The White House has been home to more pets than people over its long history. First Pets have ranged from the commonplace, like Bo, President Obama’s Portuguese water dog, to the Scottish terriers, English springer spaniel, and cat that President George W. Bush. Others have included the bizarre and downright dangerous, such as the zebra kept by Theodore Roosevelt and the alligator, a gift from the Marquis de Lafayette, that John Quincy Adams kept in a White House bathroom.
Calvin Coolidge, the 30th president who served from 1923 to 1929, was a most prolific collector of animals. During his time in office, he had 28 pets including dogs, cats, birds, a donkey, 2 raccoons, 2 lion cubs, a wallaby, a pygmy hippo, a black bear, and a bobcat named Smoky Bob, a gift from Col. David Chapman and the Great Smoky Mountains Conservation Association.
To honour President Coolidge for his support and interest in the establishment of a national park in the Great Smoky Mountains, the board of directors of the Conservation Association thought it would be fitting to gift the president with an animal from this region. To make the gift even more attractive Smoky Bob was said to have been captured in Sevier County, the 11th Civil District of which is located in Gatlinburg and in the 1924 national election returned 442 votes for Coolidge (R), 11 for John Davis (D), and 0 for Robert LaFollette (P).
In a letter to Everett Sanders, secretary to the president, Chapman represented the bobcat (Lynx rufus) as having “just been captured in the area which will be eventually covered by the Great Smoky Mountains National Park … and is one of the largest for its age ever captured.” But in a letter to the director of the National Zoological Park, Dr. William Mann, Chapman confessed that the animal was captured as a kitten “and had been more or less domesticated.”
The Coolidge’s received pets as gifts from all over the world and never turned one away. A woman in Mississippi sent a raccoon to the Coolidge’s with the expectation that it would be fattened up and served at Thanksgiving. The First Lady declined to cook the animal and instead named it Rebecca and made her part of the household. However, there is no evidence that Smoky Bob actually took up residence in the White House. Given the fact that many of the First Families' pets would have been viewed as prey by Smoky Bob, it’s more likely that the wildcat never left its home in the National Zoo.
Bob arrived by train at his new home on March 20, 1926, and was transferred to a large outdoor enclosure complete with a label stating his name, home range, and status as a gift to the president from the GSMCA. Sometimes what I find in the archives is truly remarkable, and this is one of those wonderful instances where I can say, “I had no idea!”
Mike Aday is the librarian-archivist at the Collections Preservation Center, where artefacts from Great Smoky Mountains National Park are housed. The Collections Preservation Center existence was partly made possible through funding from Great Smoky Mountains Association. Email Mike HERE or call M-F, 9 a.m. to 3 p.m. at 865-448-2247.