Louise W. Knight got her hands dirty Saturday morning.
The author and historian from Evanston, Ill., who is in Dickinson as a speaker at the Theodore Roosevelt Symposium, tore into the bark of cottonwood trees at the behest of Roosevelt scholar and symposium leader Clay Jenkinson.
As Jenkinson spoke about the process for how the trees will soon be used to build a replica of Roosevelt’s Elkhorn Ranch cabin, Knight wrapped her hands around the bark and started to pull. In all, she tore off about 10 feet of bark from a cottonwood sitting at the site of the proposed Theodore Roosevelt Presidential Library.
“The most fun work is where you see the results right away, and this is that kind of work,” Knight said with a smile.
Knight was among dozens of symposium visitors who spent about an hour learning about the work being done by the Theodore Roosevelt Presidential Library Foundation to build a $100 million facility at the site of the former Dickinson State University rodeo grounds.
Though the attendees—many self-described “Tedheads”—came from several states, most said they are fine with a Roosevelt presidential library being built in Dickinson as opposed to other, more accessible areas of the country.
“I’m impressed a city of this size can take that on,” said Paul Grondahl, an author and reporter for the Albany (N.Y.) Times-Union who spoke Friday at the symposium. “They didn’t steal it away. But they outcompeted Long Island and, where I am, the capitol in Albany, sure would have loved that. But they got to it first. They’ve got great momentum.”
Knight said she believes the established relationship between Roosevelt’s history and southwest North Dakota make Dickinson an ideal place for the museum, adding it “makes a great deal of sense” to put it here, as opposed to Medora or out of state.
“I think everyone thinks it really belongs here,” she said. “The people I’ve talked to, no one has really raised the question, ‘Why isn’t it somewhere else?’ It’s very logical.”
Symposium speaker Gerard Helferich published “Theodore Roosevelt and the Assassin” in 2013 and is writing another book about the former president’s relationship with J.P. Morgan. For both books, he used the Theodore Roosevelt Center digital library at DSU—the seed for the potential presidential library.
Though Helferich is originally from New York, like Roosevelt, he thinks fans of the former president will like the idea of placing the library in Dickinson and close to the Theodore Roosevelt National Park.
“I guess there could be some professional jealousy, or people who say, ‘Why didn’t we think of that? Why don’t we have that in New York?'” Helferich said. “I can’t believe any Roosevelt fan wouldn’t applaud it.”
Dr. Bruce Pitts, the chairman of the Theodore Roosevelt Presidential Library Foundation, said the group has $15 million in cash committed to the project with an $85 million fundraising initiative beginning this month.
Pitts maintains the library is “ambitious and doable,” and said he has been visiting presidential libraries throughout the country the learn more about them. He said it surprises most people to learn that the Dwight Eisenhower library is in Abilene, Kan., a city of less than 7,000 people, and the Herbert Hoover library is in West Branch, Iowa, a town of about 2,300.
“I have no doubts about our ability to raise the long-term funds over time,” Pitts said.
Knight, who has a background in fundraising, called the Roosevelt presidential library is a great idea with smart people behind it.
“What impresses me is these guys (Pitts and Jenkinson), they really know what they’re doing,” she said. “They’re doing a really high-standard, professional job, in that they’re consulting professionals every step of the way.”
Symposium speaker John Hilpert said while the library is a challenging undertaking for DSU and the library foundation, he compared it favorably to a project taken on by Cleveland, Miss., where he lived when he was president of Delta State University.
Cleveland, a city of only 16,000 people, opened the Grammy Museum Mississippi earlier this year because of the area’s tradition of blues and roots music. The museum is connected with the Los Angeles Grammy Museum and has been “highly successful,” Hilpert said.
“In that same tradition, I think this (Dickinson) is a good place for the Roosevelt project,” Hilpert said.
Pitts and DSU President Tom Mitzel both said throughout the weekend that they asked symposium attendees about placing the Roosevelt presidential library in Dickinson and found nearly no pushback about the location.
Most, Pitts said, are just happy that the presidential may finally be getting his own library and museum.
“Several people came up to me just the past couple of days to say, ‘Wow, this is really going to happen, isn’t it?'” Pitts said. “Yes it is.”