I came across only a couple of presidential names when I was doing the research about the West for my new book American Dude Ranch. If you’ve read any Chief Executive histories, you’ve probably figured out by now that Theodore Roosevelt is at the top of that short list.
In 1883 he was an author, an outdoorsman, and a rising political star. He was also an avid hunter, and in that year, he decided to go out West to shoot a buffalo before they were all gone. A friend recommended the area around Medora, North Dakota, so TR took the Northern Pacific and disembarked at the town of Little Missouri in September, named for the nearby river. He was so taken with the region he bought the Chimney Butte Ranch, known locally as the Maltese Cross for the design of its brand. He went back home to New York, an enthusiastic if absentee owner.
In February of 1884 his world fell apart: his mother Martha died the same day as his wife Alice, after she gave birth to their first child. Roosevelt corralled his grief, attended the Republican National Convention in Chicago, and then set his sights again to North Dakota. He arrived at his ranch in June and sometime that summer he met Howard Eaton and his brothers, who just two years earlier had started running a dude ranch – the very first dude ranch in history – at their Custer Trail cattle ranch.
The locals liked TR, but they branded him a dude for the way he dressed.
Roosevelt had a special fondness for buckskins, which longtime resident Howard Eaton knew was not really a practical garment. He once said of TR, “Buckskin shirts were all right as long as they didn’t get wet, but when they got wet they’d shrink up. I never did like that buckskin hunting shirt he had but he wouldn’t have anything else.”
TR kept his ranch until about 1887, and then sold off his cattle interests. His Maltese Cross cabin is now part of Theodore Roosevelt National Park in North Dakota.
Theodore Roosevelt’s oldest daughter, Alice Roosevelt Longworth, inherited his love of the West, especially the Rockies. In August of 1969 she arrived in Cody, Wyoming for her fourth dude ranch vacation. She was 85 years old and was spending this visit at Faye and Don Snyder’s Sunlight Ranch about 45 miles from Cody.
Faye Snyder said Alice was quite a character, which is not a surprise. Alice was once famously quoted as saying some version of “If you don’t have anything nice to say about anybody, come sit next to me.”
One day during her visit, the Snyders’ daughter Sally answered the office phone and then ran to her mother, saying “Mom, the president wants to talk to Mrs. Longworth, where is she?” They figured out where Alice was, and she took the call on the phone in the staff dining room. Mrs. Snyder then heard her say, “Oh, hi Dick! How are you? What do you want?”
Dick, of course, was Richard Nixon.