NEWS for North Dakotans
Agriculture Communication, North Dakota State University
7 Morrill Hall, Fargo, ND 58105-5665
July 9, 1998
Tom Isern, Professor of History
North Dakota State University
©1998 Plains Folk
Congratulations are in order to the National Park Service on the 50th anniversary of the founding of the North Unit of Theodore Roosevelt National Park. I had the pleasure of taking part in the festivities, offering a few cowboy folksongs and sitting in on a session of reminiscences by elders about the early days of the park.
Judy Stenehjem of Watford City organized the story-telling session, inviting people to get together at the First International Bank. The stories poured out, with several strong themes emerging.
The first of these was the pride of the fellows who served in the Civilian Conservation Corpsthe CCC or "the C's," as they call itand who built the roads, shelters, and other works that gave physical form to the park in the 1930s. Some of them live in the vicinity today. Others, now living far away, make pilgrimage to the place where they once camped and worked.
"There was no place you could get a job, not even for room and board," recalled Don Stevens. So in 1939 he joined the C's, welcoming the chance to get room and board and some spending money and to send wages home to his folks. "We spent most of our time with a pick and shovel," Stevens said, building scoria rock roads in the park. The New Deal work programs generally used less machinery and more hand labor so as to put more people on the payroll.
Another theme of the story-tellers was their powerful affinity for the badland-grassland landscape of the park. Before there was a park, they all had their favorite spots for family and community picnics. They all climbed Battleship Butte, one contributor even confessing to taking clubs to the top and smacking golf balls out of sight. That very love of the landscape, though, led to mixed feelings about the establishment of the park and about the park service rangers who administered it. "I'm one of those people who resents the NPS," said one woman. "Some of us," chimed in another, "have given up an awful lot to get it where it is today." Blocking out the park meant taking land from private holders, after all, and one fellow recalled his father taking him out to where government surveyors had driven stakes and saying, "See, they're going to take that damn land yet."
Local legislators, however, supported formation of the park as part of a general program of regional revitalization, including the park, roads and bridges over the Little Missouri. Alice Signaless, veteran schoolteacher from the area, said eastern residents of the state made fun of the westerners who "needed bridges so the coyotes could get across the river." Long-time editor of the Mackenzie County Farmer Del Shipman pointed out that once the North Unit of the park was in place, local business people got behind it. They were instrumental in the introduction of buffalo in the unit. (Watford City dismissed school when the first buffalo were released in 1960 so the kids could watch them descend from trucks onto the sagebrush flats.) They advocated construction of a scenic highway connecting the North Unit with the South Unit of the park (a highway never built); they opposed attempts by the Wilderness Society to restrict access to park lands; and they lobbied Senators Young and Burdick for improvements, including a visitor center of its own for the North Unit. Despite open and convenient access, the North Unit remains far enough from the interstate that visitors can roam freely and do things they never would be permitted in other, harder-used national parks. They can still climb Battleship Buttebut not hit golf balls off it.
Source: Tom Isern (701) 231-8339
Editor: Barry Brissman (701) 231-7866