Theodore Roosevelt Invents the Modern Presidential Vacation

Cover for Larry Knutson's chapter "Theodore Roosevelt's Summer White House," depicting a political cartoon

Read the full text by Lawrence L. Knutson

On a July afternoon in 1902, Theodore Roosevelt exchanged the sizzle of a Washington summer for the ocean breezes of Oyster Bay, New York, and forever transformed the nature of the presidential vacation. Theodore Roosevelt single-handedly invented the modern presidential vacation.

While earlier chief executives traveled with just a clerk or two, TR moved key White House staff members and a full support team to rented offices near Sagamore Hill, his home in Oyster Bay, N.Y. They set up communications links with the White House, making sure the vacationing president had the means to deal with any emergency and all routine business. This practice has been continued in one form or another by all succeeding presidents.

Always an exponent of the vigorous life, TR rowed a boat on Oyster Bay, took an axe to trees, rode horses, played tennis and led his children on cross-country obstacle races. In 1905 he used Sagamore Hill and the presidential yacht Mayflower, lying at anchor in Oyster Bay, to open peace negotiations that ended the Russo-Japanese War and earned the president the Nobel peace prize.

On his travels the president hunted bear, deer, elk and coyote. An incident involving a black bear led to a popular cartoon image and the creation of the Teddy Bear. TR’s exploration of Yellowstone, Yosemite and other natural wonders resulted in the protection of millions of acres of wilderness and wildlife preserve.

In the president’s second term, First Lady Edith Roosevelt bought a small, quite plain clapboard house in the woods near Charlottesville, Virginia, only a few hours by train from Washington. The Roosevelts named the place Pine Knot, and used it as a bird-watching haven and hunting lodge. Pine Knot, a reporter commented, is the least pretentious house ever occupied by a president while in office.

Read the full article on Theodore Roosevelt’s Summer White House

For more information on presidential vacations and retreats, watch a video interview with author Lawrence Knutson, and view a slideshow of historic presidential vacations.