Last week during spring break, I fulfilled a long-time dream of visiting Theodore Roosevelt’s home in Oyster Bay, Long Island, known as Sagamore Hill.
By Jeannette Tulis / Esprit newsletter
Theodore Roosevelt has been a hero of mine ever since I read the book Speak Softly and Carry a Big Stick by Dr. George Grant. Later I read a book about his boyhood by Frances Cavanah that further cemented him as one to admire. But it was when I read Mornings on Horseback by David McCullough on his early family life, youth and early adult life that he became a bit of an obsession. I visited his birthplace in New York City, his mother’s home, Bulloch Hall in Roswell, Ga., and longed to visit Sagamore Hill. Alas, it was closed for renovations for three years and I had to wait.
One of my dearest friends grew up near Oyster Bay on Long Island and promised that when it re-opened, we would go there together. Both she and I had daughters living in NYC so this past Spring break, Providence smiled, our plans solidified and we traveled together to the big city, arranging a ride on the Long Island Railroad out to Oyster Bay. Of course, we picked the coldest day of March.
The high was 40 degrees and it was reached around 6 in the morning that day. The mercury dropped steadily all day and it was in the 20’s or less when we got to Oyster Bay. It was a three mile walk to Sagamore Hill from the train station. Needless to say, we opted for an Uber and found a lovely café that offered 10 different kinds of soup that warmed our innards our Uber ride picked us up. “Didn’t a president live there?” queried the driver when we told him our destination. Oh, yes, I wanted to say, a president did live there and what a life he lived!
After reading about Sagamore and the lively, inspiring, rambunctious, book loving family that lived in that house, I was not sure the reality would match up to my expectations. The father, Theodore Roosevelt, assemblyman, civil servant, police commissioner, governor of New York, Secretary of the Navy, vice president and then president, was an inspiring figure then and now. Friends and foe alike acknowledged his love for family and Sagamore Hill.
The park rangers in the gift shop impressed me with their love and knowledge of TR. One cannot ramble through the house on one’s own as in times past. The most one can get is a one-hour tour. Ours lasted longer (because I ask a lot of questions).
The minute I stepped into the house with our guide, I knew where I was. I knew what happened in each room of the house. I knew that in the library, the children would all gather and would recite memorized poetry and speeches to the delight of their parents. I knew that Edith, the mom, decorated one room to her liking, with no hunting trophies on the wall, and only two animal skins on the floor, one of them a polar bear given to her by Admiral Peary, the famed North Pole explorer.
I knew Edith served tea to her guests and would steal away to read in this beautifully appointed and tastefully decorated room. I knew that in the dining room there were great conversations with a colorful variety of guests. It was a great honor to graduate from the nursery meals and be able to join their parents, guests and older siblings and contribute to the discussions on a myriad of topics, all of which TR was an expert due to his wide reading and nearly photographic memory.
One of his sons described it like this: “In one afternoon I have heard him speak to the foremost Bible student of the world, a prominent ornithologist, a diplomat and a French general, all of who agreed that Father knew more about the subjects on which they had specialized than they did.”
A room full of books
I was also familiar with the North Room added on during his presidency when he needed a larger area and the children needed a ballroom for dancing. I knew many of the artifacts in this room. I loved that nearly every room had bookcases full of books. The rangers assured me that every book in Sagamore was original to the house and what is more, was placed in the room where it usually was. We glanced in the children’s bedrooms, the oldest daughter Alice’s girlish room, the eldest son’s room with its Harvard pennant, and the nursery.
At every turn I imagined hearing the voices of the children, the sound of feet tramping on the stairs or the swish of them sliding down the banister, or seeing them curled up with their dad or their mom listening to a favorite story book. I initially feared that Sagamore could not live up to my expectations which seemed to have grown during the long wait imposed by the restoration.
I needn’t have worried. As the tour ended, I found my eyes filling with tears. Now I am not one to cry over books or movies. But this house with all of its shining ideals intact was incredibly moving. This place made sacred by the people who lived here, by the one man and one woman faithfully living out their principals with their six children, servants, guests and extended family brought me to tears.
Perhaps I was grieving the loss of that kind of family life today. Perhaps I was yearning for the beauty of tradition, creation of memories, and the pure love of family. Perhaps I was sad that I did not live in TR’s time and therefore never got a chance to get to know this amazing man and his family.
Courage and moral stamina
I came away with a list of a whole slew of books I still need to read about different aspects of the life of Theodore Roosevelt. But I also came away with fresh inspiration to love our family life. Here are a few ideals TR had which I believe can inspire us today. (All quotes from The Roosevelt Family of Sagamore Hill by Hermann Hagedorn)
“In all that the father and mother taught the children, directly or through songs and stories of the need of courage and moral stamina, they never failed to stress the importance of that combination of strength and tenderness which which must neither suffer wrong, nor inflict it.
“Theodore initiated the children in the wonders, joys and exactions of outdoor life as soon as they could walk. Birds were, from the first, more than just birds to them. They were indigo buntings or thistle finches, Baltimore orioles that nested in the young elms around the house . . .The children learned early to recognize beauty when they saw it, in the shy mayflower and the trailing arbutus, the shadblow and the anemones, the laurel and the locust, as in the splendor that flamed over the Bay at sunset.”
“There are two things that I want you to make up your mind to: first, that you are going to have a good time as long as your live– I have no use for a sour-faced man– and next, that you are going to do something worth while that you are going to work hard and do the things you set out to do.”
Believing in our children
So to honor TR and to take some of his lessons to heart, I urge you to read aloud from a worthy book to your children at least a portion of every day. Teach them the names of things in the natural world. Establish your own family traditions for the holidays. Talk to your children, play with them, write them letters when they leave home, let them know daily that you are in their corner, that you believe in them, that you know God will use them greatly in His kingdom.
I will close with a quote from Theodore Roosevelt.
“Let us therefore boldly face the life of strife, resolute to do our duty well and manfully; resolute to uphold righteousness by deed and word; to be resolute to be both honest and brave, to serve high ideals, yet to use practical methods. Above all, let us shrink from no strife, moral or physical, within or without the nation, provided we are certain that the strife is justified, for it is only though strife, though hard and dangerous endeavor, that we shall ultimately win the goal of true national greatness.” (The Strenuous Life; Speech before the Hamilton Club, Chicago, April 10, 1899)
— Used by permission of Esprit newsletter. Jeannette Tulis, mother of four children, is secretary of the Chattanooga chapter of the Tennessee Home Education Association.