Roosevelt credited N.D. for gaining officeFARGO — A throng of 10,000 people turned out in the rain to hear Theodore Roosevelt speak in Fargo’s Island Park on a day proclaimed in his honor throughout North Dakota.
By: By Patrick Springer, Forum Communications Co., The Jamestown Sun
FARGO — A throng of 10,000 people turned out in the rain to hear Theodore Roosevelt speak in Fargo’s Island Park on a day proclaimed in his honor throughout North Dakota.
Before the former president climbed the speaker’s stand, he was escorted in a parade through downtown, complete with marching band, processions of workers and a stage coach that had carried passengers during the 1880s when he sought fortune and adventure in Dakota Territory.
Roosevelt was welcomed as an adopted native son because of the time he famously spent ranching and hunting near Medora.
He was invited to speak and lay the cornerstone for the Carnegie Library on the campus of Fargo College on Sept. 5, 1910.
His appearance coincided with Labor Day, and the main theme of his hourlong speech was dedicated to labor and advancing the interests of workers and average citizens.
But Roosevelt prefaced his remarks with a warm embrace of North Dakota, in words that are enshrined in the state’s collective memory:
“North Dakota gave me my post-graduate course,” Roosevelt told the crowd, which scattered when heavy rains fell but reassembled to listen as the cloudy sky drizzled.
“I can never begin to say what I owe to North Dakota,” he continued. “It is not only that I never would have been president if it had not been for my experiences here in North Dakota; that is true, but, it is not only that, because I do not regard holding the office as of very much importance.”
Born to wealth and privilege in New York, Roosevelt explained that his most valuable lessons in Dakota were the insights he gained from those he lived and worked beside.
“And whatever of value there was in my work as president depended largely upon the fact that I knew and sympathized with our people as you can only know and sympathize with these with whom you have worked and with whom you have lived,” Roosevelt said.
James Vivian, a retired history professor from the University of North Dakota, believes Roosevelt’s professed abiding affection for the state that toughened him into a “Rough Rider” was a mix of sincerity and a politician’s natural desire to ingratiate himself with an audience.
“I treat it as campaigning of a kind, sure,” said Vivian, who wrote the book “The Romance of My Life: Theodore Roosevelt’s Speeches in Dakota.”
But the credit he gave the state for his attainment of the presidency “has meaning,” Vivian added. “It has a point. It toned him down. It got him off his high horse. It taught him to talk to people in an ordinary, common way.”
Roosevelt’s first trip to Dakota Territory was a hunting trip to the Moorhead area in 1880. He returned the next year, making his first hunting trip to the Badlands, where he returned in 1883 to shoot a buffalo, and decided to take up ranching on the open range.
Kimberly Porter, who teaches a history course on Roosevelt at UND, agrees that his ranching days genuinely molded him in helpful ways.
When he arrived to try his hand at cattle ranching, he was a 27-year-old Harvard graduate who had been elected to the New York Legislature because of his family connections.
“North Dakota certainly helped him become president,” Porter said. “He was an ‘eastern effete.’”
When Roosevelt, along with many other ranchers, suffered catastrophic losses in the harsh winter of 1886-87, he was forced to fend for himself financially in a way he hadn’t before.
“The man’s got to get a job, so he becomes a politician, a bureaucrat,” Porter said, adding that Roosevelt held positions in civil service, including a time as police commissioner of New York City and assistant secretary of the Navy.
As he often did when he returned to Dakota, Roosevelt notified old friends that he would be in Fargo when he came for the dedication. Some of his old ranching buddies, in fact, were among the crowd waiting for him at the Waldorf Hotel, where he stayed.
“Sylvane, you old son-of-a-gun,” he said, shouting greetings to Sylvane Ferris, his old ranch foreman, in Vivian’s account.
A short time earlier, Roosevelt had been welcomed by a crowd The Fargo Forum estimated at “fully 30,000” at the Great Northern Railroad Depot, where he arrived in the evening on the day before his speech.
At the hotel, yet another crowd waited to catch a glimpse of the former president. “Teddy, Teddy, come out,” the enthusiastic crowd shouted. “Let us see you.”
Roosevelt went to the balcony of his hotel room to acknowledge the crowd, and made a few impromptu remarks, including his fondness for North Dakota, and his appreciation of what the state had given him.
“The most important influences on my life were gained in those years when I worked and lived among the ranchers and cowboys of western Dakota and eastern Montana,” he said, adding later: “If it had not been for the years spent in North Dakota and what I learned there, I would not have been president of the United States.”
In fact, Vivian said, Roosevelt repeated that sentiment often on his return trips to North Dakota. Historians believe he actually spent, altogether, roughly a year in the state, dividing his time between his ranches near Medora and his home in New York and other travels.
But North Dakota touched Roosevelt indelibly, and Roosevelt in turn made a lasting connection with the state’s people.
Among those who gathered for Roosevelt’s Labor Day speech in Fargo were 100 girls wearing pink ribbons in their hair, all holding a Teddy Bear, which were named after him.
When the library’s cornerstone was laid, a time capsule was buried, including newspaper clippings of Roosevelt’s visit and a copy of his speech, which turned out to have a longer life than the Carnegie Library or Fargo College, which later merged with now-defunct Yankton College in South Dakota.
But the archives of the Institute for Regional Studies at North Dakota State University keeps the time capsule items, preserving remnants of a day North Dakota will long remember.
Patrick Springer is a reporter
for the Forum of Fargo-
Moorhead, which is owned by Forum Communications Co.