Springtime in Georgia

 

The Roosevelt Warm Springs Institute

“Now, I don’t want any sob stuff.”
– Franklin Delano Roosevelt to a reporter interviewing him about the effects of polio on his life.

In 1932, Franklin Delano Roosevelt was elected President of the United States. Roosevelt led his nation out of the devastating grip of economic depression in the late 1930s and through the dark days of the Second World War. FDR, as he was also known, was the only serving president to use a wheelchair. In 1921, as a 39-year-old New York lawyer and politician, FDR had contracted polio while vacationing with his family at Campobello Island, New Brunswick. He was paralyzed from his waist down.

FDR peered with his clear blue eyes at the small shy girl, a special guest at the President’s Thanksgiving dinner for his fellow patients at Georgia’s Warm Springs Foundation for the treatment of polio. Sensing her nervousness, he asked the child her name. “Suzanne… that’s a beautiful name. But can I call you Suzy?”

Suzanne Pike, born with clubfoot in both legs, was admitted to the foundation at the age of two months, the foundation’s first guest without polio. Now a guide at the Roosevelt Warm Springs Pools and Museum, Suzanne lowers her head, remembering that day, then looks up at us with her soft brown eyes. “I said, ’uh-huh,’” she affirms, nodding, “and I called him Rosie.” To the other children at the Warm Springs Foundation, he was simply “Doc Roosevelt.”

Roosevelt succumbed to the rural charms of Warm Springs, Georgia, in 1924 when invited by his friend George Foster Peabody, the owner of the Meriwether Inn. Claims had been made that the resort’s pools, fed by naturally warm underground spring water, had curative powers for those experiencing paralytic effects of polio. “He loved the natural buoyancy of the water,” Suzanne tells us.

Although his paralysis was permanent, Roosevelt felt that the waters rejuvenated him. Impressed with the facility and his own progress at the resort, he spent two-thirds of his personal fortune to purchase it. Roosevelt then established the Georgia Warm Springs Foundation, which evolved into a world-class facility for the treatment of polio. Three of Warm Springs’ best-known attractions – the Roosevelt Warm Springs Pools and Museum, the Little White House and the Roosevelt Warm Springs Institute for Rehabilitation – stand on these historical grounds.

The Roosevelt Warm Springs Pools and Museum
“The water put me where I am, and the water has to bring me back.”
– Franklin Delano Roosevelt

The foundation’s rectangular pools, recently restored, gleam dark blue against the white pavement surrounding them. Actor Nancy Simko, playing a convincing Eleanor Roosevelt, leads us around the pools. These days, the waters are strictly for touching. A constant 88 degrees Fahrenheit, they are too cool to prevent the growth of algae and too shallow to chance someone’s diving in.

The museum adjacent to the pools is a tribute not only to FDR and the polio cause but also to making our world a more accessible place. Its displays document the early polio treatments at the Warm Springs Foundation and, later, at the institute. Roosevelt, with the help of his physicians, designed some of the hydrotherapeutic treatments and exercise programs used in the treatment of polio. Black-and-white photos of a smiling FDR, romping in the pools with local children and residents of the foundation, dot the walls. Adaptive devices including braces, wheelchairs and slanting beds attest to early efforts to make life less compromising for those with polio.

The Little White House
In 1932, Roosevelt built the only house he ever owned, on the foundation’s grounds. As you walk through the entry, you encounter his smoothly worn wooden wheelchair sitting empty, almost waiting expectantly. Superintendent Frankie Newborn points out that FDR’s “Little White House,” as the modest six-room bungalow is named, has changed little in appearance since FDR died on its premises on April 12, 1945. “Even the original toilet paper is in the bathroom,” one guide tells us. I chuckle at this, then notice the rumpled, yellowing roll hanging in the bathroom.

The dark-panelled dining room overlooks a gorge, giving an endless view of the forested Georgia hills FDR loved. Roosevelt experienced a fatal cerebral haemorrhage while posing for the “Unfinished Portrait.” The original stands on an easel in the middle of the room. I feel an almost awkward sense of intimacy, poking through a man’s life so suddenly ended.

Roosevelt’s two cars, the first cars adapted with hand controls designed by the brace shop at the Warm Springs Foundation, are also displayed on the grounds. Warm Spring’s mayor, Hazel Ramsey, remembers getting off the school bus in front of the Warm Springs Hotel (now the Historic Warm Springs Hotel) and seeing the President sitting in his car, surrounded by his secret service. “He’d buy us all an ice cream cone.” She also tells a story of a young man who’d been asked by the President to buy him a Coke. The young fellow nervously carried out the Coke, fumbled and spilled it on the President’s lap. The President chuckled, “Don’t worry, son. I wanted a drink to cool me off, and you did just that!”

A short stroll or scooter ride (scooters are provided) along the wide, paved pathways takes you to the Little White House Museum, originally a house belonging to Roosevelt’s neighbour and friend, Georgia Wilkins. She bequeathed the property to the Franklin D. Roosevelt Warm Spring Memorial Commission upon her death in 1959. The museum displays the late president’s personal belongings, including his leg braces and wheelchairs and an assortment of personal mementos and gifts from dignitaries around the world.

The Roosevelt Warm Springs Institute for Rehabilitation
Sabra McCullar, Director of the Warm Springs Visitor Center, and I have to hunt to find a parking space on the gently rolling acres of the Roosevelt Warm Springs Institute for Rehabilitation. In an ironic yet welcome twist of fate, we look for parking in lots where the majority of spots are designated as disabled-only. While I don’t require a wheelchair, my arthritic knees mean I must keep an eye out for nuts – the hickory nuts, pecans and walnuts scattered along the miles of paved pathways that criss-cross this heavily treed campus. I’m tempted to interrupt my tour and stuff my pockets with them.

When the Salk vaccine and Sabin oral vaccine for polio put a near end to the disease in North America the early 1960s, the foundation opened its doors to treat people with disabilities resulting from, but not limited to, brain, stroke and spinal cord injuries, as well as neuromuscular disabilities. The Warm Springs Foundation was renamed The Roosevelt Warm Springs Institute for Rehabilitation, in 1980.

The institute, now run by the State of Georgia, would make FDR proud. Four low brick buildings behind white colonial pillars form the original Historic Quadrangle. Visitors are invited to tour the totally accessible facilities, including the hydrotherapy pool, fed by the same waters as the historical pools. The crowning glory of the institute is the Center for Therapeutic Recreation built in 1996, which includes a 25-metre swimming pool, weightlifting room, bowling alley, handball courts, indoor track and games room. Camp Dream, built on the shores of a 12-acre lake, has facilities to house 77 campers with disabilities. Extensive docks and ramps make the lake accessible for swimming and fishing. Guests of the institute, including athletes training for Paralympic events or participating in the International Wheelchair Sports Competitions hosted by the institute, have access to all the facilities. Visitors to the institute can play golf at the accessible public golf course Roosevelt had specifically designed for his foundation.

I ask Sabra if the institute’s visitors and guests are good business for the small town of Warm Springs. “It’s a real mix,” she tells me. “The families [of guests] come and discover they love the shopping here. Others come to our festivals or to shop and learn about Roosevelt and the Little White House.”

An antique lover and avid shopper, I notice it’s hard to find a shop that isn’t ramped in this small town of 400. Rocking chairs and benches line the ample sidewalks. Honey Backmon, the owner of Honey’s House – where I purchase an antique lace hanky for my daughter – beams when I mention my visit to the Roosevelt Institute. She tells me her grandson volunteered at this year’s Roosevelt Cup, a biannual sports competition featuring the world’s top wheelchair athletes. She says he was blown away by the skills of the basketball players. I can’t help but boast that Canada won at this year’s event.

Before heading home, I stop at FDR’s favourite lookout, Dowdell’s Knob, located in nearby FDR State Park. Two days before he died in 1945, Franklin Roosevelt had four secret-service men take him here. It’s speculated that he came to meditate about the upcoming founding of the United Nations and the young Americans dying in the war overseas. I sit where he once sat and listen to the rustle of trees, letting the warm Georgia air brush my cheek. It seems a fitting tribute to a man who devoted so much to the polio cause that two parking spots, under the familiar blue wheelchair sign, offer the best view from this 600-foot-high promontory.

“He lifted America from it knees and led us to our fateful rendezvous with history. He embraced a desperately troubled world and gave it hope.”
– William J. vanden Heuvel, President of the Franklin and Eleanor Roosevelt Institute

(Barb Taylor is a freelance writer living in Calgary, Alberta. Special thanks to Martin Harmon, Director of Public Relations, and Mike Shadix, Librarian, Roosevelt Warm Springs Institute for Rehabilitation, for their contributions to this article.)

IF YOU GO…

Warm Springs/Pine Mountain, Georgia:

Warm Springs, Georgia
www.warmspringsga.org

Pine Mountain, Georgia
www.pinemountain.org

Air Canada flies from most major Canadian cities to Hartsfield Atlanta Airport. Warm Springs is located 72 miles southwest of Atlanta, Georgia.

Accommodations:

Callaway Gardens Inn
www.callawaygardens.com
P.O. Box 2000, U.S. Highway 27
Pine Mountain, GA 31822-2000
Phone: (706) 663-2281
Toll-free: 1-800-225-5292
Inn rooms adapted for guests with disabilities are equipped with 33-inch-wide entrance doors, roll-in space under the counter sink, lowered closet shelves and bathroom railings near the toilet and in the shower/tub. Guests may request additional adaptive devices such as hand-held showers, closed-caption decoders for the television, and telephone amplifiers.

Meriwether Country Inn
www.meriwethercountryinn.com
P.O. Box 403
Warm Springs, GA 31830
Phone: (706) 655-9099
Toll-free: 1-866-691-4061.
Two designated accessible rooms on the main floor. All main-floor rooms have bathrooms designed to accommodate wheelchairs.

Best Western White House Inn
2526 White House Pkwy.
Warm Springs, GA 31810
Phone: (706) 655-2750
Fax: (706) 655-2753

Attractions in or near Warm Springs:

Roosevelt’s Little White House and Museum
www.ganet.org/dnr/parks/fdr/index.htm
401 Little White House Rd.
Warm Springs, GA 31820
Phone: (706) 655-5870

Warm Springs Historic Pools
401 Little White House Rd.
Warm Springs, GA 31830
Phone: (706) 655-5870

Roosevelt Warm Springs Institute for Rehabilitation
www.rooseveltrehab.org
Highway 27A
Warm Springs, GA 31830
Phone: (706) 655-5261

Callaway Gardens
www.callawaygardens.com
P.O. Box 2000, U.S. Highway 27
Pine Mountain, GA 31822-2000
Phone: 1-800-225-5292.
Callaway Gardens is an award-winning, 14,000-acre resort conceived of and developed by Cason and Virginia Callaway in the 1930s. The resort was originally a wasted cotton field. Wheelchairs are available, and most of the garden’s transportation is equipped with wheelchair lifts.

FDR State Park
www.dnr.state.ga.us/dnr/parks/ppage2.cgi?linkval=fdr
2970 Georgia Hwy. 190
Pine Mountain, GA 31822
Phone: (706) 663-4858
Toll-free: 1-800-864-7275
Georgia’s largest state park. Accessible cabins and campsites are available.

 

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