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Did the Rough Riders stay at this Port Tampa house for sale?

Lt. Col. Theodore Roosevelt with a captain from the British Army, probably somewhere in West Tampa.  [Courtesy: Tampa Bay History Center]
Lt. Col. Theodore Roosevelt with a captain from the British Army, probably somewhere in West Tampa. [Courtesy: Tampa Bay History Center]
Published Jul. 13, 2018

TAMPA — The listing for the home at 6821 S Shamrock Road starts in typical fashion: The six-bedroom, two-bathroom house on the market for $449,900 is "just steps away from Port Tampa in beautiful South Tampa."

But then comes a doozy of a statement. "This house has said to have been used as the headquarters by Theodore Roosevelt (Rough Riders) prior to leaving Tampa to fight in the Spanish-American War" in 1898.

Whether that is true is a mystery.

It's a claim long embraced by Port Tampa residents, is written in at least one history book and has made the home a part of walking tours of the area.

Plus, the family who lived in the home in 1898 did seem to have access to Roosevelt.

Still, local historians can find no hard evidence to support the claim, such as photos of troops at the home or someone mentioning it in a letter written during that time.

There is only hearsay.

So while the Rough Riders story could be legitimate, until it can be substantiated, historians warn against accepting as fact the residence's role in the Spanish-American War.

"Everybody wanted a piece of the Rough Riders," said Andrew Huse, a librarian with the University of South Florida Special Collections Department. "Everyone, everywhere, thought they were cool. So a lot of people claimed to have been part of the Rough Riders' story even if they were not."

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This much is known: William Mudge, a well-to-do-doctor who served as mayor of the then-city of Port Tampa from 1913 to 1915, lived at 6821 S Shamrock Road in 1898.

The current residents, the Silveus family, say Mudge's daughter passed on to them the story of the home's brush with history.

"We bought the house from her and she said Roosevelt stayed with Dr. Mudge and his troops camped across the street," said Roberta Silveus, 90, who purchased the 2,640-square-foot home in the 1960s. "And it was well known throughout what back then was a small city."

Mudge's descendants could not be located for comment. But a Tampa Tribune article from April 23, 1961 details his stepson Arthur Restall's exploits with Roosevelt. As a young boy in June 1898, Restall would ride a horse through Port Tampa with Roosevelt. "That made me the biggest boy in town," he said.

And historic photos of non-Rough Rider soldiers camped on the shores of Port Tampa and of officers in meetings in that area are credited to the Restall family.

Still, there is no mention in the Tribune story of Roosevelt staying at or using the Mudge home as a headquarters. Nor are there Restall photos of that claim.

The book, "A History of the City of Port Tampa," details the relationship between the Mudge house and the Rough Riders but only cites "as residents remember it" for proof.

According to the book, the home was built by Roland Altree in 1893. He lost the residence to Mudge in a poker game a few years later.

When the Spanish-American War in Cuba broke out in 1898, U.S. troops used Port Tampa as a jumping-off point for the island.

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Soldiers began arriving in the area in early June, and were instantly beloved by the locals.

They were "cowboys of the west mingled with the Ivy League riders, presenting two types of American masculinity that did not often mix," said Huse, the USF librarian. "It is as if they galloped straight out of a dime novel for boys."

There is a tale about cavalry riding their horses into an Ybor City cafe for a meal and drinks, and a similar story involving a local brewery. But beyond anecdotes, Huse noted, there is no proof these incidents actually occurred. For that reason, he prefers to say such accounts are "unconfirmed."

But it is fact that the Tampa Bay Hotel, now the University of Tampa, was the Rough Riders' headquarters while they were in downtown Tampa.

The Rough Riders relocated to Port Tampa on June 8, but it took until June 13 for their ship to sail. So, as the story goes, Mudge gave the troops the run of his house in the interim.

"Locals say Teddy used the master bedroom, his men camped out all over the property and they marched around the house," said Scott Richards, the home's realtor. "Books say they used a boat as headquarters, but it's not true."

According to Rod Sullivan, a historian with a Tampa Rough Riders non-profit dedicated to promoting the cavalry's legacy, Roosevelt wrote letters to his daughter that said he slept on the boat each night in Port Tampa.

That's not to say the home could not have been a headquarters for the Rough Riders. Sullivan said the cavalry was granted daytime shore passes. Having a place where they could relax, write letters and gather supplies would make sense, he said.

Still, noted Rodney Kite Powell, curator of the Tampa Bay History Center, "There were a number of buildings closer to the port that could have been used for that purpose. I cannot say it isn't possible, though."

Times senior researcher John Martin contributed to this report. Contact Paul Guzzo at pguzzo@tampabay.com. Follow @PGuzzoTimes.