Everglades Biographies

Ruth Bryan Owen (Rohde)

Ruth Bryan Owen was born in Jacksonville, Ill., in 1885; she moved with her family to Lincoln, Nebraska in 1887. She was educated in Nebraska and Illinois. After two years at the University of Nebraska, Ruth Bryan married an artist and had two children. The couple was divorced in 1909. She then spent a few years in Jamaica, West Indies and in London, England where she married retired major Reginald Owen in 1910. Ruth traveled the world with her husband, bearing two more children. She also worked as a nurse in the Voluntary Aid Detachment in the Egypt-Palestine campaign from 1915-1918. Upon returning to the United States in 1919, the Owens settled in Miami where Ruth's parents had earlier retired. Ruth Bryan Owen worked at the University of Miami as a lecturer and administrator for several years, while also taking care of her invalid husband.

The daughter of William Jennings Bryan, three-time Democratic presidential nominee and Secretary of State under President Woodrow Wilson, Owen had a natural interest in politics and government. In 1908, at age 23, she was responsible for Bryan's campaign correspondence. In 1929, just eight years after women obtained the right to vote, Owen was elected to the Seventy-first Congress and was re-elected to the Seventy-second Congress in 1931. She was a widow and the mother of four when elected to her first term. As the representative of Florida's Fourth Congressional District, she sponsored numerous bills benefiting south Florida, including the proposal designating the Florida Everglades as a national park. She also led passage of bills to develop state rivers and harbors, including Port Everglades.

Congresswoman Owen's staunch defense of the Everglades National Park project was not always appreciated by her constituents at home. Owen's longtime friend Marjory Stoneman Douglas recalled a particularly dramatic debate on Capitol Hill which Florida landowners attended to voice their strong opposition to the proposed Park. They argued that selling their property to the government was senseless because the Everglades was merely a worthless swamp filled with snakes and mosiquoes. The constituents brought along a live snake to make their point. Congresswoman Owen, determined not to lose the argument to such lowly pranks, grabbed the snake, wrapped it around her neck, and announced, " That's how afraid we are of snakes in the Everglades!"

In 1933 President Franklin D. Roosevelt appointed Ruth Bryan Owen as Minister to Denmark; she was the first woman to represent the United States in so high a diplomatic post. She served successfully until 1936 when she married Rohde, a Danish Captain of the King's Guard. This gave her dual citizenship as a Dane, so she resigned her post. In 1949, President Truman named Owen an alternate delegate to the UN General Assembly.

In 1954 Ruth Bryan Owen died in Denmark at the age of 68. Her remains were buried near Copenhagen.

Biography prepared by Gail Clement, Florida International University

Excerpt from Hearing before the Committee on the Public Lands, House of Representatives, Seventy-first Congress, Third Session on H.R. 12381, to Provide for the Establishment of the Everglades National Park in the State of Florida, and For Other Purposes, Government Printing Office, 1931.

"There seems to be an interest on the part of the committee to make a distinction between the preservation of bird and animal life, and the establishment of national park standards. Now, in answer to the question as to whether the Everglades territory measured up to national park standards, we have a group of scientists here to present one after another to speak of the various features, and before they speak I want to read a brief statement from from David Fairchild, who has been referred to by Mr. Albright as one of the most distinguished naturalists with a knowledge of plant life in the country, and he touches on the answer to the very question that was put. He says:

How can anyone object to the establishment of a great wild-life park where swimming and flying inhabitants will inspire millions of American children and give them a glimpse of the fascination of the tropics, which circumstances may never permit them to see elsewhere.

That is the inspirational, educational feature.

It will soon be within the reach of the week-end excursionists from the crowded centers of American life, and will startle them out of the ruts which an exclusive association with the human animal produces on the mind of man. It will be peculiarly a mid-winter park, the only one so far in the northern hemisphere warm enough to play in in the winter, where those too old or those too young to brave rigourous American winters can experience the thrill of the tropics.

That refers to the inspirational value.

Photograph of Ruth Bryan Owen

Photograph of the Honorable Ruth Bryan Owen during National park committee visit to the Everglades, 1929-1930.

Photo courtesy of University of Miami Libraries, University Archives


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