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Legend of teddy bear and Teddy Roosevelt to be focus of new visitor center in Mississippi

ONWARD — The story of President Theodore Roosevelt’s Mississippi bear hunt that served as the inspiration for the teddy bear will highlight the displays at a U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service visitor center off U.S. 61 North in the Onward community near Rolling Fork.

“We’ll have the story of the Roosevelt bear hunt involving Holt Collier,” said Mike Rich, project leader for the Theodore National Wildlife complex, adding the center will have exhibits related to the bear hunt.

He said he and another Fish & Wildlife official went to the Smithsonian Institution in Washington, D.C. to go through some of Roosevelt’s archives.

“We found the actual skull of the teddy bear; the bear that was tied to the tree,” Rich said. “We’re hoping to get that on display, or at least a replica of that, on display. From my perspective, that’s pretty cool; to be able to find the extra bit of history that kind of tells the story.”

Besides the exhibits on the hunt, the center will give the history of the Fish & Wildlife Service and the agency’s conservation efforts, including a Theodore Roosevelt impersonator on a video talking about conservation. Also displayed will be a native dugout canoe.

“We’ll have a magnetic fishing pond for children which will have a conservation message, a wrap-around studio where people can sit and fly over the refuges and get a 360-degree view of each,” he said. “We’ll have information about backyard conservation, and how birds migrate north and south and where we lie within the flyway.”

The center will also tell the history of the Mississippi River and how floods impacted the area with backwater flooding “which created the hardwood habitat where the bear lived, where the hunt happened, and how the hunt led to conservation in America,” Rich said.

The story of the teddy bear goes back to 1902, when the president went on a bear hunting trip to Onward at the invitation of then-Gov. Andrew H. Longino, and did not locate a bear.

In an effort to help Roosevelt bag a bear, Holt Collier, who was a born slave and was a tracker for the group, cornered and tied a black bear to a willow tree.

Roosevelt refused to shoot the bear because it was not being given a sporting chance to get way. News of this event spread quickly through newspaper articles across the country.

With Roosevelt’s permission, Morris Mictom, a Russian immigrant and Brooklyn toy shop owner, sewed a cuddly stuffed toy and dubbed it “Teddy’s Bear,” and the toy soon became known as the “teddy bear.”