GLENWOOD SPRINGS • At the Hotel Colorado gift shop called Legends, teddy bears range in price from $20 to $40, the most expensive of which wears an old-style vest and spectacles on the bridge of his nose, resembling the folk hero president.
Near the back room where more teddy bear inventory is stocked, a placard hangs on the wall.
“According to legend,” it reads, “the world’s most irresistible toy, the teddy bear, received its birth at the Hotel Colorado ...”
This, the legend goes, came in 1901, eight years after the hotel opened.
Hotel Colorado was the proclamation of Glenwood Springs as a resort epicenter, its elegant, peachy stone towers and swan fountain soaring before the big pool of geothermal waters, also developed by local mining baron Walter Devereux. Hotel Colorado was “the Great Dame of the Rockies,” heralded the press, “the Marvel of the Age.” It was built to mimic Rome’s Villa Medici. It was to be “a playground to society’s elite.”
And indeed, dignitaries aplenty came. The “unsinkable” Molly Brown among the rich and famous. The Mayo brothers among physicians curious about the “healing” hot springs. William Howard Taft among presidents.
Theodore Roosevelt was another, the outdoorsman who became synonymous with the mountains of the emerging West.
In 1901, “after returning empty handed from a hard day’s hunt, Roosevelt was somewhat depressed,” reads a history by the hotel. “In order to lift the President’s spirits, the maids stitched together a small bear out of scraps of cloth. His daughter, Alice, playfully called the bear ‘Teddy’ after her father’s nickname.”
But evidence lacks of Alice ever trekking West with her father. And in 1901, Roosevelt’s mountain lion hunt was a noted success. He returned to Glenwood Springs in 1905 for what would be a successful bear hunt.
So maybe the teddy bear’s Colorado origin is just legend, says Bill Kight, executive director of the local historical society.
“There’s two versions of the story,” he says. “I like the version that has its roots in Mississippi in 1902.”
As does the Theodore Roosevelt Association, the official clearinghouse on all things regarding the 26th commander in chief. As does the National Park Service and Smithsonian, to name but two others.
Yes, popular history points to those Southern wilds as the birthplace of the cuddly icon, the generational classic, the gift of affection and goodwill and fixture to an American plush doll industry worth a projected $1 billion.
Journalists in 1902 chronicled that muddy hunt in the lowlands, which came at the invitation of Mississippi’s governor. As the state’s first non- Confederate governor, Andrew Longino was under pressure in an election against a white supremacist.
“Longino was clearly hoping that a visit from the popular president might help him stave off a growing wave of such sentiment,” wrote Gilbert King, the Pulitzer Prize-winning historian, in a 2012 article for Smithsonian Magazine.
Roosevelt’s only opportunity reportedly came when comrades tied down a bear.
“But Roosevelt took one look at the old bear and refused to shoot it,” reads the Theodore Roosevelt Association account. “He felt doing so would be unsportsmanlike.”
Thus came a political cartoon that ran in newspapers nationwide that November. Clifford Berryman depicted a big-eared, long-limbed cub at the end of a leash, gaining mercy from the mustachioed, much-caricatured Teddy. Berryman’s caption, “Drawing the Line in Mississippi,” was taken as a nod to both race relations and border disputes between Mississippi and Louisiana.
“Enter the Michtoms,” continues the story by the Jewish Virtual Library, a project by a nonprofit that calls the teddy bear’s creation “an amazing, yet characteristic, American-Jewish immigration success story.”
Morris Michtom “arrived penniless in New York in 1887,” according to the library. He and his wife, Rose, were running a candy shop in Brooklyn when they saw Berryman’s cartoon. A stuffed animal hobbyist, Rose Michtom crafted a doll in that cartoon bear’s likeness. She crafted more as they proved popular at the shop.
“Michtom asked permission from President Roosevelt to call these toy bears ‘Teddy’s bears,’” reports the Theodore Roosevelt Association.
The Michtoms went on to form the Ideal Novelty and Toy Co., with Thumbelina and Shirley Temple among big sellers later. The business stayed in the family name through the 1970s. At the start of that decade, upon joining the New York Stock Exchange, Ideal was valued at $71 million, making it one of the country’s top toy companies.
The teddy bear continues as a cultural phenomenon. Last year, Hotel Colorado tallied 431 at the cash registers. Yes, the legend sells.
There are other odd tales told at Hotel Colorado — told during historical tours, with a third of proceeds going to the hotel, another third to the historical society, “and another third to the ghosts,” Kight likes to say.
He stops here outside the Roosevelt Suite, the former quarters of the man himself, seen in photographs from the room’s balcony waving to the town below. Kight stayed a night here once.
“So I was asleep in the bed,” goes his story, “and about 2 in the morning, there’s this knock on the door. Knock-knock-knock. ... Nobody’s there.
“So I tried to go back to sleep, and I couldn’t. And then the phone rings. This is probably 15 minutes after the door knock. I pick it up, and it’s totally dead. No ring tone. And you know, I guess I don’t mind being visited by Roosevelt’s ghost.”
Kight, a retired historian and public affairs officer for the U.S. Forest Service, is a big fan. Not so unlike that boy in the cartoon framed here by the suite, looking up to Roosevelt.
“I don’t have many heroes,” Kight says, because he knows people to be imperfect. That includes Roosevelt. Roosevelt was no friend to the native people, Kight knows — the Rough Rider symbol of imperialism.
At the same time, Roosevelt lasts as a shiny symbol of conservation; he’s highly credited for public lands as we know them today.
And, of course, his legacy lasts in the furry symbol of kindness.
So Roosevelt is complicated. Complicated like layers of history.
“I like the mysteries of history, because it forces you to find the pieces of the puzzle,” Kight says. “The fun is in the puzzle.”