Work on a rustic retreat honors a president and a presidential scholar.
Courtesy of the Theodore Roosevelt Collection, Harvard College Library.
When asked to describe his late friend and colleague William H. Harbaugh, U.Va. history chair Chuck McCurdy pauses and says, “Harbaugh was a great man who did great things.”
The same might be said of one of this favorite subjects.
Bill Harbaugh spent more than 30 years in the history department, where he was as happy teaching a first-year American history class as he was shepherding a Ph.D. student through a final dissertation. He spent many of those same years as one of the nation’s leading scholars on the life of Theodore Roosevelt. Harbaugh wrote “Power and Responsibility: The Life and Times of Theodore Roosevelt,” one of the most acclaimed biographies of the 26th president. Then, in his later years, he became a tireless advocate for the preservation of Pine Knot, Theodore and Edith Roosevelt’s rustic southern Albemarle County retreat.
Located in tiny Keene, Va., 14 miles south of Charlottesville, Pine Knot fit “Teddy” like a rough-hewn leather glove. His wife, Edith, purchased the original 15-acre property in 1905 as an escape from the pressures of Washington. There was no heating, no insulation, no water and no indoor plumbing. He fell in love with the place the very first time he approached it on horseback, following the four-hour train ride to North Garden.
Days at Pine Knot were filled with hunts, hikes, reading and plenty of child’s play. Evenings found the couple in rocking chairs on their beloved “piazza,” watching a Blue Ridge Mountain sunset and the day’s end scurrying of various and sundry “forest folk.” Nights might find them dining with the Wilmers, a pair of bachelor brothers who owned neighboring estates and who sold Edith the property for $280. She later purchased an additional 75 acres.
The famed naturalist John Burroughs was the only non-family member ever invited to Pine Knot, and he wrote glowingly of the President’s passion for nature. The two, he wrote, identified more than 75 different bird species in a single weekend. The legendary hunting enthusiast also felled his only turkey at Pine Knot, an occasion momentous enough to earn a banner headline in The Daily Progress.
Bill Harbaugh’s efforts on behalf of Pine Knot helped earn him a Distinguished Medal of Service from the Theodore Roosevelt Association just months before his death in April 2005. So when it came time for his colleagues to honor his memory, Pine Knot was a natural fit.
“It occurred to us that an appropriate thing to do was to fund, through contributions by alumni, a three-year internship at Pine Knot,” McCurdy says, “so Mr. Harbaugh’s name and memory would figure prominently for all of us and the larger community could benefit from the work of this intern.”
The internship was created by The Institute for Public History, which for more than a decade has been devoted to teaching history through the experience of public places.
“This place has been underdeveloped and underutilized,” said Phyllis Leffler, director of the Institute, “and there are some really good reasons why that is so. It is a difficult site for the public to use. So our challenge becomes ‘how do you take a place like this and engage the public in some way in understanding what this place means?’”
The Pine Knot Internship, open to undergraduate and graduate students, will focus on the development of a web-based program and multimedia display that will be used in schools to enhance knowledge and promote interest in Theodore Roosevelt as a president and as a pioneer in issues related to conservation and the environment.
For more information, visit Virginia.edu/publichistory.