrom was the winner. The logo needed to express and acknowledge all the entities they were honoring. This is shown with the tilt of the cowboy’s head – he is looking over his shoulder at the history behind him and at the same time looking to the right and ahead toward the future.  Three-inch buttons with the NDCHF logo were made and sold for $5.00 each as one of their first official fundraisers.

Work continued through 1995 and 1996 including the site selection process. The perfect spot was found in Medora where the Theodore Roosevelt Medora Foundation gave them the land for the museum. Medora was already a tremendous draw and the Hall of Fame would be the centerpiece of the Foundation’s “Center of the American West” project. On the site where the Hall stands today was the Museum of the Badlands.  The original plan was to renovate the building and add a second floor to become the home of the Hall of Fame. After study it was determined the building could not support a second floor.  The decision was made to take the old structure down and design and build a new one exclusively for the Hall of Fame.

The mantra carried through to this day is that the Hall of Fame is not simply a museum.  It’s the Center of Western Heritage and Cultures: Native American, Ranching and Rodeo. It was to be much more than a collection of artifacts; the founders sought to tell stories through their exhibits. You can see this in the Hall’s design and three galleries: each one devoted to one of these aspects of the plains horse culture and the Hall of Honorees. Their mission was to preserve and interpret the heritage, history and legacies of yesterday while looking to the future. The stories and documents they have saved will provide research for generations. Every inductee has a story that could have otherwise been lost.

In 1997 the board hired Darrell Dorgan as its first Executive Director. He came to them from the long running program Prairie News Journal which he produced, anchored and wrote. He had a longtime love of North Dakota history and the rodeo; he didn’t have to think twice about taking the job.

Fundraising was a major focus for the new executive director. One of the things he most enjoyed in those early years was the traveling program he developed with cowboy poet Bill Lowman, (2013 inductee and trustee), 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 ten or so cities and towns, large and small, across North Dakota. Themes included Western Justice, Cattle Drives, Homesteaders, and the Railroad. With Darrell’s connections they received good publicity and would draw large crowds. Even in January when it was 20 below they could fill the room.  Sometimes teachers from local schools such as Lake Region College would send students to the presentations. Darrell would begin the program and then the crowd would be entertained by Bill Lowman and then Professor Tweton would give his presentation. Professor Tweton liked to personalize his talk to the area they were in. One evening he was speaking about the railroad coming to North Dakota and mentioned there was an unsolved murder in this town from back when the railroad was planning its course. The “victim” was an opportunist who planned his claim along what he knew would be the railroad’s route. He intended to get rich. His killer was never known. Well, somebody knew – after a moment of silence a voice from the audience announced that he knew who it was – it was his great grandfather.  It was a family secret passed down for over a hundred years!

Raising money wasn’t always easy, as a matter of fact there were times it was nearly impossible. The money dried up after 9-1-1 and the great recession. They persevered. “You can’t fail at something once you decide you’re going to do it. You keep plowing ahead”, said Darrell Dorgan. This was the mindset of all involved. Creativity and persistence were key. The Hall even got into the food business. In 2002 Cloverdale Foods made a large donation and developed the North Dakota Cowboy Hall of Fame All Beef Hotdog. Trustees did demos with the hotdogs across the state to promote the product and the dream it was named for.  It took ten long years, but they were finally able to cut the barbed wire ribbon on a brand-new facility in May 2005.

While the efforts for fundraising and building a suitable facility were going on, so was the development of the induction categories with the first inductees in 1998. There were four original categories: Rodeo, Ranching, Arts and Entertainment, and Special Achievement. The categories have continued to evolve and be fine-tuned. The yearly inductions are a cornerstone of the Hall of Fame and are moving experiences. Usually the animal inductees are not present, but there was the year Little Yellow Jacket was inducted. His owners put him up in a pen outside Tjedan Terrace where the event took place. There were many visitors that year that 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 was collected; a chuck wagon made by Studebaker, historical photos, unique and important firearms, a Texas Longhorn, western artwork, chaps of early 1900’s rodeo icon Bill McCarty, and so much more. There was a community outpouring and not a day went by that someone didn’t want to drop something off. It seemed everyone had grandpa’s saddle in the basement or a deer head they wanted to donate.  Original board member Ginny Eck commented, “Nobody wants to see a roomful of dusty saddles”. They kept this in mind as they accepted and rejected donations. It was paramount that every donation tell a story. While they did not want a roomful, some saddles were accepted. What is the western story without a saddle! One such suitable donation was a saddle and saddle bags used by the mail carrier near Sentinel Butte which told the story of mail delivery in the early 1900’s.  In 2004 a skeleton cast and fossil remains of a Mesohippus, a prehistoric small horse was donated; enabling visitors to step back in time to see the evolution of the noble horse who tied all these plains people together.

 For many years the Hall 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.

Sitting Bull’s headdress was exhibited at Sitting Bull College in Fort Yates, ND. Phil asked to borrow it for a temporary display. His request was declined but fate would intervene.   After a break in at the college and theft of a war bonnet the college president called Phil back and asked if the hall would exhibit the headdress while they worked to better secure their facility. The college wanted this priceless treasure insured, and the insurance company wanted security while it was transported to Medora. The Hall couldn’t afford this kind of security but always resourceful like their forbears, they developed a solution. Darrell arranged to have sheriff’s deputies escort the vehicle carrying the headdress to the hall. They started in Sioux County and at each county line new deputies would takeover. In every county they were asked the same question – lights and siren?

Only Native Americans can legally handle or possess eagle feathers, and this headdress had over 70 cascading to the ground. The privilege of handling the headdress fell to Phil. The magnitude of what he was doing overwhelmed him as he was setting up the headdress in its display. There he was, not even a tribal elder, personally handling the headdress of Chief Sitting Bull. They had been escorted with dignity by law enforcement a hundred years after Sitting Bull died at the hands of law enforcement.  This was a profoundly emotional and spiritual moment for him. In the Native American culture, the numbers four and seven are scared – the hall had the headdress on loan for four years. When it was time to make the trek back to the college where it would be accepted by Sitting Bull’s great, great, great grandson, Phil offered a prayer for the safe return of the headdress and for safe journeys for all involved.

The Hall became widely acclaimed and won several awards. One such award was just a few years after opening. At the 2010 National Cowboy Symposium in Lubbock, Texas the Hall received the Cowboy Museum of the Year Award. It was an honor that demonstrated they were on the right track. In 2007, just two years after its opening, the Hall was named the North Dakota Tourist Attraction of the Year. 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 …”

Over the years the Hall of Fame has supported and sponsored many events that expand the vision and mission of preserving and interpreting the horse culture’s history. The Cowboy Chronicle was first published in 1996. Today, The Cowboy Chronicle also has a podcast. In 2004 the Hall of Fame was one of five co-sponsors for the North Dakota reception that preceded the grand opening of the new Smithsonian Museum of the American Indian in Washington D.C. Starting in 2008 and running for four years the Hall sponsored guns shows that brought in 500 to 600 people in an afternoon, many coming to get their firearms appraised by experts, including the National Firearms Museum curator, and learn some of the history they owned.  To commemorate the Great Western Trail coming into North Dakota, which carried more cattle for more years than the Chisholm Trail, trail markers were dedicated at the Hall. Every year since 2010 the Day of the Horse Plains People is celebrated during the summer to further explore the culture of the Native Americans so important to North Dakota’s history. To promote a little recreation beyond the rodeo, in 2013 the first annual Cowboy Classic Golf Tournament was held. In 2005 the Hall began its annual celebration of the National Day of the Cowboy and in 2019 Executive Director Rick Thompson was instrumental in finally getting the bill passed in the North Dakota legislature to officially recognize the day. 

The growth and contribution of the NDCHF in just 25 years is stunning. There are new exhibits and dreams of expansion, but the current focus is to pay off the mortgage. Today’s leadership feels one of the best ways they can honor the founders and inductees is to eliminate this debt. 

When founder Phil Baird was asked what was the most gratifying in his 21 years with the Hall of Fame, he answered, “it’s the people you meet and the stories they tell”. This is echoed time and time again.  The stories of the horse culture have been proudly captured and preserved at the North Dakota Cowboy Hall of Fame for a quarter century now.  The Hall of Fame will continue to look to the future for another 25 years and beyond, never losing sight of those they follow.

I would like to thank Mr. Phil Baird, Mr. Darrell Dorgan and Mr. Ray Morrell for taking the time to visit with me and share their stories, memories and insights. Also, a thank you to Mr. Bill Lowman for his recollections. Lastly, I would like to share my appreciation for the video “The Dream” written and produced by Darrell Dorgan for the NDCHF. This video beautifully illustrates the spirit of the Plains People, their contribution to history and their inspiration for the Hall of Fame.

References:

  • Phone interview: Darrell Dorgan February 19, 2020
  • Phone Interview Ray Morrell February 24, 2020
  • Phone Interview: Phil Baird February 25, 2020
  • Phone interview: Bill Lowman March 13, 2020
  • Chronology of Organization Events January 1995- December 2017; North Dakota Cowboy Hall of Fame
  • http://www.stuff.co.nz/travel/international/2929728/Sitting-Bulls-headdress-is-returned-to-his-people     Sitting Bull’s Headdress is Returned to his People
  • Bismarck Tribune, September 9, 2009, Sitting Bull’s Headdress returning home
  • Minot Daily News, February 12, 2020, “North Dakota Hall of Fame idea originated on road home from Minot rodeo”
  • Dickinson Press, September 8, 2010, “Cowboy Hall of Fame takes top honor”
  • ProRodeo Sports News, September 28, 2012, “Cowboys take pride in local halls of fame”
  • Grand Forks Herald, September 12, 2010, “North Dakota Hall of Fame in Medora keeps on growing”
  • “The Dream”, video written and produced by Darrell Dorgan for NDCHF

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *