TR Where Are Ya? Theodore Roosevelt County Park to Be Renamed

So the Suffolk County Legislature has announced that what they now call the Theodore Roosevelt County Park is henceforth to be called the Montauk County Park. The name change will go into effect unless vetoed by Suffolk County executive Steve Bellone, which no one thinks he will do. As you read this, I suppose, the County is busy making new signs to reflect that change.

I do hope this is the last of these changes. This park, formerly ranchland, has undergone a blizzard of changes just in the 52 years I have been writing Dan’s Papers. The place does not deserve this.

I also do not object to this change, although I have many objections to the fact that now something named after Teddy Roosevelt, whose time spent in this town was pivotal in his career, is to be lost. Before this property was changed to the Theodore Roosevelt County Park, there was nothing in Montauk named after him. Now, once again, there is still nothing named after him—Montauk’s most prominent citizen.

I also think that the name Montauk County Park, although it directly makes clearer what this place is about while using fewer syllables (nine reduced to five) also helps to promote the beauty and importance of Montauk. But it has something of a bureaucratic ring about it. It’s not exactly thinking out of the box.

Before I proceed, however, I would like to document all the changes that have come to what, when my dad first moved our family here when I was a teenager in the 1950s, was then called The Deep Hollow Ranch, ‘The Oldest Cattle Ranch in America.’

Back then this really was a ranch. Cattle were raised. Cowboys came downtown on horseback occasionally, dismounted, tied the horses to telephone poles by the side of the road while they did a little shopping. In the fall, there was a massive cattle drive, 300 head, mooing and lowing right down the Montauk Highway into Main Street, around the circle and out Edgemere Street (past the movie theatre and the Surf Lodge) to the railroad station to be loaded into freight cars. These annual drives stopped however, when trucks began hauling the cattle directly from the ranch.

In addition, during those years, Deep Hollow Ranch was also a dude ranch. There was plenty of room for both activities. Those spending time at the ranch rode the trails—staying in cabins out back—went skeet shooting, swam in the ponds, learned riding and went to the annual horse show put on by the Dickinson family, who ran that place.

I had thought at that time that the name Deep Hollow Ranch went back to colonial times. Certainly ranching on those lands did. In the early years, the settlers in East Hampton used the pastureland in Montauk as common ground and held cattle drives out on the rolling grasslands of Montauk in the spring to fatten up the herd, then having a return cattle drive to bring them back to East Hampton for the winter. The ranchlands, in those early years, consisted of Montauk in its entirety. To manage the herds, the East Hampton people had herdsmen out there all summer, and they stayed in the three houses that had been built for them, each about five miles from the other. These houses were called First House, Second House and Third House and not only served as summer homes for the herdsmen but also as inns for travelers passing along the trail. Two of them still stand. Second House is now a museum. And Third House is the ranch house of what will soon be the Montauk County Park.

The name “Deep Hollow Ranch” was first used in 1938 to refer to the 30 or so acres that surrounded Third House by then-owner Bill Bell. In 1957, however, legendary New York City advertising man Marion Harper came to buy the property, which included Third House and its ranchlands. He came up with the name “Deep Hollow Ranch and Guest House.” Harper was president of a company called McCann-Erickson, which, after accumulating other agencies, changed its name to Interpublic, and was one of the largest advertising firms in America.

So it was in 1938, Third House and its surrounding pastureland became Deep Hollow Ranch. It was also at the time tagged with the slogan “the oldest cattle ranch in America,” which, in fact it was, although not under the name Deep Hollow. It thrived for many years. Marion Harper was still around in the early years of my time out there. In addition to all the ranching and dude ranching, he used Third House as a retreat for many of his executives. Around 1970, the Deep Hollow Ranch was sold to Gurney’s Inn, who continued to operate it as Deep Hollow, and then Gurney’s arranged for it to be purchased as parkland by the county through eminent domain, at which time it’s name was changed to the Theodore Roosevelt County Park, and now just a few years later, to Montauk County Park.

As every school kid knows, Teddy Roosevelt, on horseback led his Rough Riders charging up San Juan Hill to help win the Spanish American War in 1898. He came home a hero. And within three years, he was President of the United States.

What is not so well known is that Roosevelt and the Rough Riders were only a few hundred men among an army of about 35,000 men, toward the end of the war all hunkered down in the hills overlooking Santiago where the Spanish working out their surrender.

While in those hills, many of soldiers came down with serious tropical illnesses, such as malaria, yellow fever, dengue and other afflictions. And so although Roosevelt was a hero, he and his Rough Riders and all the others were brought back to America to an isolated area to be nursed back to health first. President McKinley heeded the advice of doctors at the time, who said they were fearful that if he let all these men back to their homes, epidemics would break out.

And so it was here, to Montauk, specifically to a dock in Fort Pond Bay, that the soldiers arrived in troopships and either disembarked under their own power or on stretchers to the many thousands of tents that were set up amidst the rolling hills and fresh air of this place. They remained here for the summer, (President McKinley famously visited them) and finally left to return to their homes in September of 1898.

Third House is, today, filled with the memorabilia of the Army’s stay in Montauk, including many pictures of Teddy and the President and he and some of his troops. I presume it will remain as “Third House” within the confines of the Montauk County Park.

But something else needs to be named to remind people of TR’s time here. He is a big part of our heritage and an important historical figure in America. There is a condominium on the shores of Fort Pond Bay called Rough Riders’ Landing, but it’s not enough.

Perhaps the 20-acre town park facing out onto Fort Pond Bay could bear his name. If not that, perhaps the Town Green. The Teddy Roosevelt Town Green sort of rolls off your tongue, does it not?

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