by Mark Carter
Theodore Roosevelt is considered one of our great presidents. As in, all-time greats. His face adorns Mount Rushmore, after all. And Mount Rushmore is the Olympus of American historical achievement/pop culture. (Is there even a difference anymore?)
Once Rushmore’ed, you’re in. Twitter mobs can’t erase you from Mount Rushmore. Well, I suppose they could ‘airbrush’ over someone’s face, sanding it down to smooth stone. But that would take effort not even a real live angry mob is likely to muster.
This month’s look at the economic impact of conservation got me to thinking about Roosevelt, the “father of conservationism” in America. For me, conservation is perfectly encapsulated in the origin story behind the teddy bear. For those readers not familiar, here’s the Cliff Notes version:
• Roosevelt travels to Mississippi in 1902 to help settle a border dispute. Given the president’s acclaimed predisposition for hunting, Gov. Andrew Longino invites him to the Delta to hunt for black bear. (Given the setting, my guess is the border dispute involved Louisiana, the Mississippi River and an oxbow lake.)
• Allegedly, the guides ask Roosevelt to remain at camp until a bear is cornered out of fear for his safety. Considering the president’s previous hunting experience which included African safaris, this seems odd. But the story goes that a small black bear is cornered by the party’s dogs, beaten until it’s subdued and tied to a willow tree. Roosevelt is called to come in and make the kill.
• Upon seeing the bear and comprehending what had happened, Roosevelt is disgusted and refuses to shoot but orders the animal killed to end its suffering.
• The press back in D.C. gets wind of the incident, and the Washington Post publishes a political cartoon from Clifford Berryman that still resonates today. A shopkeeper in Brooklyn has his wife sew a stuffed bear to sell in the shop and writes to ask Roosevelt for his blessing in calling it a “teddy bear.” Despite the fact that he hates being called Teddy, the president gives his blessing.
And the rest, as they say, is history.
Until recently, the whole incident was memorialized at the Onward General Store in the tiny farming community of Onward, about an hour south of Greenville on Highway 61. (If you drew a line from Onward directly west across the river, you’d come out in Louisiana between Lake Providence and Transylvania.) Onward is alleged to be the spot, roughly, where the famous hunt took place.
Sadly, the store closed earlier this year. Very much like the original Cotham’s in Scott, it offered no Hubcaps but its own above-average burgers and a nice little collection of historical books. Future trips south to New Orleans or the beach will require a new way station.
The “incident at Onward” captures not only the spirit of fair chase but underscores the importance of the ethical stewardship of our natural world.
We’re blessed with diverse natural resources in Arkansas (way more than Mississippi, right?), and fortunately we have an army of our own Roosevelts — from state agencies to nonprofit groups — who work tirelessly to make sure generations down the road will inherit that blessing. You don’t have to hug a tree. But for teddy’s sake, let’s leave the place as least as nice as we found it.