Book reveals Roosevelt’s tie to Maine guide

Posted Dec. 10, 2010, at 5:54 p.m.
Last modified Jan. 29, 2011, at 12:27 p.m.
Becoming Teddy Roosevelt book cover. w.Brad Viles strory. FOR STROUT
Becoming Teddy Roosevelt book cover. w.Brad Viles strory. FOR STROUT

There are few characters in America’s history like Theodore Roosevelt.

Iconic figure memorialized in sculpture on the face of a mountain in South Dakota, Roosevelt was larger than life. His adventurous outdoor life as a hunter, soldier, cattleman and president has been the subject of countless literary works. But until Andrew Vietze wrote, “Becoming Teddy Roosevelt — How a Maine Guide Inspired America’s 26th President,” very few knew of the history of one man, William Sewall of Island Falls, who guided, mentored and influenced that most memorable president.

The book begins with Roosevelt, age 19, arriving the first week of September, in 1878, on the porch of the Sewall House in Island Falls and meeting his host and guide for the next two weeks, Bill Sewall, 33. Sewall stood 6-4 and had been taking hunters into the woods since he was 12. Roosevelt was a Harvard junior, asthmatic, and weak in body. But, what he lacked in physical strength, he more than made up for in internal will over the next few visits to Maine.

Together the two men, one a young privileged New Yorker, the other a woods-hard, trail-wise, Maine guide and lumberman, joined others on outdoor adventures during which they hiked for miles, hunted and fished for days and climbed Katahdin. On the climb Roosevelt had to wear a pair of light-soled deerskin moccasins that he intended to wear for slippers in camp along the way. He had lost one of the pair of boots that he planned to wear on the mountain, when he was crossing Wassataquoik Stream barefoot.

The details of the life that these two men shared together are recounted by Vietze in this meticulously researched book. From newspaper accounts, letters between the two; and apparently every source imaginable, the author clearly presents the events that shaped the young president’s life alongside Sewall.

Vietze said recently, “The book took me about a year to research. I spent some time at the Roosevelt library at Harvard and made a few trips to the Sewall House in Island Falls and did a lot of digging in libraries and online. The actual writing took about a year working out of my home and my cabin at Daicey Pond.” Vietze is a ranger in Baxter State Park and after his ranger duties were completed for the day he would sit down to write.

His efforts show in the book as he follows Sewall and Roosevelt to South Dakota to build a cattle ranch for Roosevelt. Sewall’s first impressions of the Dakota Territory that year were delivered in his cut-and-dried Maine manner, “It struck me that the man who first called this place the ‘Badlands’ had it about right.” But, Sewall had a contract with Roosevelt, so he moved his wife, Mary, and their children out to Elkhorn Ranch with him until the contract was up. It was not a successful business and one of the few areas where Roosevelt failed. In one incident, though, he and Sewall had caught cattle rustlers and held them at gunpoint.

After Elkhorn, Roosevelt went on to become governor of New York and eventually president. One of the most striking things revealed in the book about the relationship between the two men is how unlikely it was to have occurred in the first place. No two could have come from such different backgrounds, yet find that they had so much in common. Mainly that was a love of the outdoors.

That was made clear in a letter Roosevelt sent to his mother in February 1879, just six months after his first visit to Maine. “I have never seen a grander or more beautiful sight than the northern woods in winter. The evergreens laden with new snow make the most beautiful contrast of green and white, and when it freezes after a rain all the trees look as though they were made of crystal,” he wrote.

Even after Roosevelt became president he remembered Bill Sewall and sought him out for advice and counsel, as he had throughout his life leading up to that point. When Roosevelt visited Bangor in August 1902, he sought out Sewall from the crowd. There are more stories in the book that portray the closeness between the two men, each a giant in his respective career. Reading the book takes you back to an era when adversity was met with strength and wisdom.

What Vietze hopes readers will discover when they read about the two was revealed when he told me, “I hope readers will feel some inspiration. Sewall told a story about Roosevelt after the president had died — essentially that he was a weak person all his life. Here is this iconic man’s man — the big game hunter, the Rough Rider charging up San Juan Hill, the cowboy catching cattle thieves, walking around fearing no one and carrying a big stick — and he was never physically strong. But he made up for it in grit and ambition. I think people could learn from that. And these guys were real. They got cold and wet and were hungry and worked hard and dealt with adversity in a way that we don’t in these days of air conditioning and cell phones and 72-inch TVs.”

Roosevelt and Sewall became lifelong friends as a result of their time together in the woods of Maine and in South Dakota. During his first term, Roosevelt invited Sewall and around 25 members of Sewall’s family to the White House for a reception. Sewall and Mary stood beside the president in the receiving line. When Roosevelt became president for a second term Sewall was invited again to the inauguration. The president later would appoint Sewall to the post of Collector of Customs for Aroostook County.

The remarkable book, published by Down East Books, $22.95, tells it all in Vietze’s clearly written style. It was awarded a silver medal by the Independent Publisher as soon as it was released in May. The 124th Maine Legislature honored the book in October with a decree that recognized the work as being “so symbolic of the spirit and unique character of Maine.” Reading this book really brings you into every setting the two men shared, from the lumber camps of Maine to the White House. What you realize after reading it is that they weren’t that different after all.

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