MEDORA, N.D. — Ed Schafer was only 6 when his dad, Harold, took him to the top of a butte that overlooked Medora.
The sleepy village nestled in the Badlands of western North Dakota was mostly made of old houses. The Rough Riders Hotel, which he later purchased in 1963, was a shell of what it had been when it was built in the late 1800s. The streets were made of dirt and sidewalks were nonexistent. Running water and sewer, a commodity residents in modern towns couldn’t imagine not having, were absent.
As the two looked over the worn-down buildings in the early 1950s, Harold told his son there was too much here to be lost and something had to be done.
“I’m looking over the edge, going, ‘There’s nothing there,” Ed said. “It’s a funny perspective from a 6-year-old versus my dad, who was overlooking, saying ‘There’s a lot going on here.’”
It’s a story many visitors to Medora may not have heard, but the sentiment is felt throughout the city that went from a dying village to arguably North Dakota’s biggest draw for tourism. The businessman had no connection to Medora, other than his love for the Badlands, the history of the area and the city itself.
“I think what attracted him was the Badlands themselves,” he said. “Why do you keep going back there? I think he found the connection with what we call the spirit of the Badlands. There is this permanence there that no matter when you go you get that sense of strength and permanence.
“I think at that spot, in that place, he found those things that just grabbed his heart.”
Harold claimed worldwide fame with the Gold Seal Co., but with his second wife, Sheila, he would become a North Dakota legend for dedicating his life to the revitalization of Medora. To that end, he launched the Theodore Roosevelt Medora Foundation in 1986.
Thirty years later, the foundation works year-round to uphold Harold and Sheila’s dreams of making Medora a North Dakota tradition for families to enjoy for generations over and over again.
“I think the reason people keep coming is we have stayed true, we have kept it family friendly,” said Randy Hatzenbuhler, president of the foundation. “That hasn’t ever changed in 50 years, and it won’t change.”
Man of action
By the time Harold started investing in Medora, a small town of 130 residents about 35 miles west of Dickinson, he was known worldwide for his Gold Seal Co. products, including Mr. Bubble and Glass Wax.
Harold purchased the Rough Riders Hotel and Ferris Store in 1962. John Hild, who grew up in Medora and has been with the foundation since it was created, said Harold was a man of action.
Hild pointed out the streets were made of dirt, and when he went to school, the bikes he and his siblings rode would have to maneuver through the ruts. Harold partnered with Northern Improvement to pave the streets, Hild said.
“He owned the Gold Seal Co., which was Glass Wax, Mr. Bubble — the color pink,” Hild said. “He had some guys from South Dakota find some pink rocks and they chip-sealed the streets with pink rock. The whole town looked pink.”
It was an example of the man Harold was, drawing ideas from his own experiences and walking around Medora, pointing out what he liked and disliked, Ed said.
“He grabbed onto some elements that were in Medora and the Badlands and said, ‘How can I help people enjoy that experience, learn from that experience, get comfortable and rest from being here?’” Ed said. “He had an inherent understanding of what people would be looking for.”
That action attitude continued as Harold bought land and updated the city. The action wasn’t without pain for both Harold and the city.
“All of the sudden they had this guy running around saying, ‘Let’s do this and let’s do this,’” Ed said. “I don’t think he even went to the City Commission.”
Harold laughed in a video posted by the foundation, saying purchasing land in the town became a financial burden. People who were trying to sell their homes couldn’t find buyers, so he would purchase the homes. At one point, Harold said he owned 75 percent of the town, adding it became somewhat of a financial burden.
“One thing led to another,” he said in a video posted on the foundation’s YouTube. “Not by design, not by desire, but mechanically that’s the way it happened.”
But Harold enjoyed helping others, Ed said, and that reflected in his donations to revitalizing Medora.
“If it wasn’t for Harold, we would still be a cow town,” Hild said. “Even though we are the county seat, I still think if it wasn’t for him coming in and putting in his time and money into Medora, we wouldn’t be a tourist attraction like we are.”
As Harold started to develop the idea of revitalizing Medora, he asked himself how he could make the town a tourism destination for travelers to enjoy. Ideas like installing public bathrooms and turning the Rough Rider Hotel into a getaway from civilization were set into motion.
“He was a traveler,” Ed said. “He understood what amenities you needed: where you could get a good meal and where you could lay your head and get a good rest. He lived that life, so he understood what people needed if they were going to travel.”
That plan took a large step when Harold bought the Burning Hills Amphitheater in the 1960s. He brought in experts to reconstruct the staging area and seating. What once was the waning show “Old Four Eyes,” a play dedicated to Theodore Roosevelt, the nation’s 26th president, began to take the form of the “Medora Musical,” with its first show in 1965.
Sheila, who had been an actress, knew the ins and outs of putting on a performance. Where Harold had a plan, she put on the final touches to make the show sparkle.
But Harold and Sheila’s commitment to making sure the musical was a place for the family, Ed said. The two weren’t interested in conforming to national trends, and “off-color” acts that were not suitable for children either had to change or leave. It’s an idea that continues today.
“She grasped quickly what Medora was all about,” Ed said. “They defended it over and over again.”
The wooden benches amphitheater — and even the buttes that overlooked it — soon filled with audience members eager to see variety shows, musical numbers and dancing against the backdrop of the Badlands.
As the Schafer looked to sell the Gold Seal Co., he couldn’t find anyone who wanted to buy the Medora branch of the business. Harold wanted to find someone to continue Medora’s legacy, but the groups that wanted to purchase the Gold Seal Co. had no interest in the town.
“When he was selling his company in 1986, he was really worried Medora would die,” Hatzenbuhler said. “It was good, but it still needed a boost.”
In the end, the company and Medora branch split, and in what Ed calls the best decision his father made, the Theodore Roosevelt Medora Foundation was created in 1986 as a nonprofit. Harold became the chairman of the foundation.
“In my opinion, it saved my dad’s life,” Ed said. “He kept his connection with Medora. Instead of withering on the vine with nothing to do and watching his company go off into the sunset, he grabbed onto Medora, and that became his life.”
Harold continued to make improvements on the town and musical, including installing at the time the longest escalator in the country and the first in North Dakota in 1991. The old benches were ripped out and replaced with individual seats. He even suggested turning the Badlands south of town into a golf course, which would eventually become the Bully Pulpit Golf Course.
Keeping the dream alive
It’s been almost 15 years since Harold died in December 2001, but his dream of making sure Medora is a family-friendly destination thrives.
The foundation has gone through several changes, including the addition of a Welcome Center at the Burning Hills Amphitheatre to building a Family Fun Center with the world’s largest inflatable water slide. The Life Skills Center opened earlier this year, allowing the foundation to train employees in a multimillion-dollar facility that boasts a dining area, fitness center, classrooms and replica of the musical stage floor. The foundation also has restored multiple historic buildings, including the Joe Ferris Store.
The foundation has moved from exclusively doing what Harold wanted to making long-term decisions that will benefit the nonprofit professionally, Ed said. There have been more than 3,700 contributors to the foundation, it has more than 900 members across the country and nearly 900 volunteers and employees work to keep up the Schafer’s legacy.
“The foundation plays an important role because the public has adopted the town,” Hatzenbuhler said. “It has been a way for people to connect to Medora. Lots of people consider this their town.”
Though it only boasts a population of 132, Medora sees hundreds of thousands of visitors each year. More than four million people have seen the musical since it began more than a half century ago.
The foundation has come a long way in promoting the city, but Hatzenbuhler said the foundation wouldn’t exist without Medora.
“I think Medora benefits from the foundation, but it also benefits greatly from (Theodore Roosevelt National Park) and the state and all of the really wonderful private businesses in the area,” he said. “I think it is all of them together that’s making Medora a really interesting place for the visitors.”