Doane Robinson was the state historian for South Dakota when he wrote a letter in 1924 to a sculptor named Gutzon Borglum. “In the vicinity of Harney Peak, in the Black Hills of South Dakota are opportunities for heroic sculpture of unusual character,” he wrote.
“Would it be possible for you to design and supervise a massive sculpture there. The proposal has not passed beyond the mere suggestion, but if it is possible for you to undertake the matter I feel quite sure we could arrange to finance such an enterprise.”
Borglum, of course, would go on to supervise the carving of Mount Rushmore, a project begun in 1927 and completed in 1941. Today, Mount Rushmore National Memorial draws more than 2 million visitors annually and is the driving force of South Dakota’s $3.8 billion tourism industry.
It shouldn’t be forgotten that spurring tourism was what prompted Robinson to conceive of commissioning the “massive sculpture.”
North Dakota finds itself at a similar moment as it contemplates Gov. Doug Burgum’s proposed $50 million investment, to be matched by $100 million in private donations, for the Theodore Roosevelt Presidential Library and Museum.
The library and museum would be built in Medora at the gateway to Theodore Roosevelt National Park. In announcing the bold idea, Burgum deliberately compared the initiative to the famous stone carving in the Black Hills, calling it “North Dakota’s Mount Rushmore.”
Tourism is North Dakota’s third-largest industry, behind agriculture and petroleum. Theodore Roosevelt has long been North Dakota’s adopted son. He famously credited his experiences in the state, ranching and hunting in the 1880s, as molding him into the man who would become one of the nation’s most beloved presidents.
The natural beauty of the Badlands is North Dakota’s biggest tourism draw, and the romance of the park’s storied heritage is something the state touts in its promotions. Undoubtedly many who travel from afar to visit the park do so because of the Roosevelt connection.
Let’s face it: a $150 million Theodore Roosevelt Presidential Library and Museum is North Dakota’s best shot at creating a unique attraction that will draw people from all over the country and even from abroad. It would enhance the majestic badlands.
The initiative has enthusiastic backing of the Roosevelt family, including an endorsement from Theodore Roosevelt V, the president’s great-great-grandson, as well as the Theodore Roosevelt Conservation Partnership and the National Trust for Historic Preservation.
Donors prepared to make significant donations support the project, which has the strong backing of Melani and Rob Walton, from the family behind Walmart. But prospective donors have made it clear that they’d like to see a significant investment from the state.
If North Dakota fails to seize this opportunity, it risks seeing this project go elsewhere. North Dakota leaders must overcome the “hunker down” mentality that plagues this state. We are good at saving but not always good about investing in the state’s future. Too often, we are timid when we should be bold.
Past leaders have risen to the occasion, during times much tougher than these. On Dec. 28, 1930, the state capitol burned to the ground. In the depths of the Great Depression, state leaders sold bonds to raise $2 million to build the current capitol. In today’s dollars, that’s about $38 million. Given the state’s much larger economy, this bold proposal represents a comparatively modest investment in our future, but frankly a much more exciting opportunity.
North Dakota loves to invoke its proud heritage with the slogan “Legendary North Dakota.” Isn’t it time that we started acting like we believe those words?
Today, Doane Robinson is remembered as the Father of Mount Rushmore. Through state support, we all can have a hand in creating something majestic that will benefit the state for generations.