Harold Schafer: The man who saved Medora
May 3—MEDORA, N.D. — Harold Schafer, the father of former North Dakota Governor Ed Schafer, is a renowned philanthropist, known for his commitment to improving the lives of people in his community. After starting his own company, Gold Seal, he turned to the betterment of Medora, his hometown. His mission began when he bought and restored the historic Roughrider Hotel, and went on to buy other properties in an effort to preserve the history of the west.
With the proceeds from Gold Seal, he set up the Theodore Roosevelt Medora Foundation, a non-profit organization that became his life's purpose. His dedication to preserving history and culture while creating opportunities for people in his community was an inspiration to many, including his son.
Harold was born in Stanton, ND, in 1911. His family moved around between Hazen, Killdeer, Bismarck, Jamestown and Glen Ullin. Harold's father died when he was 16, so he took it upon himself to provide for his mom and two brothers by working three jobs while attending high school. Ed explained that's when he realized he could improve the lives of others through his own hard work — buying a classmate a Coke or candy bar to make their tough day a little better.
"His whole mission of working and generosity to other people was just ingrained in me. And it was my DNA," Ed said. "The team that he built, the company that he built, I mean, people would walk through a brick wall for that guy."
Harold worked as a traveling salesman offering linoleum, glass, paint and other hardware supplies. He often hunted to save money while on the road. Then in 1942, four years before Ed was born, he started Gold Seal Company, which offered floor wax and turned out to be incredibly lucrative.
"I grew up in the company, so to speak. He traveled all the time but when he was home I was in the office with him — crawling on the floor, working in the mail room or whatever. As far as leadership goes... He was a hard worker. The motto of the company was, 'Work, which creates profit with which to build happiness.' Money to him wasn't important for accumulation. Money to him, was about earning to be generous to other people," he said.
He credits Harold for much of his success.
"He was inspiring from being able to humanize a business, capital formation... for the betterment of people. Now, I think I was able to translate it into the government sector, but it's the same concept. I mean, it's, you know, how can you take the resources you have at hand and help people with better life?," he explained. "That's what I picked up from my dad: honesty, integrity and work ethic."
Harold loved wildlife, Theodore Roosevelt and the rugged spirit of the Western Edge. According to outdoor blogger and former ND Tourism Director Jim Fuglie, Harold Schafer spearheaded the effort to bring wild turkeys to as a leading member in his chapter of the Isaak Walton League of America in the early 1950s. Ed said he remembered releasing some of those turkeys with Harold and his friends at the time.
"It was an expensive proposition, but with Harold Schafer's financial help, they set out to establish wild turkeys in North Dakota... They purchased turkey eggs for $1.75 each, and adult birds for $25 each. In 1951 dollars, that was a lot of money. Teaming up with the ND Game and Fish Department, the Ikes found cooperative farmers and began raising wild turkeys in pens. The first significant releases were in 1952 along the Heart and Missouri rivers," Fuglie wrote in a 2018 blog post.
By 1962, 241 turkeys were purportedly harvested by area hunters. Additionally, Harold is the primary reason Medora has become the Roughrider State's most popular tourist destination. His efforts starting in the 1960s gradually breathed new life into the town, renewing much of the rough and tumble legacy Teddy Roosevelt left behind. Ed recalled a memory of his father bringing him to Medora at 6 years old. They stood atop a high bluff overlooking the town.
"He's looking down going, 'There's too much here to be lost.' And I'm looking down thinking, there's nothing there. There's a decrepit broken down old cow town, dirt streets, buildings falling down. No activity... I think it was more of a melancholy, we're losing a way of life you know, we're losing the frontier. We're losing entrepreneurialism and opportunity," Ed said, explaining that years later he understood his father's wisdom at that moment. "It wasn't a specific vision, it was more what we're losing in culture and society."
In the early 1960s Harold purchased the historic Roughrider Hotel, at that point an abandoned building, after a discussion with the leader of the ND Historical Society Russell Reid. He attempted to give the deed to the society so the state government could restore it, but legislators wouldn't provide the funding. That's when Harold took it upon himself and his Medora mission began.
So he restored the hotel, installed public bathrooms and a cafeteria, recalling his days as a traveling salesman when such amenities were hard to find. Then Harold bought properties belonging to Marquis de Morès and restored them to preserve their historical value as well.
By 1986 Harold and his family decided it was a good time sell off his portion of the Gold Seal Company, and the Medora entities were a division within it. Buyers weren't too enthusiastic about that division as it wasn't very profitable at the time. So it was separated off and turned into a non-profit organization called the Theodore Roosevelt Medora Foundation, which became his new mission in life as a board member.
"He didn't have hobbies... When he sold the company, he didn't know what to do," Ed said. "Medora was Harold's landing place. That gave him purpose and direction in his life. And I firmly believe that saved his life. I think he would have deteriorated rapidly had another Medora."
Kinley Slauter, director of entertainment for the foundation, said he started there as a seasonal worker in 1997 and fell in love with the town. He had already been there for the musical twice before that. He elaborated on what he believes makes it such a special place.
"Medora has a realness to it, a kind of a genuine nature. Things are drawn from history and from the past. What we do here, while it's entertainment... It's based on some history and really interesting people," Slauter said. "One of the things that I really appreciate about the organization I work for is Harold and Sheila Schafer as the founders. Their full commitment to making Medora succeed wasn't driven personally, it was just that they had a genuine interest in Medora being a lasting destination or experience for people."