President Franklin D. Roosevelt nodded at me from his wheelchair on the porch of his favorite retreat in Warm Springs, Georgia.
“Good afternoon, Mr. President,” I said.
“May I inquire where you are from?” he asked.
“Ah, yes. I have traveled to your part of the country to inspect military installations and harbors to make sure they are ready in the event of war.”
The conversation was surreal. The distinguished, soft-spoken man in the wheelchair looked like every photo of FDR I have ever seen. It felt like I’d stepped into a time machine and been transported back to 1938. He went on to explain that he first came to Warm Springs in 1924 to swim in nearby mineral springs, searching for relief from polio.
FDR became so enchanted with the area that he built a small vacation home on the side of Pine Mountain while running for president in 1932. Throughout his terms he made many trips to the cottage, which by then had been dubbed the “Little White House.” During these visits he spoke with neighbors to learn about their difficulties, especially during the Great Depression. New Deal policies such as the Rural Electrification Administration, Civilian Conservation Corps, and Tennessee Valley Authority grew out of these conversations. Today the Little White House is one of Georgia’s most popular historic sites. Guests can tour FDR’s vacation home, the guest house and servants quarters, and see his 1940 Willy’s Roadster and the Secret Service sentry posts, all left much as they were when he died in 1945.
In addition, an 11,000 square foot on-site museum tells the story of this great leader. Exhibits include his 1938 convertible equipped with hand controls, a 1930′s kitchen with his “Fireside Chats” playing on an old table top radio, his stagecoach, and a display case containing dozens of intricately carved and gold-inlaid walking canes that were gifted to him over the years. A film narrated by Walter Cronkite includes historic footage of the president swimming in the nearby spring-fed pools, located just one mile from the museum. The Little White House is open from 9 a.m. to 4:45 p.m. daily. Admission ranges from $4-$7.
Swimming in the spring waters did not provide FDR with the miracle cure he hoped for, but it did bring him relief. After one such visit he exclaimed that the relaxation afforded by the warm, buoyant water had allowed him to move his withered leg for the first time in many months. From 1927 until his death in 1945, FDR made 41 visits to the springs and became a driving force in the treatment of polio, polio research, and rehabilitation in general. Although the spring-fed public pools have been drained to minimize deterioration, visitors can feel the 88 degree waters that bubble to the surface from 3800 feet below the earth’s surface. These public pools are filled only once each year, on Labor Day, and springs enthusiasts from all over the country rush to reserve their one and a half hour soak months prior to the occasion. The pools are open daily until 4:30 p.m.
FDR also founded Roosevelt Warm Springs Institute for Rehabilitation on a site adjacent to the public pools in 1927. Today this state-operated comprehensive rehabilitation center treats persons affected by polio. Guided tours of the Roosevelt Warm Springs Institute are available weekdays at 11 a.m. and 2 p.m.
While the springs pools are interesting and worth a quick look, as is the adorable town of Warm Springs, the Little White House is not to be missed, especially if you can arrange to be there on a day when Bob Prater is portraying FDR from his wheelchair on the back porch of the cottage. His next appearance is scheduled to occur on July 4, 2009 during the special event “Letters to Eleanor,” an interactive New Deal program where Eleanor Roosevelt and her secretary will respond to requests for relief during the Great Depression.