Jacobs: Fargo set to claim Roosevelt legacy

The "city whose aim and end is go" is staking its claim to Teddy's Roosevelt's legacy in North Dakota. Over the weekend Tu-Uyen Tran reported in Forum company newspapers that Fargo's Historic Preservation Commission has a grant to put up a marker...

Mike Jacobs
Mike Jacobs

The "city whose aim and end is go" is staking its claim to Teddy's Roosevelt's legacy in North Dakota. Over the weekend Tu-Uyen Tran reported in Forum company newspapers that Fargo's Historic Preservation Commission has a grant to put up a marker commemorating Roosevelt - or rather one of Roosevelt's visits to the city.

Roosevelt is usually associated with extreme western North Dakota. The site of his Elkhorn Ranch, where he spent most of his time while he was in Dakota Territory, is about 20 miles east of the present Montana border.

Of course, Roosevelt didn't actually spend much time in what is now North Dakota. Clay Jenkinson, a Roosevelt scholar and impersonator, added up the time. It comes to 359 days of residence while he was actively ranching here, from 1883 to 1887. It grows to a bit more than a year if his subsequent hunting trips and political appearances are added in.

Nevertheless, the state's claim is a valid one, on Roosevelt's own authority.

"If it had not been for what I learned during those years that I spent here in North Dakota, I never in the world would have been president," Roosevelt said.


Roosevelt made the remark on the occasion that Fargo intends to commemorate, laying of the cornerstone of the library at Fargo College. Andrew Carnegie gave the money for the building. Roosevelt made a brief speech at the event, held on Sept. 5, 1910.

Roosevelt was ex-president by then. He left office in 1909, having served seven and a half years. Neither Fargo College nor its library has survived. The college was closed in 1922; the library was demolished in 1964.

The campus was on Broadway across the Northern Pacific tracks from downtown Fargo and south of Main Avenue, just where the land begins to slope downward toward Island Park. This would have been very near the Northern Pacific Depot, so Roosevelt didn't have far to go to reach the ceremony and to lay the cornerstone.

The NDSU Archives says 10,000 people were waiting for Roosevelt when his train pulled in at 5.45 p.m. Fargo's population at the time was 14,331, according to the 1910 census. The turnout was eloquent testimony to Roosevelt's popularity; he likely could have won reelection in 1908, but he supported Vice President William Howard Taft instead. In 1912, he ran against Taft, helping Woodrow Wilson to the White House.

Of course Roosevelt's historical impact was enormous, especially as a conservationist, having set aside millions of acres for public use. This mark remains in North Dakota, too. Roosevelt designated several wildlife refuges and a national park in the state, although the park, Sully's Hill, is now a wildlife refuge.

His namesake national park dates from 1947. At first it was called a memorial park, the only one designated in the nation's history. It gained full national park status in 1978.

Roosevelt is more honored in North Dakota for his boisterous lifestyle and his work ethic than for his conservation priorities. Roosevelt was a public lands man. He never owned so much as an acre in North Dakota, and he was essentially a squatter at the Elkhorn Ranch. Today's political climate stresses private property and resource development, to the extent that an oil refinery could be built within a few miles of Roosevelt National Park itself.

The cornerstone ceremony was not Roosevelt's first encounter with Fargo. He passed through the city on his first trip west in 1883, and on each trip to the Badlands he used the NP's main line through Fargo.


Nor was this his last visit to the city. He made a whistle stop during the 1918 election campaign. In brief speeches in Fargo and Bismarck, he attacked the left-leaning Nonpartisan League, which at the time was on the threshold of power.

As for Andrew Carnegie, library benefactor: He was born in Scotland in 1835 and made a fortune in steel. In 2007, Forbes magazine calculated his net worth at $309 billion. He spent a little more than $200,000 building 11 libraries in North Dakota. That would be about $5 million today. These were among 1,946 libraries he funded in the United States. He funded 865 libraries in other countries.

Carnegie built two libraries in Grand Forks, a public library downtown and an academic library on the UND campus. The latter is now called Carnegie Hall.

Other public libraries built with Carnegie's money were in Bismarck, Devils Lake, Dickinson, Grafton, Minot and Valley City. The Bismarck library has been demolished; the others survive, though not all of them are used as libraries.

So North Dakota has shared Carnegie's legacy, as well as Teddy Roosevelt's.

Mike Jacobs is a former editor and publisher of the Herald.

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