A Man Who Never Gave Up – Part 1

Published 11:30 am Sunday, June 9, 2024

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Georgia can boast to being the home to some very powerful men in history, one of these being Franklin Delano Roosevelt, the thirty-second President of the United States. He came to Georgia to be healed and found so much more than he had bargained for. Allow me to tell you about him, his journey, what brought him here, why he fell in love with Georgia and ultimately set up his Presidential office here, in Warm Springs. His story is very inspirational and you may want to set on the porch, so you can absorb the wonders that God has blessed us with, here in Georgia.

In Warm Springs, the Little White House was the Georgia home of President Franklin Delano Roosevelt. The thermal waters of these springs drew the polio-stricken man to this small town that is tucked in the woods on the north slope of Pine Mountain. Long before Roosevelt, these therapeutic waters drew prehistoric Indians as well as the Creek Indians. Here they would soak to be healed.

Roosevelt loved this area so much that he established a Presidential hide away in these woods. He built the Little White House, which now stands as a memorial to this powerful man. He also built a therapeutic complex devoted to people who were suffering from infantile paralysis, better known as polio. He also funded a foundation from which Dr. Jonas Salk was able to get research funds and did discover a vaccine which prevents this painful and deadly affliction.

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All of this, was inspired by a tiny town, in Georgia. There is no denying how much Warm Springs meant to Roosevelt. The site of his museum serves as an intimate tribute to this complex man who, through his courage, did somewhat triumph over his disability, and led the United States through a Great Depression and a World War.

Franklin Delano Roosevelt was born on January 30, 1882. He married Eleanor Roosevelt, his fifth cousin, on March, 1905. The couple had five children: Anna Eleanor, James, Elliot, Franklin, and John.

In 1921, the thirty-nine-year-old Roosevelt contracted polio while on vacation at the family cabin on Campobello Island, in the Bay of Fundy, off the coast of Maine. It was August 10th, but up in these cold Atlantic waters, it didn’t seem warm at all. Roosevelt had been swimming with his children and kept on his wet clothes almost all day. When he got back to the cabin, he felt chilled and by dinner time, he began to feel sick and thought he was getting a cold. He skipped supper that evening, going to bed early, tired and exhausted.

That night he came down with a high fever, chills, nausea, and pain in his lower back. His fever and chills lasted all night. In the morning, one of his legs felt weak and by evening, it was paralyzed. Then, the other leg was becoming weak, too. Eleanor now called the doctor.

In two days, on August 12th, the other leg was paralyzed and his fever was still one hundred two degrees. There was severe pain throughout both his legs, feet and back, even though he could not move. By that evening his hands were also affected.

That high fever lasted for seven days with more symptoms appearing, including one that if someone touched him, it caused excruciating pain. Then on August 15th, he became delirious.

However, the doctor thought that his condition was temporary, and he told Eleanor how to treat him. He also offered her the hope that when the fever goes down, he will improve. Eleanor was constantly at his side doing all she could to nurse him back to health. However, this was not to be.

Not getting any better, on August 20th, he was taken by train to the hospital in Boston. While there, he became worse. His symptoms were now fever, ascending paralysis that went to his face, and numbness elsewhere. Finally, the doctor officially diagnosed Roosevelt with polio. He was now taken to New York by trains and a boat to Presbyterian Hospital on September 9th.

At this time, many other medical conditions threatened him like respiratory failure, ulcers, infections, and blood clots in the veins of his legs. After a long fight with this disease, ultimately Roosevelt was left permanently paralyzed, something that he did not accept. Not one to give up, he started looking for what he could do to make himself mobile again.

It was in June, 1924, three years after Roosevelt contracted polio that he first heard about the folks being healed at Warm Springs, Georgia. He wanted to test the medicinal powers of the waters, hoping to find relief from the disease.

Several years before the nation went into the Great Depression, Meriwether County was in a depression of its own. The tiny town of Warm Springs was a mixture of a few well-maintained homes, many run down houses, a slum, and a small business district. The countryside was even more poverty stricken. Barns sagged and were unpainted. Often, they had rusted, corrugated metal patches on walls and roofs. There were no lawns around farmhouses, merely well-worn, hard packed, red clay yards. Houses were small, three or four rooms, with neither glass windows nor screens. It was a hard life. The farms were not mechanized. Planting, harvesting and maintenance were done with the aid of mules and field hands. Often the mules were rented.

Back then the spa, which offered pools of the spring water, consisted of overgrown lawns, a dilapidated, forty-six room hotel called the Meriwether Inn, fifteen small cottages and also some that were abandoned.

On October 3rd, 1924, Roosevelt made his first visit to the place he had heard about that had provided a cure for another polio victim. He and Eleanor spent three weeks there. Roosevelt felt it had done him good and returned the following spring for six weeks. He thought it offered the elusive cure he still believed in but he also kept investigating other avenues to health.

Although the permanent 88-degree, natural springs and mineral rich water held no miraculous cure, it did bring him some improvement. During his many visits, Roosevelt gained strength in body and this lifted his spirits. He continued his therapy and with the help from a physiotherapist at Warm Springs, was taught how to walk short distances while wearing his iron braces on his hips and legs. He felt that now he would be cured. He also was becoming very attached to the charming village, with its rolling countryside and friendly folks. He decided to make his home there and thus he became Warm Springs’s most famous part time resident.

On April 29th, 1926, he bought the rehabilitation institute. He also committed himself to buying Warm Springs and turning what was then only a somewhat run down resort into a combination health and vacation facility. This would now be a rehabilitation center for polio patients. In May, he got the endorsement of the American Orthopedic Association. Next, in 1927, Roosevelt bought a 1700-acre farm where later he built his home that he called, the Little White House.

He transformed the Meriwether Inn, which was the main building of the institute, by tearing it down when it could not be modernized to have electricity and constructing the Georgia Hall in 1933. Roosevelt often hosted Thanksgiving dinners for the patients, in the dining room.

His plans did not end there, for in 1938, he founded the National Foundation for Infantile Paralysis, after hearing about a boy who had regained the use of his legs after hydrotherapy treatments.

Now that the Roosevelts were in Warm Springs a lot, they realized that life here was very different from the one that they were used to. At first, the Southern drawls and colloquialisms were strange to Roosevelt. However, the people were so kind that the Roosevelts soon learned to love the local rural life.

There were radio stations in Atlanta and some other Southern cities in the 1920s but reception was so full of static that the Roosevelts’ seldom listened to it. Electricity was available but on a somewhat erratic basis. Most farm homes had no electric appliances. Those that did, used battery systems, which had to be cranked often to keep lights on. For Roosevelt, this life was so different but he loved it and he fit right in. Later, while he was President, this was his inspiration for designing and proposing the Rural Electrification Bill, which was passed and brought electricity to most of rural Georgia as well as in other states.

Roosevelt liked to drive around in the country. At first, his trips to town and over country roads to Manchester and Greenville and other nearby towns, were as a passenger in someone else’s car. However, he wanted more freedom than that. He made a sketch of a set of hand controls for a car that would allow him to work clutch, brake, and accelerator, despite his lameness. A local mechanic bought a ten-year-old, Model T Ford, with a canvas top, high body, and wooden spoked wheels. He then adapted it to Roosevelt’s design.

About a week after Roosevelt gave him the plans, the mechanic drove up to the Hart Cottage, where the Roosevelts’ were living at this time. Roosevelt came out in his wheelchair, clicked his braces, stood up and backed into the passenger seat. The mechanic drove slowly around the area as Roosevelt watched the operation of the hand controls. About a mile out of town, Roosevelt said he was ready to take over. He drove at what was back then a very fast pace, 25 miles per hour, through the town of Warm Springs and on over to Manchester and back. In Warm Springs, he stopped at the curb in front of the drug store and yelled, “Let’s have a Coke”. When served, he asked, “How do you like my new car?” Thereafter, he always had a hand-controlled car in Warm Springs.

With his freedom gained, Roosevelt began to explore his adopted home. He became almost as familiar to the people as the rural mail carrier. On Sunday, he would drop by one of the two churches in town, a Baptist and a Methodist.

He was genuinely at ease with the people and they with him. He became a celebrity, nationally and locally, in 1928, after winning the governorship of New York. This was the beginning of the end of his totally relaxing hideaway. Now, one thousand Georgians would come to the train station in Warm Springs, when he came there after that election. No such welcome had ever been seen at any visit or homecoming there before.

He noticed that his celebrity status, and his need for security, began to intrude. Solo trips were exceptions for Roosevelt, who had slipped by his guards on several occasions. After Roosevelt became President, casual face to face visits with neighbors were nearly impossible. Public curiosity about the President was enormous and numerous people were constantly coming to the town.

Roosevelt’s first visit to Warm Springs as President was for Thanksgiving in 1933. He arrived on a Friday to another impressive public welcome. He drove to his new cottage, the Little White House. All day that Sunday, sightseers drove up and down the clay road leading to it but were not allowed to come all the way. Some sightseers even flew over in chartered planes, a real rarity in 1933.

Even when Roosevelt was busy at Warm Springs, he was relaxing. When he went back to Washington, all that he remembered was the fun with his friends and the restful nights, setting on the porch. Here is an example. When he came for a two-week rest at Easter time, Roosevelt made a nationwide radio address, hosted the Prime Minister of Canada, visited a new community house in the village, made several speeches, followed closely the fight in Congress over his Supreme Court plan and conducted other business. However, when asked by reporters what he did while in Georgia, he never mentioned any of this. He told them about the grand barbeque that took place. Roosevelt said it was the best holiday he had yet at Warm Springs because he didn’t do one thing.

Next, we will talk about the Little White House and how much it meant to President Roosevelt.