On September 30, 1918, an exuberant fellow got off the interurban electric railroad known as the Columbus, Delaware and Marion Railway and walked east on Granville Road in Worthington to this house. He had spent the day in downtown Columbus to launch the fourth Liberty Loan Drive, speaking at a luncheon at the Masonic Temple and addressing the crowd that had gathered at the corner of Broad and High Streets for the dedication of the Franklin County Soldiers’ War Memorial on the northwest quarter of the Statehouse grounds. Before he returned home to his Long Island, New York home, he would spend the night here, at the home of his friend.
The fellow was Theodore Roosevelt. His friend was retired General Charles Cooper, a fellow Rough Rider during the Spanish-American War. And Roosevelt’s Long Island home was Sagamore Hill, the legendary estate that reopened last July after a three-and-a-half-year, $10 million restoration project.
Three generations of Roosevelts had summered on the north shore of Long Island, so in 1880, Theodore’s fond childhood memories prompted him to buy 155 acres of farmland high on a hill in the center of the peninsula, with Cold Spring Harbor on one side and Oyster Bay on the other. He decided to build a home for his family there and call it Leeholm in honor of his wife, Alice Hathaway Lee. When Alice died in 1884 after the birth of their daughter, Alice Lee, Theodore named it Sagamore, after the Algonquin word for chieftain or “head of the tribe.” Two years later, Theodore married Edith Kermit Carow, and Sagamore Hill was completed. The 22-room, three-story Queen Anne-style house became the Roosevelts’ home for the rest of their lives, first as a summer home, and then their permanent residence after 1910.
Theodore had definite ideas about how Sagamore Hill should look. He wanted a large piazza where he could sit on a rocking chair and look at the sun setting on Long Island Sound and the shores of Connecticut, a library with a bay window looking south, a parlor stretching across the western end of the first floor, and thick foundations and large fireplaces to withstand the wintry blasts that made the home so difficult to heat that he called Sagamore Hill the “Bird Cage.” Except for Edith’s parlor, the décor was decidedly masculine, with mahogany ceiling beams, dark walnut moldings and hunting trophies galore.
Theodore loved hunting, from tracking game and demonstrating his skill in marksmanship to writing about his experiences, such as in his 1885 book, Hunting Trips of a Ranchman, and collecting specimens that formed the basis of the Smithsonian’s Natural History Museum collection. Whether in the American West or on an African safari, Roosevelt hunted for sport and education, but not just for the sake of killing animals.
Be warned; if taxidermy makes you squeamish, hang on to a buddy as you walk through the first floor of Sagamore Hill. The head of an African Cape Buffalo hangs over the mantelpiece in the entrance hall, and a moose head graces the dining room. Pairs of elephant tusks flank dinner gongs and doorways. A rhinoceros foot inkstand and an elephant foot wastepaper basket stand ready at Theodore’s desk. Buffalo heads hang opposite elk heads, from whose antlers hang Theodore’s Rough Rider hat and sword. Animal skins cover the floors, including a polar bear rug that Admiral Robert E. Peary gave the Roosevelts after his return from the North Pole; Oyster Bay was his last stop before he started the journey on his ship, The Roosevelt.
More than 90 percent of Sagamore Hill’s furnishings are original to the house, and Theodore’s presence is everywhere.
A pair of blue-and-white Spanish ginger jars on the entrance hall mantel used to hold the children’s tennis balls, while a matching bowl in the drawing room was the dogs’ water dish. A silver tankard came from Theodore’s Harvard classmates. The Roosevelts purchased the dining room furniture during their wedding trip to Florence, Italy. Charles McKim, the architect who directed the White House’s remodeling in 1902, presented the couple with bookcases. Frederic Remington’s Bronco Buster was a gift from the officers and enlisted men of the Rough Riders when the regiment disbanded. The front horn of a bronze rhinoceros Edith didn’t care for was the perfect place for her to hang her summer hat. Thomas Nast gave the Roosevelts a drawing of Santa Claus filling stockings marked with the names of the six Roosevelt children for Christmas in 1901. One room filled with Theodore’s collection of weapons and Western memorabilia is where he wrote several of his books.
At first, Theodore hosted honored guests in his library, like the delegates from Russia and Japan who resolved their conflict and earned him the Nobel Peace Prize. The silver candlestick used in melting the wax that sealed the Treaty of Portsmouth still stands on his desk. After Theodore was elected to a second presidential term, he commissioned C. Grant LaFarge, son of the artist John LaFarge, to design a spacious, dignified and formal room in which to receive distinguished guests. Built entirely of American and Philippine wood, the North Room is a 30’-by-40’ sunken room with black walnut columns, panels carved with “TR” and “EKR” and a high vaulted ceiling of American swamp cypress and hazel wood. Its richly colored wallpaper is embossed with vines and flowers and accented with gold.
When the North Room was added in 1905, the piazza was extended to create a platform from which Theodore addressed the crowds who often gathered at Sagamore Hill. Constant activity was a way of life here. As Theodore’s daughter-in-law, Eleanor Butler Alexander Roosevelt, recalled in Day Before Yesterday: The Reminiscences of Mrs. Theodore Roosevelt, Jr., “Something was going on every minute of the day. The house was always full of people. Conferences went on all day. The telephone never stopped ringing….At first I thought everyone would be tired when the day was over and would go to bed early, but I soon found out that nothing of the kind could be expected. The Roosevelt family enjoyed life too much to waste time sleeping. Every night they stayed downstairs until nearly midnight; then, talking at the top of their voices, they trooped up the wide uncarpeted stairs and went to their rooms. For a brief moment all was still, but just as I was going off to sleep for the second time they remembered things they had forgotten to tell one another and ran shouting through the halls.”
The Roosevelt family motto, “Qui plantavit curabit,” or “He who has planted will preserve,” is carved above the entrance door on the west side of the house. Theodore planted many of the maples, white birches, pines and poplars on Sagamore Hill’s grounds.
At Sagamore Hill, the Roosevelts enjoyed hiking, playing tennis and football, horseback riding, rowing across Oyster Bay for picnics, swimming, running obstacle courses, staging theatrical productions and giving impromptu speeches. It was also a working farm, so they helped tend gardens and fields planted with wheat, rye and barley and cared for farm animals and pets, which included at various times an eagle, a macaw, a mountain lion, guinea pigs, a flying squirrel, a kangaroo rat, a garter snake, a one-legged rooster, and a bear named Jonathan Edwards in honor of one of Edith’s ancestors. Behind the house at Sagamore Hill is a cemetery with a boulder marked “Faithful Friends” where several of those pets are buried.
One pet ended up not in the cemetery, but stretched out on the floor in Theodore’s library at Sagamore Hill. During the president’s 1903 railroad tour of the American West, his train stopped in Sharon Springs, Kansas and a girl gave him a baby badger, which he named Josiah after the girl’s brother. He wrote his children that the little badger reminded him of “a small mattress, with a leg at each corner.” Back at the White House, Josiah became the pet of 12-year-old Ethel and 9-year-old Archie, charming the family with his antics until he developed a temper, started “hissing like a teakettle” and nipping ankles, and was sent to the Bronx Zoo in New York. Click here and here to see photos of Archie holding Josiah at Sagamore Hill, circa 1903-1905.
Theodore and Edith’s oldest son, Theodore Roosevelt, Jr., and his wife, Eleanor Butler Alexander Roosevelt, commissioned their son-in-law, Baltimore architect William G. McMillan, Jr., to build them a home in the old apple orchard behind Sagamore Hill in 1938. They named it “Old Orchard,” filling it with mementos from their world travels. Eleanor continued to live there after her husband passed away in 1944 until her death in 1960. Today, it houses a museum that chronicles the president’s life and career. Artifacts on display include Roosevelt’s Rough Rider uniform, tailored by Brooks Brothers, and mementos from his “Bull Moose” campaign challenging William Howard Taft for the presidential nomination in 1912, so called after he told reporters that he felt “like a bull moose” ready for a fight.
“I wonder if you will ever know how I love Sagamore Hill,” 60-year-old Theodore remarked to Edith hours before he died at Sagamore Hill on January 6, 1919. Edith lived in the house until her death in September 1948 at age 87. Sagamore Hill opened to the public in 1953 and has been a National Park Service site since 1962.
For more on Sagamore Hill, see Sagamore Hill: An Historical Guide, by Hermann Hagedorn and Gary G. Roth; Presidential Retreats: Where the Presidents Went and Why They Went There, by Peter Hannaford; The House Tells the Story: Homes of the American Presidents, by Adam Van Doren, with a foreword by David McCullough; “Theodore Roosevelt: Oyster Bay White House,” in Away from the White House: Presidential Escapes, Retreats, and Vacations, by Lawrence L. Knutson; “The House of the Happy President,” by Henry F. and Katharine Pringle, from the June 13, 1953 issue of The Saturday Evening Post; “Hard Work Worth Doing: Conservation Treatment of Historic Wallpapers at Theodore Roosevelt’s Sagamore Hill,” by the Northeast Document Conservation Center; and “Theodore Roosevelt’s Sagamore Hill Home Cries ‘Bully!’,” from the July 9, 2015 edition of the New York Times.
To learn more about Theodore Roosevelt, read Mornings on Horseback, by David McCullough; The Rise of Theodore Roosevelt; Theodore Rex; and Colonel Roosevelt, all by Edmund Morris; Kathleen Bart’s A Tale of Two Teddies; and Theodore Roosevelt in the Field, a new book by Michael R. Canfield. Canfield is encouraging support for “The Boat Thieves,” a LEGO set that has been proposed about Roosevelt’s Badlands life. Click here to learn more.
Discover more about Roosevelt’s family in Edith Kermit Roosevelt: Creating the Modern First Lady, by Lewis L. Gould; Edith Kermit Roosevelt: Portrait of a First Lady, by Sylvia Jukes Morris; Crowded Hours, by Alice Roosevelt Longworth; Alice: Alice Roosevelt Longworth, from White House Princess to Washington Power Broker, by Stacy A. Cordery; What To Do About Alice?: How Alice Roosevelt Broke the Rules, Charmed the World, and Drove Her Father Teddy Crazy!, by Barbara Kerley; All in the Family, by Theodore Roosevelt, Jr.; The Golden Lad: The Haunting Story of Quentin and Theodore Roosevelt, by Eric Burns; Day Before Yesterday: The Reminiscences of Mrs. Theodore Roosevelt, Jr., by Eleanor Butler Alexander Roosevelt; and “The Coq d’Or of Eleanor Butler Alexander Roosevelt,” Marjorie Littlejohn’s article in the September/October 2001 issue of PieceWork.
Unlike modern presidents, Theodore Roosevelt does not have a presidential library. Instead, his personal and presidential papers are scattered in libraries and other repositories across the country. The Theodore Roosevelt Center at Dickinson State University is creating a comprehensive digital archive of documents, photographs, letters, political cartoons, scrapbooks, diaries, newspaper articles, speeches, film clips and audio recordings related to our 26th president.
See photos from Roosevelt’s September 30, 1918 visit to Columbus here, as recorded in the Columbus in Historic Photographs database.