Times Past

In 1903, Roosevelt brought his environmental message to San Luis Obispo’s Mitchell Park

Teddy Roosevelt with John Muir overlooking Yosemite Valley at Glacier Point in 1903.
Teddy Roosevelt with John Muir overlooking Yosemite Valley at Glacier Point in 1903.

“We have passed the stage as a nation when we can afford to tolerate the man whose aim it is merely to skin the soil and go on; to skin the country, to take off the timber, to exhaust it, and go on; our aim must be by laws promotive of irrigation, by laws securing the wise use in perpetuity of the forests, by laws shaped in every way, to promote the permanent interests of the country,” President Teddy Roosevelt said.

“Our aim must be to hand over to our children not an impoverished but an improved heritage. That is the part of wisdom for our people. We wish to hand over our country to our children in better shape, not in worse shape, than we ourselves got it.”

A Republican, Roosevelt’s words resound as much, perhaps even more, today than they did on May 9, 1903, when he spoke in what is now San Luis Obispo’s Mitchell Park.

Five sitting U.S. presidents have visited San Luis Obispo, but only Roosevelt left us with so powerful a message.

When Roosevelt came to San Luis Obispo, he was in the middle of a 14,000-mile journey by train through 25 states. He gave more than 250 speeches between April 1 and June 6, 1903.

Historian Doris Kearns Goodwin noted that this was “the longest journey ever taken by a president.” She said that Roosevelt wanted “to connect” with the people for whom the president of the United States was perceived as far removed, behind the gates of the White House.

Certainly, he wanted to launch his campaign for the 1904 election, but he also wanted to carry his message of conserving America’s natural resources to the American people. He would travel from here to Santa Cruz, where he visited the giant coastal redwoods in the Big Basin. From there he traveled to Yosemite for his legendary visit with John Muir.

Former San Luis Obispo City Council member John Ashbaugh has documented Teddy Roosevelt’s visit in “When San Luis Obispo Last Hosted a President — And Heard a Milestone Message,” published in the History Center of San Luis Obispo County’s La Vista (2015).

In it, John cites Annie L. Morrison’s description of the visit first published in the Telegram newspaper. She remarked on how silent the crowd at the station was when he got off the train. The people seemed awestruck by the president’s presence until she, herself, shouted, “Three cheers for Roosevelt!” The crowd went wild.

Roosevelt’s first stop was the Mission, temporarily electrified for the event. He asked many questions about the Mission and its artifacts. Then, when the 1818 bells “tolled the hour of six,” the party drove onto a 20-foot by 28-foot platform in the Mitchell Lot, now Mitchell Park, where the recent Women’s March began.

Roosevelt spoke for more than 15 minutes to a crowd of more than 10,000. The president had special praise for the new Polytechnic, fitting it into what historian Douglas Brinkley has called his “holy trinity of irrigation, forestry and preservation” in “The Wilderness Warrior: Theodore Roosevelt and the Crusade for America.”

Ashbaugh, artist Pierre Rademaker, historian James Papp and Angela Tahti from Arts Obispo got together to create an appropriate work of public art commemorating Roosevelt’s visit.

Save Sunday, Feb. 19, from 2 to 4:30 p.m. for a meeting in the Senior Center, 1445 Santa Rosa St., in Mitchell Park. You can visit with artist Paula Zima, who will bring a moquette, a miniature of the statue of a seated Teddy Roosevelt as he was at that 1903 rally in the same location.

Paula is the sculptor of “Bears” on Los Osos Valley Road and South Bay Boulevard at the entrances to Los Osos and the famed “Bears with Indian Boy” in Mission Plaza.

Paula and I will discuss the significance of Teddy Roosevelt’s visit to San Luis Obispo and how the statue will serve as a reminder of his emphasis on conservation and preservation of our heritage.

Light refreshments will be served. The event is free.

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The 200-plus-year-old Stations of the Cross are among the most significant pieces of art in the collection at Mission San Luis Obispo. On Saturday, Feb. 18, at 9:30 a.m., Stephanie Fikri , a professor of art history at Cuesta College, will talk on the Mediterranean background of these sacred images that were introduced to Europe by St. Francis of Assisi in the 13th century. The presentation will be in the Old Mission Parish.

Dan Krieger is a professor emeritus of history at Cal Poly. He is past president of the California Mission Studies Association, now part of the California Missions Foundation. He can be reached at slohistory@gmail.com.