Hopping off Exit 27 from Interstate 94 into Theodore Roosevelt’s old stomping grounds, sagebrush country of the Badlands welcomes visitors into the western town of Medora where cowboys, Native Americans and Wild West ways once roamed free. At the heart of the town stands a modern 15,000 square-foot facility that houses a theater, memorabilia, galleries and interpretive areas, preserving the western heritage of North Dakota.

This is the North Dakota Cowboy Hall of Fame: Center of Western Heritage and Cultures.

Executive Director Rick Thompson, who’s led that role for the past seven years at the North Dakota Cowboy Hall of Fame, is hopeful that the 2021 tourism season will exceed expectations.

In 2020, Thompson attested that the museum saw a drastically low number of visitors between June and July due to the ongoing coronavirus pandemic and reduced travel coming in from the East. The museum were down approximately 4,000 visitors compared to previous seasons where the facility will see an annual count of 16,000.

However, as the Indian summer weather remained, the North Dakota Cowboy Hall of Fame saw a spike in visitors, which was due in part to children either not in school or were virtually learning.

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“We were lucky just to be able to keep our doors open and let people come in if they want. We encourage masks, of course. We're a little bit different, because we can stage people through here,” Thompson said, explaining, “So we would let a family go in and as we show a film at the front entrance, we'd let the family see that (while) the next group would go in and see it, and then we can just keep people moving through the museum. It was a lot easier for us probably than somebody just coming and shopping in a store because you don't know where they're going to go.”

Typically, tourists are mainly coming from the Midwest to eastern states such as Wisconsin, Minnesota, Illinois, Pennsylvania, Ohio and Iowa. Last year, Thompson said he was amazed at the unusual high amount of southern travelers coming from Texas, Nebraska and Kansas.

The museum stayed open until Dec. 15, 2020, and closed down for the winter months. But with travelers already flocking to Medora, Thompson predicts a successful season is on the rise.

“I think this will be a big year for Medora, period. And if it's good for Medora, it'll be good for us. But I think people are really ready to get back to normal summer vacation travel and we're seeing more people (earlier this year),” Thompson noted.

Following the entrance at the museum, visitors experience a 15-minute film, describing the settlement of Medora in the late 1800s and early 1900s. From there, visitors are able to navigate their own way through the facility. Guided tours are offered for certain groups if requested.

Exhibits range from Native American war bonnets to a wide range of saddles ridden by world championship rodeo ladies and gents. Medora was founded through the cattle drives that journeyed all the way from Texas to North Dakota, Thompson noted, adding that the North Dakota Cowboy Hall of Fame strives to incorporate the various eras including early ranching to “the cowboy.”

“It’s just a good sampling of history, and that’s what we try to maintain the history of how we were settled (and) what’s happened since then from the 1800s to now,” Thompson said. “We share history because of that trail drive. Most of the trail drives originated in Texas and moved up through Oklahoma, Kansas to North Dakota… It’s interesting why people did what they did. Sometimes it was just fortune. They took the wrong path or went down the wrong road or whatever and ended up somewhere.”

Each year, the North Dakota Cowboy Hall of Fame inducts new members into 13 different categories ranging from rodeo livestock, modern-era ranching to pre-1940s ranching. Since the first induction in the late 1990s, the North Dakota Cowboy Hall of Fame has sworn in nearly 200 people.

“One of the main things that we do is preserve that history. When we induct somebody, we get a piece of their history, and there's a lot of people. There's people in ranching that have done big things. And we gather that history because they're in the Hall of Fame, we have their entire story,” Thompson added.

The North Dakota Cowboy Hall of Fame will open its doors May 1 with a premiere on May 8, featuring guest speaker and “Yellowstone” TV show actor Forrie J. Smith. The 2021 season will also feature new exhibit displays and on June 18 and 19, the North Dakota Cowboy Hall of Fame will induct six new members.

The North Dakota Cowboy Hall of Fame is located at 250 Main St., Medora, N.D., 58645. To saddle into the past of the West, visit the North Dakota Cowboy Hall of Fame’s website at northdakotacowboy.com or call 701-623-2000.