SCMM Front Porch Chat on RooseveltOn July 29 at the Stutsman County Memorial Museum, Ruth Brubakken talked about President Theodore Roosevelt. The focus of her Front Porch Chat was not on his political life but on his personal life and his eventual ties to the Badlands of North Dakota. Brubakken called herself “an amateur presidential historian” and recommended a book by Edmund Morris, “The Rise of Theodore Roosevelt,” as a source for biographical information on the president.
On July 29 at the Stutsman County Memorial Museum, Ruth Brubakken talked about President Theodore Roosevelt. The focus of her Front Porch Chat was not on his political life but on his personal life and his eventual ties to the Badlands of North Dakota. Brubakken called herself “an amateur presidential historian” and recommended a book by Edmund Morris, “The Rise of Theodore Roosevelt,” as a source for biographical information on the president.
She said there are biographies, journals, diaries, thousands of letters written by the president and even his autobiography available to those interested in his life story, so she found it difficult to limit the length of her talk. Therefore, she concentrated on the early part of his life and his first experiences in the Badlands.
Brubakken said the Roosevelts liked to use nicknames: The first Theodore Roosevelt (the president’s father) was called “Thee” and came from a wealthy Dutch family that was part of the “Knickerbockers” of New York. Thee was a philanthropist and humanitarian. As a successful fundraiser, he founded and backed many charitable organizations. One of these was the Orphan Train that took orphans out of the big city and took them out west to be adopted in smaller communities. Some of those children ended up in Jamestown.
In 1853, Thee married Martha Bulloch from Georgia. Her nickname became Mittie. They had four children: The first, Anna, was known as Bamie, short for bambina, and also as Auntie Bye, because as she got older, she was always on the go and saying “Goodbye” as she left.
Brubakken said Bamie later became a role model and mentor to her niece, Eleanor Roosevelt (wife of Franklin Roosevelt and daughter of Bamie’s brother, Elliot). Bamie was also a close adviser to her brother, Theodore when he became president.
Brubakken said Theodore, the second child, was nicknamed Teedie. He suffered from severe bronchial asthma, and the family traveled extensively throughout his childhood hoping to find a climate that would offer him some relief. When Theodore was 13, a new doctor finally advised Theodore to strengthen his lungs through exercise. Theodore threw himself into an exercise routine and his lifelong pursuit of the “strenuous life” kept his asthma under control.
Elliot was the third child born to Thee and Mittie. Brubakken said he felt overshadowed by Theodore and became involved with friends who were not a good influence. When his father, Thee, died of stomach cancer in 1878 at the age of 46, Elliot succumbed to alcoholism. He died at the age of 34, after falling or jumping out a window while drunk.
The youngest of Thee and Mittie’s children was Corinne. She was a published poet and wrote a biography of her brother, Theodore, later in life. Corinne married someone she didn’t really love, possibly in response to the death of her father, Brubakken said.
Theodore loved and collected animals which he drew and categorized scientifically at the age of 9. Brubakken shared some humorous situations Theodore got himself into due to this fondness for animals. She said visitors needed to be alert to the possibility of a snake in a water pitcher or something else sitting on a chair before they sat down.
At the age of 13 or 14, Theodore had a strong interest in taxidermy, so his parents arranged for him to receive lessons from the Audubons. His bedroom was soon full of his handiwork, much to the chagrin of his younger brother, Elliot, who had to share the room.
Theodore was an avid reader and read a book a day. He had a photographic memory and, as an adult, once amazed a visiting ambassador from India by reciting a poem by an Indian author. Theodore had learned the poem 30 years earlier. Brubakken said Theodore wrote 38 books, some of them best sellers.
Theodore was a sophomore at Harvard when his father died and responded by exercising incessantly. A friend and father figure, Bill Sewall, convinced him to take a hunting trip to Maine to help get Theodore through his grief. Bill and his nephew, Wilmot Dow, would later operate Elkhorn Ranch together with Theodore.
During his junior year, Theodore met Alice Hathaway Lee. He called her Sunshine, because of her cheerful disposition. They married after Theodore graduated. She was the love of his life until she died at age 22 from complications after the birth of their daughter, Alice Lee. Alice had died just a few hours after the death of his mother. He marked the terrible day in his diary with a large “X” and he stated “the light has gone out of my life.” Theodore was never able to talk about his first marriage, not even in his autobiography.
He had fallen in love with the Badlands when he took a two-week hunting trip to hunt a buffalo in September 1883. The cold, rainy weather didn’t dampen the thrill of the hunt for Theodore. While the rest of the hunting party was miserable, Theodore thought it was just “bully.” By the end of the trip he had purchased the Maltese Cross Ranch. After the death of Alice and Mittie he returned to the Badlands, and stayed for two years. In 1886 he returned to New York and married his childhood sweetheart, Edith Carow. They would eventually have five children.
Brubakken ended her presentation with a quote from Edmund Morris, “…if it had not been for my time in North Dakota, I would not have become President of the United States.”
Next week’s Front Porch Chat will feature Mary Young and her daughter, Rebecca Young-Sletten, speaking on the Fort Totten Trail. This is the first in a series of presentations along the route from Fort Seward to Fort Totten. The study is funded by The North Dakota Humanities Council.