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Sagamore Hill Historic Site Is Also A Working Farm

Two new exhibit facilities are introduced at ceremony

Sagamore Hill National Historic Site (SHHNS) stepped back in time as it held a ribbon-cutting ceremony to open the Farm Shed and Chicken House on May 26. The two new interpretive exhibit facilities are intended to show that Sagamore Hill was actually a working farm.

“You are here at a moment in history,” said SHHNS Superintendent Thomas Ross. “It is the official start of the summer season at Sagamore Hill, over the Memorial Day weekend, when we honor the men and women who made the ultimate sacrifice for this country.”

He added that Theodore Roosevelt, the 26th president of the United States, was also a veteran, and was a colonel in the Rough Riders as well as Secretary of the Navy. He lived at Sagamore Hill from 1885 to 1919 when he died there. His wife, Ethel, lived there until her death in 1948. The Farm Shed was typical in that it was used to store tools and was the place they slaughtered animals. The henhouse was home to 100 chickens and turkeys. “In telling the story of Sagamore Hill, often people think of the house, the furniture and the taxidermy heads, but it is also the story of a working farm,” he said.

He thanked the Friends of Sagamore Hill, formed in 1995, who funded the project in part with $3,500 in donations they raised. FOSH is a chapter of the Theodore Roosevelt Association, which raises funds, recruits volunteers and advocates for the site.

Superintendent Ross said recently they used the Farm Shed to house their snack and soda machines. “We felt that was not right. Now it is open for the public to explore, thanks to the planning between Sagamore Hill and FOSH. It is now a three-season classroom [it is not insulated] for our education programs for the public given by park employees and volunteers. It is also used as a photo gallery.”

On the walls are photos that tell the story of the working farm. There is also a moveable bench for seating, a screen and projector for programming for the public. The Chicken House has been transformed with “window box exhibits” that display historic photos and features a newly designed storeroom exhibit. It has a typical barn smell, that of animal feed.

When TR, Edith and their six children were there, they kept chickens. Amy Verone, SHHNS curator, said, “They kept 75 White Leghorns and Rhode Island Reds and 100 small chicks. They were listed in TR’s probate inventory. They also kept turkeys.”

Currently she spotted two turkeys at Sagamore Hill. Ms. Verone explained, “They are stocked by one of our neighbors. Several years ago, 6 to 10 years, a neighbor thought there should be turkeys on Cove Neck and they used to walk around together in a flock of about 24, together.  But in the wild they are solitary and only flock in the winter. Now they have reverted to their natural behavior and travel far and wide in a larger territory. There were more turkeys at one time, but they have expanded their territory and some are gone through attrition.  

At the ceremony at the Barn Shed, Mr. Ross thanked those involved in the project: Sherry Justus, SHHNS chief interpreter was thanked for her leadership in the project, as were Jennifer Ladd a park guide, and Eric Witzke, chief of maintenance.

“It wasn’t my project,” said Ms. Verone.  “I was working on other things. I’ve been very focused on the packing in preparation of the construction that will start in July or August.” They finished packing this spring and are waiting for the contract for the restoration to be awarded.

Coming Alive

Superintendent Ross asked the others at the ribbon-cutting ceremony to add their comments. FOSH member Brother Lawrence Syriac, S.M., has worked at Chaminade High School for 42 years. He said, “I came to Long Island in 1961. I wanted to come to the only presidential site on Long Island. Since Tom Ross has been here there have been tremendous improvements on the site. He is turning it back to the way it was and how we want it to be.” He thanked Mr. Ross for his energy and enthusiasm and added, “The place is really coming alive. This interpretive site is for all ages of people to come to, and enjoy.”

Sherry Justus held up a copy of the new SH publication, A Children’s Guide to Sagamore Hill with Jack the Dog. “Jack the dog was Edith Roosevelt’s favorite animal,” she added. It is a self-guided walk that offers children and families a fun and informative way to experience the Roosevelts’ farm while getting exercise and enjoying the outdoors.  Park visitors should stop by the park visitor center for more information and for the brochure.

The house is closed for rehabilitation, which after 125 years it was in need of, but Ranger Justus said, with the addition of the Farm Shed and the Chicken House, it is another way to encourage the public to come to their national park.

“The house is closed but the park is open,” she said.

“We’re open for business,” seconded Mr. Ross.

After the official ribbon-cutting, Virginia Uhlinger said, “Bill [the late William Uhlinger, her husband who founded the Rough Rider Troop of re-enactors] would be very proud of the buildings. He left a big legacy with the Rough Riders.”  

FOSH member Steven Gilroy was introduced as a teacher at Manhasset High School. He took part in the Community Methodist Church of East Norwich event when they celebrated the 100th anniversary of their cornerstone being laid in 2001.

He said, “Anything that can be done to tell the true and accurate story of Sagamore Hill is great. Not only for visitors, and tourists, but for the country. TR is a great symbol of America.”

Mr. Gilroy has been interested in the presidents since he was 8 years old and a Cub Scout. He has been bringing his students from Manhasset High School for the past 30 years to the site on field trips. He said, “Kids and parents come back and tell me what a great place it is. The family lived here with their six kids and had their ups and downs the same way most families do, and at the same time, he was the greatest president of the United States.”

He said some time ago a group called the Sagamore Hill Horticultural Society was formed and collected material about the working farm in hopes that it would be re-created. They donated all the materials collected to the site and now that work is coming to fruition.

Mr. Gilroy said, in 1978, his first day as a Park Ranger, he was told he had to lead the birdwatching walk, that the Ranger who usually ran them was sick. He told them he knew nothing about birds. He was 24 at the time he took the group out and he said, “They taught me about bird watching.”

Mr. Gilroy has had an interesting life. “I was a student photographer at the White House for two and a half years.” He has met seven presidents: Clinton, both Bushes, Reagan, Carter, Ford, Nixon, and he’s seen LBJ and Obama. “I saw LBJ in 1966 when he was campaigning for Robert Kennedy.” To get the photo assignment, he said that he wrote the White House a letter saying he was doing a college paper and could he come down. He was there for the end of the Nixon presidency, for two years of Ford’s, two weeks of Carter’s and one day of Reagan’s.

He said, “It’s great to have a job that’s not really a job but a passion.”

Andrew V. Bader, a Plainview water commissioner and a FOSH member said he is a collector of political memorabilia. “I’ve been collecting buttons and medals since I was 15. I love small things, and ones that are not fragile.” He is a member of a political button association.  

Incidentally, on Thursday, May, 24, TR’s life in the badlands was the topic of a FOSH lecture given at Christ Church. Clay Jenkinson talked about his book, A Free and Hardy Life, TR’s Sojourn in the American West. It will be reported on in a future issue of the Enterprise Pilot. Mr. Jenkinson was at Sagamore Hill the day of the ribbon cutting.