Comments of visitors to a historic house in Island Falls echo those expressed more than 130 years ago by the man who would become the 26th president of the United States.
“I owe a personal debt to Maine because of my association with certain staunch friends in Aroostook County, an association that helped and benefited me throughout my life in more ways than one,” wrote Theodore Roosevelt in his contribution to a book titled, “My Maine, My State,” published by the Maine Writers’ Research Club in 1919.
The former president and avid conservationist was referring to his 40-year friendship with William Wingate Sewall and his family of Island Falls.
Roosevelt was 19 when he first came to the Sewall home in 1877, after his first year at Harvard. He suffered from asthma and recalled, “I was not a boy of any natural prowess and for that very reason, the vigorous outdoor life was just what I needed.”
Sewall was then 33, and later remembered Roosevelt as a “thin, pale youngster with bad eyes and a weak heart.” Nevertheless, a bond formed quickly between the two, and young Roosevelt returned to Island Falls several times for hunting, fishing, canoeing and philosophizing.
“We hitched well, somehow or other from the start,” wrote Sewall in a biography of “T.R.” published in 1919. “He was different from anybody I had ever met; especially, he was fair-minded. He and I agreed in our ideas of fair play and right and wrong. Besides, he was always good-natured and full of fun.” Sewall said he couldn’t remember his friend ever being out of sorts, even when he did not feel well.
“It was a matter of pride with me to keep up with my stalwart associates,” Roosevelt wrote. “I would have been ashamed to complain. And I thoroughly enjoyed it.” He recalled “delicious nights, under a lean-to, by lake or stream, in clear fall weather, or in winter on balsam boughs in front of a blazing stump.”
But there was more than physical activity in the friendship that would eventually earn the Sewalls an invitation to Roosevelt’s presidential inauguration in 1901. He also felt the warmth of the Sewall family.
“The bodily benefit was not the largest part of the good done to me,” Roosevelt wrote. “I was accepted as part of the household; and the family and friends represented in their lives the kind of Americanism — self-respecting, duty-performing, life-enjoying — which is the most valuable possession that any generation can hand to the next.”
Guests who visit the Sewall house today feel the same warmth and restorative qualities. In 1997, William Sewall’s great-granddaughter, Donna Davidge, bought the house he had built in 1865 and gave it new life as a yoga retreat. Working with her husband Kent Bonham, she continued the tradition of healing that had benefited Roosevelt.
“The healing was always there,” Davidge says of the house that drew her back to her family’s roots. Born in Stamford, Conn., Davidge had spent summers in Island Falls with her parents since she was 6 months old, visiting her great-aunt Nancy Sewall Cunningham, William Sewall’s daughter, who lived in the house until she died at age 102 in 1996. When the family was ready to sell the house, Davidge with the help of her parents, Harriet and Wilbur Miller, committed herself to keeping it in the family for at least another generation.
She had taught yoga in New York City for 12 years and decided to extend her work to Maine during the summer. She and Bonham lovingly restored each room, furnishing them with family antiques.
Now in its 18th season, Sewall House Yoga Retreat operates May to October attracting two to eight guests at a time from across the nation and overseas. They come to restore their bodies and spirits in a peaceful setting with home-cooked vegetarian meals, meditation, massage, hikes, boating, biking, kayaking, sauna and, of course, yoga.
The daily schedule includes a half hour of meditation each morning, 90-minute yoga sessions morning and afternoon, and free time after each meal. Guests choose their arrival and departure days, and all activities are optional, tailored to individual needs and abilities.
“Many guests are going through transitions,” Davidge said, adding that a woman who gives herself a retreat in Island Falls every year told her, “No matter what I am going through, Sewall House helps.”
A guest from South Carolina, in a comment on the retreat’s website, called the house “a place of history and hope, solitude and community, giving and receiving.” Like Roosevelt, she said, “The feelings that arise are gratitude and a desire to return.”
A couple from Texas appreciated “the simple human things, like walking barefoot and feeling the earth,” while a guest from Virginia said she felt like part of the family.
“I am so glad you made the decision and took the risk to restore Sewall House to its longstanding reputation as a place of warmth and restoration,” wrote a woman from New York City. “It is on so many levels, a healing haven.”
Theodore Roosevelt would agree.
For more information, visit www.sewallhouse.com or call 888-235-2395.
Kathryn Olmstead is a former University of Maine associate dean and associate professor of journalism living in Aroostook County, where she publishes the quarterly magazine Echoes. Her column appears in this space every other Friday. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or P.O. Box 626, Caribou, ME 04736.