You can visit plenty of places where presidents were born – but only one where a president started life over again.

A large black cross scars the page for February 14 in Theodore Roosevelt’s diary for the year 1884. On that day, the young New York State legislator lost both his mother and his wife, Alice, the latter to a kidney ailment just one day after the birth of the couple’s daughter. Beneath the cross Roosevelt wrote, “The light has gone out of my life.” 

Except it hadn’t. It dawned again in the Dakota Territory.

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Theodore Roosevelt had first come to the Dakotas to hunt buffalo in the fall of 1883. He was just shy of twenty-five, still slight of build, and looking every inch the callow Eastern dude. But he took to the challenging but beautiful landscape, declaring that “here the romance of my life began.” And the Dakotas’ hard characters grudgingly took to him. Two of them, Sylvane Ferris and Bill Merrifield, sold Roosevelt the Chimney Butte Ranch, known locally as the Maltese Cross Ranch because of the eight-pointed cross brand that marked its cattle. Ferris and Merrifield, who stayed on as ranch managers, built the new owner a three-room cabin with a sleeping loft. It, too, took on the Maltese Cross name.

Newly widowed, Roosevelt left for his ranch as soon as the 1884 New York legislative session ended. The land and the life of the Dakotas were a balm to his devastated spirit. “Nowhere,” he wrote, “does a man feel more lonely than when riding over the far-reaching, seemingly never-ending plains.” But solitude, and life in the saddle, was just what he needed. “Black care,” he noted, “rarely sits behind a rider whose pace is fast enough.” 

Roosevelt bought a second ranch, the Elkhorn, but the lure of public life proved too great for this rising star of New York politics. Within three years he had begun to sell off his cattle-raising interests, and by 1900 – the year he was elected vice-president of the United States – the Maltese Cross cabin belonged to new owners.

A pine log cabin on the Dakota range might not be expected to last for a century and a half – unless it had been built for a president. Hauled off its foundations and shipped by rail to St. Louis, the Maltese Cross cabin was a feature of the 1904 World’s Fair. It traveled to Portland, Oregon, then to Fargo and Bismarck. And in 1959, it came home, or close to it. Restored and furnished by the Daughters of the American Revolution, it now stands behind the visitor center at the South Unit of Theodore Roosevelt National Park, near Medora, North Dakota.

Roosevelt would no doubt recognize the cabin as it looks today. The roof has been replaced, but its pitch and proportions are true to the original, and, as far as is known, the door and window frames are the ones Ferris and Merrifield installed. Inside, a replica of the young rancher’s desk is a reminder that when he wasn’t riding the range, he was hard at work writing books, including his biography of Senator Thomas Hart Benton. A wicker-and-duck-skin trunk in the bedroom is, however, original, as are the letters “T.R.” that identify its owner. Other furnishings are period if not original, although a rocking chair is believed to have been Roosevelt’s.

Theodore Roosevelt’s ranching days in the Dakota Territory gave him a fresh start on his own grief-shattered life. But his days on the range, and off hours thinking about a fast-changing Western landscape, also helped shape his conservationist ethic. In and around the little Maltese Cross cabin, a great part of the Roosevelt legacy was nourished.

 

By Bill Scheller