Tampa Rough Riders help restore Cuban monuments to their namesake

[Credit: Frank Reno]  The Tampa Rough Riders show off the historic marker on a beach in Siboney, Cuba that they helped to restore. The marker honors the real Rough Riders heroism in helping Cuba win its freedom from Spain in 1898.
[Credit: Frank Reno] The Tampa Rough Riders show off the historic marker on a beach in Siboney, Cuba that they helped to restore. The marker honors the real Rough Riders heroism in helping Cuba win its freedom from Spain in 1898.
Published July 18, 2018

Theodore Roosevelt and his cavalry unit known as the Rough Riders sailed from Tampa to Cuba in June 1898 to help that nation defeat Spain.

To honor the Rough Riders' heroics, Cuba erected two monuments near its city of Santiago.

Now, more than a century later, those historic markers have fallen into disrepair.

So, the Rough Riders again rode to the rescue.

For five days in June and early July, 120 years after Roosevelt arrived, the Tampa Rough Riders, an organization dedicated to promoting the cavalry's history, visited the Cuban cities where its namesake displayed valor.

There, the Tampa non-profit and Cuban citizens celebrated their ongoing joint efforts to restore those historic markers.

"It was a special trip," said Tampa Rough Rider Frank Reno, who arranged the trip through his Cuba Executive Travel Inc. "This was all about good will and exploring our shared history. It exceeded expectations."

Cuba had been fighting for independence from Spain for three years when the United States intervened in 1898.

The military disembarked for the island nation from Port Tampa — then its own city — and neighboring Tampa was where most of the troops stayed.

An historic marker at Armenia Avenue and Lemon Street tells of the Rough Riders' time in Tampa.

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According to Tampa Rough Rider and historian Rod Sullivan, after landing on the shores of the village of Daiquiri, Roosevelt and his men assisted in securing the larger beach area of Siboney so more American troops could arrive safely.

The Rough Riders then went on to help take Kettle Hill. This, Sullivan explained, allowed the United States and Cuba to capture San Juan Hill, considered a decisive victory in the war that ended on August 13, 1898.

"Kettle Hill provided a good vantage point for the rifleman to protect the troops assaulting San Juan," Sullivan said.

A historic marker on Siboney's beach was dedicated solely to the cavalry and another on Kettle Hill mentions the significance of the battle there.

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In 2016, NBC correspondent and former Tampa resident Kerry Sanders was in Santiago to cover Hurricane Matthew.

While there, he discovered the markers and noted their poor condition. So, upon returning home, he reached out to the Tampa Rough Riders.

"They had been exposed to the elements for over 100 years," Tampa Rough Rider George Conlan said of the markers. "They didn't look good."

The Siboney marker's base was crumbling. And, completely missing was its stone frame that was supposed to encase a bronze placard. "The bronze turned green and was kept in someone's garage," Conlan said.

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And the lettering on the Kettle Hill marker was so faded that it was barely legible.

But Conlan's expertise lies in marble and stone restoration. As president of Apollo Beach's Natural Stone Care, he's dedicated 40 years to the craft.

Conlan led a 2017 trip to Santiago for a small contingent of Tampa Rough Riders, who count more than 500 in its membership. They assessed the markers, explained to area leaders the restoration work that needed to be done and assembled a group of Cuban artisans he was confident could perform the work.

And he continued to consult the Cuban team via email and returned this past January to provide further assistance.

During this latest trip that included 20 Tampa Rough Riders, they brought supplies not available on the island, such as a special paint needed to repair the Kettle Hill marker's lettering.

The Siboney monument's base and frame have been repaired and its bronze placard should be restored and remounted in the coming months. And the Kettle Hill marker's lettering should be restored soon.

As a thank you, Santiago's mayor greeted the delegation. They were provided a private tour of the city's war museum and laid wreaths in a cemetery where Rough Riders killed in battle were buried.

"It's been a great experience," Reno said. "We had the expertise and the desire. Now we have a bond too. We look forward to going back."

Contact Paul Guzzo at Follow @PGuzzoTimes.