A century ago, President Theodore Roosevelt died at his home in Sagamore Hill, New York, but his contributions to the West and to Colorado live on.
Teddy was beloved by many Westerners, and he traveled throughout our state over a variety of years. He hunted, gave speeches, held banquets and shook hands, but only one community memorialized his visits in a stunning stained glass window now visible in a public library.
TR is my hero. I love his big, brassy smile, his shining white teeth, his penchant for shouting the words “BULLY!!!” and “DEELIGHTED!!!” A wealthy patrician who grew up in Manhattan with maids and tutors, Teddy suffered from asthma as a child, and his father wondered if the boy would ever grow to manhood. He did. TR lifted weights, exercised in a home gym and became a midweight boxer at Harvard University. The course of his life flowed smoothly through college, politics and marriage, and then on the same fateful day, he lost his mother and his young wife.
Devastated, TR traveled west to North Dakota to shake his grief, hunt bison and bears and become a cattle rancher. The West changed him forever. In September 1900, while campaigning for presidential candidate William McKinley, TR was governor of New York and the Republican vice presidential candidate, he toured Colorado. In Greeley, 3,000 people turned out to hear his high, squeaky, yet impassioned, voice. In Cripple Creek, the governor was flanked by former Rough Riders as 5,000 residents heard him speak.
As vice president-elect, TR came to the Western Slope for a five-week cougar hunt. He arrived by rail, took the stagecoach north from Rifle, had supper at the St. James Episcopal Church Rectory and stayed at the Meeker Hotel. I think I’ve slept in the same room TR did. Maybe even in the same bed, or at least it felt that way.
Teddy hunted from the Keystone Ranch in Coyote Basin and killed two of the largest mountain lions ever taken in North America. He processed the skulls that reside in the Smithsonian Institution’s National Museum of Natural History.
In 1901, an assassin shot McKinley, and at 42, “that damned cowboy” became the youngest president in American history. He brought his family to the “White House,” which he named, and plastered the walls with mounted big-game animal heads. His children slid down the staircase bannisters and once even took a pony up the mansion’s elevator.
In May 1903, President Roosevelt took a famous cross-country railroad trip. As he entered the state out on the Eastern Plains, cowboys blocked his train. They invited him to a chuck wagon breakfast at Hugo. “DEELIGHTED,” Teddy jumped off his fancy palace railroad car and tucked into steak, eggs, biscuits, fried potatoes, brown gravy and black coffee. The same day, the president worked the crowds in Denver, Colorado Springs, Pueblo and Trinidad.
H H H Bored with the presidency and longing to be back in the saddle again, Roosevelt in April 1905 took his special train to Glenwood Springs and then rode west and south for a three-week bear hunt on Divide Creek. His hunting party included 20 horses, 30 dogs and a large cook tent. Local cowboys drifted in, often at dinner time, and TR exclaimed they were as hearty and fit “as young moose.” Teddy killed six bears that spring, and at least one of them may have been a grizzly.
From the pack of hunting hounds, he adopted a young pup named Skip, wrote letters to his boys about the dog, and eventually brought Skip to the White House. At the end of the hunt, TR hosted a huge party at the Hotel Colorado. A century later, in April 2005, I was honored to speak at the centennial event, which at $125 a person faithfully reproduced every item from the 1905 menu. As his hunting buddies got ready to eat, they were baffled by the china, the white linen tablecloths and the multiple knives, forks and spoons. Seeing their hesitancy, TR laughed and said, “Don’t worry, boys, just dig in with whatever utensil is handy.” They did.
The president’s locomotive steamed all night. He left at dawn for further speeches in Salida, a photo shoot in the Royal Gorge where Skip can be seen standing up on two legs, Cañon City, then Denver. As president, TR believed deeply in conservation. Between 1901 and 1909, he set aside 230 million acres as national forests, national parks, national monuments and wildlife refuges. He saved for all of us 8,000 acres a day of public land during his dynamic time in office. When Congress realized Teddy was setting aside so much land as forest reserves, it moved to abolish the 1891 Forest Reserve Act.
Undaunted, TR and his chief forester, Gifford Pinchot, removed all the furniture in a second-story bedroom in the White House, filled the floor with maps and crawled around on their hands and knees looking at boundary lines. Teddy declared another 12 million acres of national forests, many of them in Colorado, before midnight when he lost the authority to do so.
H H H But of all the Colorado communities TR visited, only one chose to commemorate Roosevelt’s time in our state. On Sunday, April 30, 1905, TR, dressed in his hunting garb, spoke at the Blue Schoolhouse south of Silt, and the Rev. Horace Mann photographed the event.
As pastor of the Christian Church in Rifle, Mann then sought funding for a stained-glass window for his church parishioners to vividly remember the president’s visit. The Roosevelt Window includes Teddy’s motto, “All men up, not some men down”; the date of his speech; and in the center panel, “Our Country, Theodore Roosevelt, President.”
Over the years, the Christian Church became the Presbyterian Church, and then it merged with the Methodist Church. By 1969, the building was sold. The windows were offered for sale in 1980. Under the leadership of Pastor Lynn Evans, concerned Rifle residents formed Heritage Windows Inc. to save the precious stained glass. Members of the group even signed personal promissory notes.
Finally, the irreplaceable stained glass panels were restored and reinstalled in September 2010 at the Rifle Branch Library at 207 East Ave. For the 100th anniversary of Roosevelt’s death in January 2019, I spoke at the Rifle library about TR and the West. Just down the hall, the window panels shone brightly in afternoon winter light.
Historic preservation and heritage tourism are vital to our state’s economy. The Roosevelt Window is not to be missed. TR died just as Coloradans began forming a Roosevelt Club “to work for the nomination of Colonel Roosevelt in 1920” for a new term as president. When Teddy died in his sleep in 1919, the then vice president said, “Death had to take him in his sleep, for if he was awake, there’d have been a fight.” His sons telegraphed, “The old lion is dead.”
We’ll never hear his high, squeaky voice again. We’ll never see his clenched fist and his animated hand pounding a podium for conservation. But we can visit the Roosevelt Window in Rifle and contemplate the 43% of public land in Colorado and how much of a debt we owe TR for our national forests, our national parks and monuments and our open space.
Andrew Gulliford is a professor of history and environmental studies at Fort Lewis College and an award-winning author and editor. Reach him at [email protected]