Editor’s Note: This is the latest in the “Georgia on My Mind” series of stories about interesting sites within a few hours drive of Macon.
WARM SPRINGS -- When Franklin Delano Roosevelt first came to Warm Springs in 1924, it was simply for the waters.
No one could have predicted the transformative effect he would have on the town, nor how the town would impact Roosevelt’s national policies during the New Deal.
But visitors to this small town of just over 400 people in the western part of Georgia easily become immersed in the Roosevelt legacy with a visit to the Little White House, the home FDR built there, which is now a museum.
April 12 will mark the 70th anniversary of the president’s death from a cerebral hemorrhage, which occurred at the Little White House while he was posing for a portrait by acclaimed artist Madame Elizabeth Shoumatoff. The portrait, still on display at the museum, is known as the “Unfinished Portrait.”
Roosevelt came to Warm Springs seeking relief in its warm, natural spring water from the effects of polio, which he contracted while on vacation in Canada in 1921.
Because the waters are a natural 88 degrees, they’ve been sought out over the years by patients with muscle and ambulatory ailments. As part of a 10-minute documentary narrated by Walter Cronkite and shown at the museum, there’s archival footage of Roosevelt swimming and playing water sports such as water basketball with other patients there, many of whom were children.
Roosevelt eventually bought the resort and 4,000 acres of farmland and woods around it in 1927, founding the Roosevelt Warm Springs Institute for Rehabilitation on the site of that property.
In 1932, Roosevelt had construction begun on the Little White House. The residence, preserved today to look like it did the day FDR died, is a modest two-bedroom home with a living room, dining room, kitchen and pantry, with servant’s quarters and Marine barracks in two smaller, separate units located only a few yards away. Roosevelt’s house also had an extra room for his private secretary.
It was in Warm Springs where Roosevelt first supported New York Gov. Al Smith’s candidacy for the presidency in 1928. In turn, Roosevelt was encouraged to run for the vacated governorship that year. While Smith lost handily to Herbert Hoover, Roosevelt won a close election and served for four years until he himself ran for president for the first time in 1932.
With his political career ascending, Roosevelt never forgot about Warm Springs and visited as often as he could despite the Great Depression and later, World War II.
Early on, he discovered quite a culture shock when meeting the town’s rural residents. For the wealthy resident of Hyde Park in New York, Roosevelt met people who worked the fields with their children from dawn to dusk, leaving little time for formal schooling. Very few of the residents had electricity.
It was in Warm Springs that Roosevelt learned first-hand the struggles of farmers during the Great Depression, ultimately leading to the creation of the Rural Electrification Administration, part of the New Deal programs and designed to bring affordable electrical power to rural areas. The museum notes that Warm Springs billed itself at the time as “the birthplace of the REA.”
Roosevelt also devoted a great deal of time raising money for the March of Dimes, which at the time led the fight in treating victims of polio. Roosevelt held several “birthday bashes” across the country to raise funds and enlisted famous actors and athletes for the cause. A mock safe used by comedian Jack Benny to collect funds is on display at the museum. In 1946, Congress chose to honor FDR’s work by putting his image on the dime.
Roosevelt’s polio is a key theme in the museum -- as much his life’s work as the presidency. As visitors enter the museum, there’s a large wall display of Roosevelt’s timeline that extends 10 years beyond Roosevelt’s death -- to 1955, when the cure for polio was discovered.
The end of polio didn’t mean an end to the work started by Roosevelt. Today, the March of Dimes works to end birth defects, while the Roosevelt Institute treats more than 4,000 people annually who suffer brain or spinal traumas.
WHAT TO SEE
The Little White House is a state historic site operated by the Georgia Department of Natural Resources. Park ranger Ashley Aultman said the park draws 60,000 to 65,000 visitors from all over the world each year.
“It’s the most visited park/historic site in the state of Georgia,” he said.
Though FDR’s official library and burial site is in Hyde Park, Warm Springs contains a trove of Roosevelt-related treasures, including two automobiles and a horse carriage in which he rode. Roosevelt’s 1938 Ford has hand controls that allowed him to drive the car despite his paralysis. A 1940 Willys is also on display, though Aultman said it’s unclear whether Roosevelt personally drove it.
Visitors can see the Roosevelt family tree going back to the 17th century, when the family first immigrated from Holland. More than 100 hand-carved wooden walking sticks, many presented as gifts, can be seen along a long rack, as can original furniture, china and other items.
Roosevelt’s clothing, including a swimsuit he used at Warm Springs and the eight-pound leg braces he wore when he wanted to stand, also can be seen.
The exhibits contain various interactive elements. For example, visitors can push a button to hear one of FDR’s famous speeches, such as the “fear itself” address.
The grounds have many points of interest, including the “bump gate,” a large barrier at the entrance to the park that Roosevelt operated by using his car bumper to push the gate open. As Roosevelt drove through, the gate was rigged to close behind him, moving like a propeller but face up.
Also of note is the Walk of Flags and Stones, a memorial walkway on the grounds. The states are lined up on each side of the pathway in alphabetical order with a state flag and a piece of rock indigenous to a particular state. (Georgia is represented by pink marble). Even though there were only 48 states during Roosevelt’s time -- and the replica flag flying out front reflects this -- Alaska and Hawaii are represented along the walk.
In front of the walk is a large memorial fountain built after FDR’s death, with the flags of the various armed services, including POW-MIAs, surrounding it.
Lynn Schmid, a writer visiting the site from Wisconsin, said the tour was well worth the time.
“I was very pleased,” she said. “It’s a very historical place with lots of good things. It’s nicely done. I especially enjoyed about (the Shoumatoff portrait). ... The area is a good piece of history.”