Teddy Roosevelt vs. The Squirrels

It’s no secret that Theodore Roosevelt lived a life that revolved around the outdoors and nature.  Even during his years in the White House, he would commonly disappear into the American West for weeks at a time, hunting, riding, and exploring some of the country’s most rugged landscapes.

A few years into his Presidency, TR’s wife Edith purchased him a small cabin located just off the beaten path about 14 miles south of Charlottesville, VA.  The idea was to provide TR with a convenient, closer-to-home basecamp for his outdoor pursuits, so he wouldn’t have to run off to Colorado every time he needed a fix of the natural world.  The rustic two-story cabin was located on 15 heavily wooded acres that were brimming with birds and wildlife.  In 1911, after TR’s Presidency had ended, the Roosevelts expanded Pine Knot by pruchasing an additional 75 acres.

Pine Knot

Pine Knot – TR’s weekend retreat and a squirrel family’s full time residence.

TR used Pine Knot as a place to unwind and rest—or at least his hyperactive version of rest.  A typical day would have him up between 3 and 5AM, exploring the property before daylight, either hunting turkey or simply observing and cataloging the area’s diverse birdlife.  His days were spent writing articles and catching up on his correspondence–TR wrote well over 150,000 letters during his lifetime.  He ate a lot too, routinely throwing down a dozen eggs for breakfast and personally cooking fried chicken dinners over a kerosene stove for Edith and himself.

In order to fully remove himself from the grind of the White House, TR refused secret service protection while at Pine Knot.  According to David Brinkley, author of the excellent book The Wilderness Warrior: Theodore Roosevelt and the Crusade for America, TR “instead chose to sleep with a pistol at his bedside, thumbing it open to check the bullet chambers before blowing out the light.  A real man, Roosevelt believed, protected his own family in the woods.”

Anyone who spent a night at Pine Knot quickly learned that the mountain retreat was just a step or two above camping under the stars.  There was a live hardwood tree growing inside the house, and a number of critters called the cabin home.  In the letter below to his son Archie, TR describes a memorable encounter between an overnight guest and some of Pine Knot’s resident indoor wildlife.

White House, May 10, 1908. 


Mother and I had great fun at Pine Knot. Mr. Burroughs, whom I call Oom John, was with us and we greatly enjoyed having him. But one night he fell into great disgrace! The flying squirrels that were there last Christmas had raised a brood, having built a large nest inside of the room in which you used to sleep and in which John Burroughs slept. Of course they held high carnival at night-time. Mother and I do not mind them at all, and indeed rather like to hear them scrambling about, and then as a sequel to a sudden frantic fight between two of them, hearing or seeing one little fellow come plump down to the floor and scuttle off again to the wall. But one night they waked up John Burroughs and he spent a misguided hour hunting for the nest, and when he found it took it down and caught two of the young squirrels and put them in a basket. The next day under Mother’s direction I took them out, getting my fingers somewhat bitten in the process, and loosed them in our room, where we had previously put back the nest. I do not think John Burroughs profited by his misconduct, because the squirrels were more active than ever that night both in his room and ours, the disturbance in their family affairs having evidently made them restless!

The idea of a sitting President enthusiastically encouraging a family of squirrels to live in his house is absolutely hilarious.  It’s impossible to envision any President since TR happily suffering bitten fingers while handling wild rodents, not to mention purposefully releasing the varmints into his own bedroom.  Can you imagine an awkward, bumbling Richard Nixon flailing around a mountain cabin in his beach-walking wingtips, trying in vain to round up a family of flying squirrels? (Coincidentally, I recently heard that a family of squirrels lives in Trump’s hair, but that’s a story for a different blog post.)

To put this story in perspective, the squirrels were actually relatively tame compared to some of the other animals that roamed the Roosevelt residences.  There are numerous examples (perhaps I’ll detail them in a future post), but my favorite was TR’s pet badger “Josiah” that wandered freely throughout the White House, biting guests’ legs and sometimes drawing blood.

For more information on Pine Knot, TR’s menagerie of crazy pets, and his general love of the natural world, check out the sources below.  On a somewhat related note, follow this link for a hysterical quote about TR’s seething hatred of those “bleating idiots” known as sheep.


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