The Unusual Journey of Theodore Roosevelt's Maltese Cross Cabin
Before becoming president and moving to the White House, Theodore Roosevelt made a ponderosa pine log cabin in the Dakota Badlands his temporary home. The Maltese Cross Cabin was a place he came to live the life of a cowboy, in a secluded area that was basically the opposite of the bustling streets of his native New York City. But the house didn't stay secluded for long: Throughout the first half of the 20th century, it was exhibited in cities across the country, making it one of the most well-traveled former homes of any U.S. president.
Though it looks humble by today's standards, the Maltese Cross Cabin was regarded as a mansion by Dakota ranchers in the late 1800s. After Roosevelt purchased primary interest in the Chimney Butte Ranch—or the Maltese Cross Ranch, as it was known by locals—he had a one-and-a-half story cabin constructed on the property. It had many features that were luxurious for the plains of the Dakota territory, such as three rooms, wood floors, and a pitched, shingled roof that housed space for a loft. It was the New Yorker's main Dakota home when he made trips to the area in 1883 and 1884, when the Elkhorn became his primary ranch.
When Roosevelt assumed the presidency at the turn of the 20th century, the Maltese Cross Cabin embarked on an eventful new chapter. It was no longer owned by TR by that time, but thanks to its former owner's new title, the building was more famous than ever. The organizers of the North Dakota exhibit at the 1904 World's Fair hatched a plan to share the landmark with a wider audience. The state purchased the cabin, took it apart, and shipped it to St. Louis where it was reassembled in time for the World's Fair on April 30, 1904. The 20 million people who attended the exposition were able to see the rugged cabin that once housed the president without trekking to the Badlands as TR had 20 years earlier.
The exhibit was a success. In fact, it was so well received that Portland, Oregon, asked to show the cabin at the city's Lewis and Clark Centennial Exposition the following year.
So the Maltese Cross Cabin made another trip—this time to the West Coast, where it would stay from June 1 to October 15 of 1905. When the exposition concluded, the structure was shipped back to North Dakota for the state fair in Fargo. The next time it was moved—now to Bismarck in North Dakota—excitement around the artifact had faded, and it was left on the grounds of the state capital for years, where it fell into a state of disrepair. It wasn't until the Daughters of the American Revolution took possession of the cabin in 1919 that it was restored to its former glory.
In 1959, the cabin made its final journey. Some of TR's old ranch land in North Dakota had been made into a National Park, and the National Park Service wanted to return the structure to its original home. They worried that the cabin wouldn't be able to handle another disassembly, so instead of breaking it down, they secured the entire 26-by-18-foot house to a flat-bed truck and drove it 135 miles across the state.
The Maltese Cross Cabin has resided at Theodore Roosevelt National Park ever since. But it wasn't exactly returned to its original location: Roosevelt's ranch house sits several miles away from the spot where it was constructed in the early 1880s. Despite the numerous trips and deconstructions, many aspects of the building, including its ponderosa pine logs, have remained the same throughout the decades.