Backstage Pass to North Dakota History

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Anna Killian's blog

Top 5 Highlights of Winterizing the Chateau de Morès

Did you know that some historic houses hibernate? Like a giant bear in one of our national parks, the Chateau de Morès must be carefully conditioned to survive the frigid North Dakota winter. And, y’all, it gets cold. Last year, temperatures in Medora clocked in at well below zero, and, for both the Chateau and this Carolina gal used to spending Christmas in flip-flops, that is cold enough.

Why do we shut the Chateau down? Because it lacks a modern heating system. By mid-October, it is simply too cold for guests to tour comfortably. And it was too cold for the Marquis and Madame as well. When he built the Chateau, the Marquis included only one fireplace. Despite its size and central location—the fireplace is about 5 feet deep by roughly 4 feet tall in the middle of the home—it did not provide enough warmth for year-round living.

So we follow their example! Before frost forms on the windowpanes, the Chateau team arms itself with white gloves, bed sheets, and (at least in my case) layers of wool and synthetic blends. Then we head out to protect fragile linens, pack away prized china, and cover century-old furniture. This undertaking is one of my favorite parts of the job because it gives us the opportunity to examine our artifacts. During the summer, our focus is sharing the Chateau with guests from around the world—just like the Marquis and Madame! But the cold weather gives us the chance to make sure the house is fit to survive another season. All 26 rooms plus the basement—that’s a little more than 7,000 square feet—get some tender, loving care from the team.

Welcome to my Top Five Highlights of Winterizing Our Chateau!

1. We get to touch the artifacts! First, let me put our curator’s mind at ease: We wear agency-approved gloves and always use both hands. Still you can’t deny there is something truly incredible about holding the same teacup that Madame used 137 years ago.

A man in a plaid shirt and white gloves holds a white teacup and saucer with blue flowers and leafy vines

Ed Sahlstrom holds a teacup, part of the original collection used by Madame and the Marquis from 1883-86. Madame chose this Gower pattern for its dainty durability—the perfect set of china for life in the badlands.

2. We explore all the nooks and crannies of the Chateau. The house may be small compared to French chateaus, but for us there are still spots tucked away. For example, Madame’s maid was the only servant who had her own workroom hidden beneath the staircase.

3. We treat any problems we discover. It’s an old house, and sometimes things go wrong, or they just need a little TLC. When that happens, we always try to take care of any issues before the first snow. This year, the porch needed conditioning, so we grabbed our brushes and got to work.

A man stands on the porch of an old house painting the floor with a mop while another man stands on the grass in front of the house holding a hammer

Ed Sahlstrom (assistant supervisor) and Mike Sunday (grounds personnel) stain the porch of the Chateau. The porch will live to see another summer!

4. We crawl underneath the Chateau. You read that correctly — we get to go underneath the house. How cool is that? We make sure nothing is nesting in the crawl space and confirm that the unfinished basement is as protected as possible. This basement may look uninteresting, but it once held about 600 of bottles wine, beer, and mineral water that the family left behind. Check us out on Facebook to learn the whole story and find out where you can buy the same wine the Marquis left when he headed east.

5. Finally, we walk on the roof! We historians aren’t usually a thrill-seeking bunch. At least not physically. Give us a good archival mystery, and we are entertained for days. But it’s not so often we do gravity-defying activities. Except at the Chateau, where we annually traverse the second-story rooftop to close the shutters. Don’t worry—we use a spotter and basically hug the house as we make our way across the surface. But it’s a thrill, and the views are incredible.

So there you have them—my favorite aspects of winterizing the Chateau. Happy fall, y’all! This Carolina girl is already bundled up.

Time-Traveling Partnerships

Stop me if you’ve heard this one: a French marquis, a Dakota sheriff, and a future United States president walk into a bar…sound familiar? It may seem ludicrous, but it happened—at least, it sort of happened—right here in the Badlands of North Dakota!

A man with a moustache pointed at the ends stands wearing a cowboy yeat, jacket with tassles, striped shirt, and pants with tassles down the sides.

The Marquis de Morès in his Badlands attire. He is known to have said that he was as comfortable in buckskins as he was in a silk shirt, and he often posed for photos that enforce his claim.

You already know the story of the Marquis de Morès, a headstrong dreamer with goals of fortune and fame, and his attempt at building a cattle empire in the heart of the Dakota badlands. The railroad reached the Little Missouri River in 1880, and just three years later the Marquis stepped off a train car and into the annals of history. He built an abattoir (meatpacking plant) and a hunting lodge, known as the Chateau de Morès, in addition to spearheading other ventures in fortune.

Convinced that his town, Medora, needed a direct route to the Black Hills for tourists, businessmen, and freight, the Marquis founded the Medora-Deadwood Stage and Forwarding Company in 1884.  It must have been fate, because the sheriff of Deadwood, South Dakota, Seth Bullock, was campaigning for a freight line to connect his city with the railroad in North Dakota.

Poster that reads Medora & Black Hills Stage & Forwarding Co. Regular lone of coachs to Deadwood and the Black Hills connecting with the Northern Pacific R.R. at Medora. Shortest and most comfortable route passing through the most interesting portions of the famous "Bad Lands." Purchase through tickets to Deadwood via Northern Pacific R.R. & Medora.

Business poster for the Medora-Deadwood Stage and Forwarding Company.

Down in the Black Hills, Bullock had purchased land, built infrastructure, and tried to convince others that his city of Deadwood, founded in 1876, lacked only a connection to the outside business world. When the Marquis’s company came to town, Bullock shifted gears and began working with the Marquis to convince the Northern Pacific Railroad to help make the line permanent.

Man with a large mustache wearing a hat and suit complete with vest and tie.

Seth Bullock, sheriff of Deadwood, South Dakota, frontiersman, businessman.

Bullock volunteered a parcel of land on his ranch for a stage stop and dubbed it “De Morès.” Within a few months, the little stop had a saloon, a hardware store, and even a small neighborhood. Coaches stopped regularly with passengers and goods that had come in on the railroad. The Marquis and Bullock’s dream seemed to be coming true.

However, over the course of the next year, the company began to lose steam. The railroad funded other plans that left Medora on the sidelines, and Deadwood sought other means of commerce. Just one year after its birth, the stage line failed.

It was around this time that Seth Bullock met a young man from New York with big ideas of experiencing the wilderness. Can you guess who it was? Yes, it was Theodore Roosevelt himself. He had met the Marquis, even dined in his hunting lodge and borrowed books from his library and knew of the Marquis’s dreams of financial success. But the two of them in the same town was like two giant fish in a little pond.

A man holds a gun wearing a beanie looking hat, a jacket with tassles, and a bandana tied around his neck. Trees are in the background.

Theodore Roosevelt, a neighbor of the Marquis, friend of Sheriff Bullock, and future president of the United States.

As you know, Roosevelt became president of the United States in 1901, and he famously credited the North Dakota Badlands with giving him the experience he needed to become the leader of the country. Not only did the Badlands shore him up for D.C. challenges, but it also gave him connections. In Deadwood, Bullock and Roosevelt hit it off. As their personal aspirations lead them on separate paths, they worked hard to preserve their friendship. Bullock even erected a monument to represent the esteem the two men held for each other.

Today, Medora and Deadwood have once again begun a partnership. The Deadwood Historic Preservation Commission, based in Sheriff Bullock’s hometown, reached out to the Chateau de Morès, home of the Marquis in Medora. Now, the Chateau de Morès State Historic Site is host to a traveling excellent exhibit that shares the intricacies of Roosevelt’s friendship with Bullock.

Four tan colored exhibit banners with text and images. Some of the images are documents. Others are of people and horses.

Current exhibit at the Chateau de Morès Interpretive Center, featuring the friendship of Roosevelt and Bullock. Free and open to the public through Labor Day, 2020.

The success of this new venture between our two sites depends, in part, on you! Be sure to visit the Chateau de Morès this summer to learn more about three great men—the Marquis, the sheriff, and the president—and then journey down to Deadwood to discover even more! You’ll uncover a history that makes you smile, and, if you’re lucky, you might even hear a joke that makes you laugh. All three gentlemen would approve.