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"Theodore Roosevelt" reminisces about time in the west


February 7, 2018

Theodore Roosevelt was, in many ways, larger than life. Born of a privileged family he headed west as a young adult to operate a ranch. He was a cowboy, hunted big game, elected to state and federal office (including U.S. President), authored 35 books and won a Nobel Peace Prize. His teenaged daughter once said of TR, "He wanted to be the corpse at every funeral, the bride at every wedding and the baby at every christening." He was a man of great vigor and boundless energy with a great love for the American west and its people.

About 25 locals came to hear the first program of a four-part series being jointly presented by the Harlem Library and the Little Rockies Senior Center in Harlem. Colleen Brommer, Library Director, said there would be four such programs, all part of Humanities Montana's offerings available to communities. The quarterly presentations will alternate between the library and the senior center.

Brommer introduced Arch Ellwein who would be presenting as Theodore Roosevelt. Ellwein didn't really need introducing as he had been greeting audience members individually. He was already "in character," pacing about the room, checking the clock and giving early arrivers an idea of how full of energy "TR" was in real life.

A calling to be Theodore

(never call me Teddy) Roosevelt

Arch Ellwein told how he got started doing portrayals of TR. He said, "In 1992 I was acting in a community theater production of "Arsenic and Old Lace." I had the role of Teddy Brewster, a person who believed he was Theodore Roosevelt. All the lines, attributed to TR, were totally out of context and non-sensical." When the play ended Ellwein was curious to learn more about Roosevelt. He got so caught up in learning about TR that he began working a one-man show to portray TR.

Two years later, after much research about TR, Ellwein launched his one man show about Theodore Roosevelt. He added, "After 20+ years I've done more than 2300 professional appearances in just about every state west of the Mississippi. Last year I did 168 appearances." After the Harlem performance he was headed to Watertown, South Dakota for a gig. He lives in Sidney, Montana.

The west had a profound

effect on the 'eastern dude'

TR came to North Dakota as a young man where he invested in a cattle operation. He had already held some statewide political offices in New York and said, "I considered myself experienced about life." But the ruggedness of the land and the people cause him to write, "the prairie was like being on an ocean. It was a place for hearty young men."

At first TR was the brunt of jokes and crude comments, especially about his eyeglasses, from the cowboys he rode with on the ranches in the region. TR stuck with the long days and lonely rides and the cowboys began to see him in a more positive light. An event in Wibaux, Montana boosted Roosevelt's reputation with all the cowboys in the region.

After a long day on a horse TR stopped in the Nolan Hotel in Wibaux. While he headed across the barroom to warm by the wood stove a drunken sheepherder, with a six-shooter in each hand, was holding court in the middle of the room. When he saw TR he said, "Well look here, four-eyes is going to treat us all to drinks, ain't that right?" Roosevelt kept telling the drunk he was not interested in buying drinks.

Finally, things came to a head. Roosevelt later said, "I noticed he was standing with his heels very close together. I recalled my training in boxing and landed a punch on his chin, then two more to the body." When the drunk hit the floor both pistols fired. Several men at the bar picked up the unconscious sheepherder and carried him out to a barn to sleep it off. Roosevelt wrote, "From that time on I became known as "ol' four eyes." I took that as a term of endearment." Years later, when Roosevelt was organizing the Rough Riders, the first voluntary cavalry of the Spanish-American War, he said, "I wanted men in my unit like I met out west-good riders, good with rifles and of good character."

Back east TR's political career took off

TR served in a number political positions once her returned to New York state. As governor he boasted, "I signed in to law 1,000 pieces of legislation during my term." The ruling political machine didn't like his progressive bent and engineered a way to get him out of New York-they nominated him as a candidate for U.S. Vice President. When McKinley won, Roosevelt became a reluctant Vice President. He found the job without enough action to keep him interested.

McKinley and Roosevelt took office in March, 1901. In September of that year, McKinley was assassinated, catapulting Roosevelt into the President's office. Roosevelt said, "I cracked a few heads and pretty soon things began to happen." He liked being President because it was a "great bully pulpit to get things done." He was proud to have set aside 230 million acres in national parks and forests, pass the first Pure Food and Drugs Act, successfully demonstrate an American Navy fleet could safely circle the globe and started the Panama Canal.

TR was full of life and energy

Roosevelt was in many ways 'larger than life.' He ranched, he authored 35 books, won the Nobel Peace prize, took hunting trips all over the world and brought back 12,000 specimens from an African safari for the Smithsonian Museum. Though he was from a privileged upbringing, he had great respect for Americans, especially in the west, who lived by grit and will.

His teenaged daughter, Alice, caught the essence of her father's nature when she said, "Father's problem is he wants to be the corpse at every funeral, the bride at every wedding and the baby at every christening." TR once told of daughter Alice, "When we were reviewing my Inaugural Parade, Alice was waving so enthusiastically I had to remind her I was the one elected President, not her." It appears the acorns didn't fall far from the trees in TR's family.

Arch Ellwein, an actor who portrays Theodore Roosevelt, was in character before his recent presentation at the Harlem Library. Here, in costume as TR, he greets Rose Stewart in the audience. Much of his presentation was about the influence off the Old West on his view of life. Ellwein lives in Sidney, Montana.

Even the lowly Teddy Bear was created based on an action by TR during a hunting trip in Mississippi. Failing to locate a bear for TR, one of the guides found an old, feeble black bear and tied it to a tree for TR to shoot. When TR saw the bear he refused saying it would be "unsportsmanlike." A political cartoonist heard about the incident and did a cartoon. A toymaker saw the cartoon and asked his wife to make a couple of 'cuddly bears' that he put in his shop window. He wrote TR and asked if he could use the President's name for the bears. TR responded he didn't see how his name would help, but the toymaker was free to use his name. The rest is history.

From Harvard in the east to finishing school in the west

Roosevelt graduated from Harvard College. But he said, "my finishing school was the west." He often opined that the disappearance of the old west was a major loss for the country. He believed the character that was necessary to build a nation that would last for eons was best found in the people of the west. His work in conservation was aimed at preserving the unconquered nature for all the people, not just a privileged few. He held the west and its people in great esteem.


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