BY MATT CROSSMAN
The boy in the photo crouches down, his left hand touching the North Dakota dirt, his face radiating joy and amazement. His eyes zoom in on a small hole. In that hole sits a prairie dog, its furry brown hair and exuberant yip-yip-yip barks the source of the boy’s joy and amazement.
Behind the boy, brown grass recedes to giant gray knolls distinctive of North Dakota’s badlands. The photo, taken in Theodore Roosevelt National Park, captures the essence of the place: unchanged and unchanging, a reflection of the conservation beliefs of the man it’s named after. Only the boy’s clothes—corduroys, work boots and an untucked button up shirt—give any hint as to when the photo was snapped, which is to say decades ago. Nobody else is in the photo, nor is there any evidence of human existence; no roads, cars or buildings. It’s just vast, wide-open space, from one horizon to the next and from the hard-packed dirt to the heavens above.
Like many boys in North Dakota, that boy dreamed about being a rancher, imagining for himself Theodore Roosevelt’s famed strenuous life marked by a pounding heart, dirty hands and a sweaty back. But that boy’s life took a different path. Now grown up and known as North Dakota Gov. Doug Burgum, he remains fascinated by Roosevelt and how that unchanging land changed him, and how Roosevelt as our 26th president changed the country as a result.
As governor, Burgum helped lead the push to get approval for the Theodore Roosevelt Presidential Library, which will open near the entrance to the national park, which is already the No. 1 tourist attraction in the state; the library will greatly enhance that. With world-class designers, deep-pocketed supporters and a treasure trove of Roosevelt material, Burgum hopes it will be “best in class” among presidential libraries and as bold and audacious as the man it celebrates.
“Dare greatly—that’s how he lived his life,” Burgum said. “We want to keep challenging ourselves to strive for something. I think it’s important for our country to remember, not just North Dakotans, that we can aspire to do great things with great imagination and make it happen.”
Make it happen. Easy to say, hard to do, in politics, in life, in presidential libraries. Ed O’Keefe, CEO of the Theodore Roosevelt Presidential Library Foundation, hears the same two questions repeatedly: “Wait, Theodore Roosevelt doesn’t have a presidential library? And why North Dakota?”
The answers to both questions are intertwined. The fact that Theodore Roosevelt, the president who wrote more books than any other, doesn’t have a library might be surprising, but presidential libraries are a relatively modern invention. According to the national archives, these libraries are meant to bring “together the documents and artifacts of a President and his administration and presenting them to the public for study and discussion without regard for political considerations or affiliations.”. Every president since Herbert Hoover has one (or has one in the works in the cases of Barack Obama and Donald Trump). But nobody before Hoover, who began his term in 1929, has one.
In Roosevelt’s case, the lack of a library is not from a lack of effort. “When he died he was one of the most known people on the planet,” Burgum said. “And there was all kinds of talk about preserving his legacy.”
“Dare greatly—that’s how he lived his life. We want to keep challenging ourselves to strive for something. I think it’s important for our country to remember, not just North Dakotans, that we can aspire to do great things with great imagination and make it happen.” – Doug Burgum
Sagamore Hill, the home where Roosevelt lived from 1885 until his death in 1919, is a national historic site run by the National Park Service. So is his birth site. Both are in New York and are must-visits for any Roosevelt fan.
The idea of a library in North Dakota bounced around for years. “It had been kicked around by a number of people before I got into office,” Burgum said. “And then when I heard about it, I just said, ‘Wow, this is really an exceptional idea, and we should put together a team of people to take this from an idea to try to drive it into action.’”
Critics scoffed at the price tag—a $50 million endowment and $100 million raised from private sources. “I think there was some legislators that voted for it because they said, ‘Sure, I can vote for that because they’ll never raise $100 million,’” Burgum said. But the fundraising crossed that threshold, and now the library has an opening date of July 4, 2026, to coincide with our nation’s 250th birthday.
Still, none of that answers the second question: why North Dakota?
That answer comes in an abridged retelling of a pivotal part of Roosevelt’s life. In September, 1883, he visited what is now North Dakota to hunt bison. While there, he invested $14,000 in cattle and a ranch. Five months later, his wife died in childbirth, and his mother died that same day in the same house. A diarist his whole life, Roosevelt wrote a chilling entry on the most painful day of it. He carved a giant X, under which he jotted, “The light has gone out of my life.”
Fleeing from his personal darkness, he returned to North Dakota and threw himself into what he called “the strenuous life.” As a boy he was sickly and brilliant. His father, a towering presence in his life, encouraged him to work his body as hard as he worked his mind. In North Dakota, he did just that.
Living at Elkhorn Ranch—a few miles from Medora, the future home of the library—he turned himself into the man who would eventually lead the charge up San Juan Hill, become the youngest president in history, push for the creation of the Panama Canal, save the NCAA, explore an uncharted stretch of the Amazon and much, much more.
“He transformed himself here,” Burgum said. It’s as if he made himself miserable physically on purpose to take his mind off his emotional misery. Enduring both made him stronger. He left North Dakota a changed man, stronger because under life’s weight he had bent, but he did not break. He built resilience that defined, illuminated, even made possible, the rest of his life. The answer, then, as to why Roosevelt’s library is going to be built in North Dakota, is this: Without North Dakota, the Theodore Roosevelt known to history would never have existed.
“I have always said I would not have been president had it not been for my experience in North Dakota,” Roosevelt said. “It was here that the romance of my life began.”
The library will focus on the three themes that dominated Roosevelt’s life: citizenship, leadership and conservation. It’s the way in which those themes will be presented that organizers hope will make the library unique. Dickinson State University has digitized 75,000 Roosevelt documents, so the library will be a far cry from the standard “document under glass” displays. There will be immersive and interactive story-telling employing state of the art technology.
The fact a high-tech library will be built in a rustic setting is appropriate considering the seeming contradictions that marked Roosevelt’s life. He was a high-brow intellectual and dirty-fingernailed cowboy; a politician who could be stubbornly dogmatic and a consummate dealmaker; a man who carried a knife made by famed New York City jeweler Tiffany and Co. Even the entrance of the library will carry faint whiffs of Roosevelt’s life; it will sit along the 150-mile Maah Daah Hey trail, which will allow visitors to hike, bike or ride horses to it.
The library will also be “one of the most sustainable buildings ever built,” Burgum said, which puts it in line with Roosevelt’s passion for conservation and North Dakota’s goal to be the first carbon neutral state by 2030, which Burgum says will be done without mandates or new regulations.
Long before he ever thought about running for office, Burgum placed on the wall in his office an excerpt from “The Man in The Arena,” a section of a Roosevelt speech titled “Citizenship in a Republic.” As governor, Burgum peppers his comments with Roosevelt quotes. Like Roosevelt, Burgum pivoted from a life of privilege to a life of public service. Like Roosevelt, Burgum is passionate about conservation and enjoys adventure (Roosevelt famously spent more than a week chasing boat thieves. During the pandemic, Burgum took an epic sailing trip from South Dakota to Montana). And like Roosevelt, he was shaped by North Dakota’s vast public spaces.
While the creation of the Roosevelt library will become part of Burgum’s legacy, he deflects questions about that and about what he and Roosevelt have in common. Burgum spreads credit for the library instead of taking it, which is positively un-Rooseveltian. Humble, TR was not. An oft-repeated line about Roosevelt says he wanted to be the baby at every baptism, the bride at every wedding and the corpse at every funeral. He was voluble, bombastic, a larger-than-life figure who you could love one minute and hate the next but never, ever ignore.
The library will try to embody his ethos—dare greatly, think boldly, live passionately and care deeply—all of which is captured in that quote Burgum loved enough to hang on his office wall: “It is not the critic who counts; not the man who points out how the strong man stumbles, or where the doer of deeds could have done them better. The credit belongs to the man who is actually in the arena, whose face is marred by dust and sweat and blood … and who at the worst, if he fails, at least fails while daring greatly, so that his place shall never be with those cold and timid souls who neither know victory nor defeat.” – Theodore Roosevelt
From that little boy in the photo, Burgum grew up to become a giant in the software industry, and eventually the executive leader of his home state. The boy in the photo changed, but his love for that land remains, and now, as governor, he wants others to see what he saw on his trips there.
“One hundred years from now, there’s going to be a lot of stuff in North Dakota that may not be here,” Burgum said. “But the Theodore Roosevelt Presidential Library is still going to be here 100 years from now, and so is the national park. And 100 years from now you’re going to walk out and you’re going see the same view that TR saw the day that he got off that train the first time he got here. That connection with the preserved landscape is going to be a powerful, powerful part of his legacy.”
Out of that preserved landscape Roosevelt crafted a life of unparalleled agony and adventure, service and success, toil and triumph. And it’s out of that preserved landscape that his legacy will live on.
Matt Crossman is a St. Louis based travel and adventure writer and Theodore Roosevelt fanboy.