'Now here's something interesting." Our guide pointed to a book of German fables on a table and explained that President Theodore Roosevelt, an excellent reader of German, sometimes read to his children from that volume.
That was one of many improbable things I learned about the 26th president during a visit to Sagamore Hill, his beloved home near Oyster Bay, Long Island.
Our tour group was greeted at the front door by Michael Schwartz, a National Park Service volunteer guide. The 23-room, shingle-style, Queen Anne house reminded me of a hunting lodge, befitting an avid hunter and explorer - dark woodwork on walls and ceilings, and lots, I mean lots, of mounted animal heads. From the broad porch, Roosevelt could see Oyster Bay and Long Island Sound.
Roosevelt, the guide told us, built Sagamore Hill for his first wife, Alice Hathaway Lee, who died shortly after giving birth to daughter Alice and didn't live to see it completed. In 1887, Roosevelt moved in with his second wife, Edith Kermit Carow, and young Alice - who was joined in time by five siblings. Theodore and Edith called Sagamore Hill home for the rest of their lives.
The Theodore Roosevelt Association bought the house after Edith died in 1948 and donated it to the Park Service in 1962. Virtually all the furnishings on the first and second floors are original, so what we were seeing is what Roosevelt saw - the china, the silverware, the rugs, even the bed in which he died in 1919. The Park Service restored the house to reflect the years of Roosevelt's presidency (1901-09), when Sagamore Hill was known as "the summer White House."
It doesn't take long to figure out what made Roosevelt tick. In the entrance hall, the head of a huge Cape buffalo Roosevelt shot dominates the room. Below the buffalo, two tusks from an elephant, also Roosevelt trophies, hold musical chimes that were used to announce dinner.
To the right is Roosevelt's book-lined study, where portraits of his heroes - his father, George Washington, Abraham Lincoln, Davy Crockett - hang on the wall. "Rooms tell you a lot about people," Schwartz said, pointing out that Roosevelt was a voracious reader. "He read a book a day, and currently there are 8,000 volumes in the house, and he pretty much touched every one of them."
The sweep of Roosevelt's interests is astonishing. He was a politician, explorer, soldier, diplomat, hunter, author - even a skilled taxidermist. Ornithology was one of his great loves. While president, he maintained a list of the birds he saw on the White House grounds.
Like many early conservationists, Schwartz said, Roosevelt was both an avid hunter and nature lover. As president, he was responsible for preserving millions of acres of wild areas, including the Grand Canyon, through the creative use of his presidential powers.
Edith ran Sagamore Hill and the adjacent farm from the drawing room, one of the brightest and least masculine rooms in the house, with pale-blue walls and couches and chairs upholstered in green. Edith's small, dainty desk, a gift from her aunt, sits next to a window. Yet even here there are animal skins: A polar bear rug on the floor was a gift from Adm. Robert Peary.
The stunning north room, a 1905 addition to the house constructed of cypress, maple, and mahogany, showcases treasures acquired during Roosevelt's public life. Among them are huge elephant tusks, a gift from the emperor of Abyssinia, and a small samurai statue from Adm. Togo Heihachiro, a Japanese naval hero. Several Frederic Remington statues are on display as well, and Roosevelt's hat and saber from his days as a Rough Rider have been placed on the horns of an elk's head mounted on the wall.
Roosevelt met there with representatives from Japan and Russia during the negotiations that ended the Russo-Japanese War, an effort for which he was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize in 1906. But it also served as a family room, where the Roosevelts celebrated holidays, held weddings, and spent time in the evening playing games and reading.
The social center of the house was the dining room. Schwartz pointed out that the cooks often had to arrange multiple seatings at meals because Roosevelt received so many guests. On any given day, cabinet members, Rough Riders, or old friends from his days out West might be invited to dinner. A moose head keeps watch from one wall.
Overnight guests were put up in the small, plainly furnished single and double guest rooms on the second floor. Eleanor Roosevelt, the president's niece and a frequent visitor, often stayed in a single room.
As we passed the pantry, Schwartz noted that only the cook, Mary O'Rourke, and Edith had keys to it. Apparently, Roosevelt had a fondness for desserts. "There is a story that they used to lock up the sweets in the pantry," he said.
Roosevelt was, above all, a devoted family man, and his children's belongings remain throughout the house. The third-floor bedroom of Theodore Jr. looks like a typical teenage boy's room, with a tennis racket, lacrosse sticks, and a Harvard pennant. Children's books, a tricycle, dolls, stuffed animals, a crib, and even teddy bears are on display in the nursery. Alice's bedroom contains furnishings that came from her mother, Roosevelt's first wife; on the dresser are brushes, makeup containers, and a mirror.
The homeyness of the place was not lost on Mary Alice Moore, who was visiting from Fairfield, Conn. "This feels like a real home," she said. "You can imagine the people, their life, and family."
Sagamore Hill was the only home Theodore Roosevelt ever owned. He loved it and spent every moment he could there. It was also where he died, at 60.
Visitors are encouraged to walk the grounds, where there are plenty of paths, picnic tables, benches, and a nature trail leading to Cold Spring Harbor. Also on the site is Old Orchard, the former home of Theodore Jr., which now houses the Theodore Roosevelt Museum.
"He's a great historical figure, and you learn a lot about folks by looking at where and how they lived," said presidential history buff Ken Dort, visiting from Park Ridge, Ill. "Sagamore Hill is a perfect reflection of what he was all about."
Later, I sat at a quiet spot near the family pet cemetery. Schwartz had told us that when a family pet died, the Roosevelts formed a solemn procession to the deceased's final resting place.
Theodore Roosevelt may have been larger than life, but these little things about him continually intrigue me.
Where to stay
Best Western Woodbury Inn
7940 Jericho Turnpike, Woodbury. 516-921-6900, book.bestwestern.com
About 17 miles from Sagamore Hill, the small chain motel has dog-friendly rooms, complimentary breakfast. From $112.
The Inn at Fox Hollow
7755 Jericho Turnpike, Woodbury. 516-224-8100, innatfoxhollow.com
A luxury inn with neoclassical design that features a lovely courtyard with tropical plants. Complimentary breakfast and dinner, Monday through Thursday. Spa packages available. From $216.
Where to eat
1 E. Main St., Oyster Bay. 516-922-4690, wildhoneyrestaurant.com
American cuisine in the president's staff house from when Sagamore Hill was "the summer White House." Entrees from $18.
Canterbury's Oyster Bar & Grill
46 Audrey Ave., Oyster Bay. 516-922-3614, canterburyalesrestaurant.com
A varied menu, but focused on seafood. Lots of Roosevelt memorabilia. Entrees from $22.
Bonanza Stand of Oyster Bay
25 Shore Ave. 516-922-7796, bonanzastandofoysterbay.com
This Italian ice stand originally sold lemon ice but now serves more than 25 flavors. Kid-friendly eats, such as hot dogs, chili dogs, and chicken tenders. Small ices, $3.
What to do
Sagamore Hill National Historic Site
20 Sagamore Hill Rd., Oyster Bay. 516-922-4788, nps.gov/sahi
The Theodore Roosevelt Home, several associated outbuildings, the Theodore Roosevelt Museum at Old Orchard (once the home of Theodore Roosevelt Jr.), a visitors' center, as well as 85 acres of paths, a nature trail, and picnic areas. Buildings, tours open Wednesday through Sunday. Park grounds are open year-round, sunrise to sunset.
Guided tours at the Theodore Roosevelt Home every half-hour from 10 a.m. to 4 p.m. Same-day tickets available on a first-come, first-served basis; tours fill quickly. Tickets can be reserved online. Admission for the home tour, $10 for ages 15 and older; under 15, free. Museum, grounds are free.