Our Man in Arlington

July 2, 2013 5:15 PM0 comments

Teddy Roosevelt continues to blow the 4th inning presidents’ race at Nationals Park. But, of course, in real life TR was anything but a slowpoke; in fact, the old rough rider was an ace horseman who rode many hours through woods here in Arlington.

I ponder this when I bike from my home on, ahem, Roosevelt Street and pass the Birchwood cabin, perhaps the most tangible Arlington site where the nation’s 26th president made pit stops.

At the intersection of North Wakefield and 26th Streets, a stone’s throw from the fenced-off Washington Golf and Country Club, lies the modernized restoration of the cabin built in 1839 by Caleb Birch.

The Teddy connection grew out of his friendship with Admiral Presley M. Rixey, the White House physician (under McKinley) and Navy surgeon general who in 1888 bought hundreds of acres of Arlington farmland as a summer home. (He went on to buy hundreds more in Falls Church and further out.)

Rixey is best known in Arlington for having sold, in 1908, 75 acres that became the country club, its clubhouse on “Rixey Mountain,” next door to Rixey’s Mansion (which became Marymount University), on a fancy trolley stop known as Rixey’s Station in “Cherrydale, Va.” (Today Rixey’s name adorns townhomes across Glebe Road.)

Rixey’s memoir reveals that farming his properties in a “30 mile radius” was as important as medicine. “Many happy hours I passed in company with the dearest friends in every walk of life,” the doctor wrote, “among them President and Mrs. Roosevelt and their children, on horseback, or strolling among my cattle making plan after plan for the future.”

Most famously in wintertime 1909, Rixey accompanied Roosevelt on an exhausting 100-mile ride to Warrenton.

Teddy was highly prescriptive in horsemanship requirements. Rixey cited “the danger to the president on horseback from the crowds who would frequently join the party and almost ride over him.” Hence a list of rules was distributed stipulating that the president notifies the rider he wishes to accompany him, who stays on his left with the companion’s right stirrup to the back of the president’s left stirrup. Others kept 10 yards back, and no one accompanied Teddy when he’s riding with Mrs. Roosevelt. Anyone not able to control his mount withdrew to the rear. “He was a hard rider,” Rixey wrote, and the rules “added much to the president’s comfort and to my peace of mind.”

Roosevelt gave Rixey a saddle and bridle that had been gifts from citizens in Cheyenne, Wyo., artifacts Rixsey later donated to the New York Historical Society.

After Rixey helped get the country club running, he declared in 1923 that “these beautiful playgrounds will be one of the most attractive homes for lovers of the outdoor life in Arlington County (the future Arlington City) or any other locality in the world.”

The Birchwood cabin, meanwhile, drew visits from Roosevelt until his death in 1919, according to recollections of one Richard Wallace. He was an African American White House chauffer whom Rixey hired to clear land for the golf course and who also prepared ice cream for TR. Wallace eventually moved into the cabin, planting apple trees. According to local histories, Rixey relocated the No. 10 green to protect the structure before deeding it to Wallace.

Teddy’s Roosevelt haunt is today a private home.

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