Vietze pays homage to Sewall, who took the young Roosevelt under his wing and taught him the ways of the woods. His account begins with the bespectacled Harvard student, a budding naturalist and avid hunter, standing on the older man’s Island Falls farmhouse door stoop, on the evening of September 7, 1878, exhausted from the rough haul to this northern outpost, but ready to explore what was more or less still a frontier.
Roosevelt had been to Maine before-to Moosehead Lake and Mount Desert Island-but nothing prepared the New Yorker for the arduous treks through the backwoods with Sewall. Vietze provides blow-by-blow accounts of the trips, including the stay in February 1879 when Sewall took his young charge on a visit to a logging camp. “I like these lumbermen very much,” Roosevelt reported, “and get on capitally with them-great rough, hospital fellows.”
The third Aroostook visit, in August 1879, may have been the most memorable. In addition to trudging for miles through torrential rains and enduring hordes of black flies, Roosevelt climbed Mount Katahdin-in moccasins, having lost a shoe in a river crossing.
In 1884, Sewall and Roosevelt joined up again, this time on a cattle venture in the Dakota Badlands. Sewall and his nephew Wilmot Dow were invited to help establish and run a ranch on the Little Missouri River. The saga that follows is right out of Lonesome Dove: brutal winters, extreme summers (“hot enough to make a rattlesnake pant”), surly types and cowpunching.
Sewall comes off as a larger-than-life figure, a teetotaler who worked in some of the most dangerous professions: river driver, cowboy, logger. He overcame diphtheria and arrested smugglers without a gun (he was Aroostook’s customs collector later in life). He was also dedicated to his family and to Island Falls, which he helped build into a prosperous outpost that eventually had electricity and railroad service (his wife Mary fed a crew of 40 or so men as they built the line through the region).
Sewall was also life-long confidant of one of America’s most memorable politicians, and this book highlights his influence on Roosevelt, including his renowned conservation ethic. Vietze draws from a range of materials, including diaries and letters, some of which are reproduced, and numerous newspaper clips (journalists continually hounded the County man for stories about the president).
Vietze’s own knowledge of Maine’s north woods-he is a Maine Guide-adds to the authority of his narrative. When he describes the “intoxicating” view from the top of Katahdin, for example, he writes from experience: “a wild fastness trundles off to the horizon in all directions in a rich swirl of green and blue, while your head’s in the clouds and the ground seems impossibly far away.”
In his introduction, Vietze does a bit of editorializing regarding the soft life most of us live today and the “nature-deficit disorder” plaguing our culture. I’m not sure his accounts of the deprivations of Sewall and company will drive anyone into the wilderness, but his excellent story-telling skills revive the life of a remarkable Mainer who left an indelible mark on his state and the nation.
In October, the Maine State Legislature passed a formal recognition of the book, congratulating the author, and calling Becoming Teddy Roosevelt “symbolic of the unique character of Maine.”
Carl Little’s is a freelance writer based on Mount Desert Island.