A Writing Desk for the Elkhorn

Duey and Char Marthaller recently donated a handcrafted desk to the Theodore Roosevelt Presidential Library (TRPL). It is an exact replica of the writing desk at which Theodore Roosevelt sat and wrote parts of four books and countless letters home during his mid-1880s sojourn in the badlands of Dakota Territory.

Duey Marthaller stands by the desk he handcrafted and recently donated to the Theodore Roosevelt Presidential Library. It is an exact replica of the writing desk at which Theodore Roosevelt sat and wrote parts of four books and countless letters home during his mid-1880s sojourn in the badlands of Dakota Territory.

Roosevelt was one of the most prolific writers ever to serve as President of the United States, penning more than 40 books in his 60 years, several of which were at least partially completed while sitting at a modest desk at the Elkhorn Ranch.

In a letter to his sister Anna dated March 28, 1886, TR wrote about the happenings at the ranch and hunting for prairie chickens and deer.

“The rest of the time I read or else work at Benton, which is making very slow progress; writing is to me intensely irksome work,” he wrote.

Roosevelt was referring to writing his 1886 biography of Senator Thomas Hart Benton. In his letter, he also described the sitting room that he used as a study, with its “great fireplace and a rocking chair”.

Duey Marthaller’s reproduction desk will be the first piece of furniture in the Elkhorn Ranch Cabin replica being built this summer on the TR Presidential Library site in Dickinson, N.D.

Marthaller is a retired civil engineer and avid woodworker. Mostly he builds furniture for family members, like the vintage style bed he is currently working on for his grandson. He also does wood turning, creating stunning bowls and other items that showcase the natural beauty of the wood grain.

His inspiration for building the desk came after he and Char had dinner with Joe Wiegand, a nationally-acclaimed first-person interpreter who portrays Roosevelt in Medora, N.D., each summer.

“He is so committed to his work. I thought, ‘I should build him something related to TR,’” Marthaller said. “And then I thought of the desk.”

But, he didn’t build just one; he built four exact replicas this winter in his Mandan, N.D., shop.

“He always builds more than one,” laughed Char.

TR’s original writing desk is among the furnishings in the Maltese Cross Cabin at Theodore Roosevelt National Park (TRNP). To build the reproduction desks, the Marthallers first spent some time there taking meticulous measurements and numerous photographs.

“The desk appears to have been handmade,” Marthaller said. “This is not a factory piece.”

He came to this conclusion partly because of minor inconsistencies in the manufacture of the desk itself. For example, a section of the underside of the desk was worked with a hand planer to make the boards thinner, but this plan was apparently abandoned by the builder when he realized additional planing might compromise the sturdiness of the piece.

Also, if the lid of the desk is opened too far, it will hit the front lip close to the hinges. There is evidence that the lid was broken and repaired because of this minor design flaw.

Marthaller also noted the flimsily constructed inner shelves, which are merely nailed together and sit inside the writing desk, almost as an afterthought.

These idiosyncrasies aside, Marthaller marveled at the skill of the original builder.

“The overall quality of the craftsmanship is superior, especially when considering it was likely built using hand tools without electricity,” he said.

Although Marthaller opted to use modern tools to build the reproductions, he paid close attention to every feature of the original, including the partial hand-planing on the underside of the desk.

Much of the wood Marthaller used to construct the replica desks dates from the time period the original was built. He crafted the sides of the desk from pews that were reclaimed from a church in Enderlin, N.D., and used reclaimed columns from a Mott, N.D., church for the legs.

“It is important to use reclaimed lumber if possible in reproduction pieces because the grain of the wood is tight and straight, just as lumber from that time period would have been,” Marthaller said.

His meticulous attention to creating an exact replica shows in every detail, including the hasp that sits just slightly off center on the desk lid and the final finish which is stained, shellacked, and hand-rubbed with paste wax.

The Theodore Roosevelt Presidential Library Foundation is beginning construction of the Elkhorn Ranch cabin replica this summer and, when construction is complete, the desk that Duey Marthaller built will be placed carefully in the study.

As for the other three, the Marthallers gave one to Joe Wiegand, one to the Theodore Roosevelt Medora Foundation, and one to the National Park. TRNP intends to replace the fragile original in the Maltese Cross Cabin with the replica and place the original in storage for its preservation.