Little White House–A Toast to FDR
By SHERRI SMITH BROWN
The Little White House at Warm Springs in Meriwether County is a place I’ve visited numerous times since moving to Georgia nearly 30 years ago. It’s a perfect day trip for visiting friends and relatives; a serene setting to enjoy Pine Mountain’s cool breezes on a hot summer day or its wide-open winter vistas; a place to reflect on historical events that dominated my parents’ generation and shaped my own values.
What always astounds me each time I visit the Little White House is how unassuming it is. It is a small—just six rooms—colonnaded, wood frame house designed in the Southern Greek Revival style. It’s been said that FDR based the house’s design on one he had seen in the nearby town of Greenville. Nearly dwarfed by its own natural setting, it sits on the north slope of Pine Mountain overlooking a deep, wooded ravine where magnolia, mountain laurel and wild azalea bloom.
The way that FDR lived at the Little White House greatly reflected the ideas, principles and policies of the man. His independent spirit led him here to swim in the warm spring waters and, hopefully cure, or at least improve, the condition of his polio-crippled legs. Slipping away from his Secret Service men in a specially designed car, he could drive around the countryside to visit the people of his rural Georgia neighborhood—Manchester, Greenville, the Cove. He enjoyed their friendship and learned their problems, which were typical of rural communities all over the nation—lack of jobs, lack of money, poor roads, high electricity rates or no service at all, farm lands exhausted from poor agricultural practices. From here, he formulated many of the New Deal policies that we read about in history books—policies that led our nation out of its worst depression. The Civilian Conservation Corps. The Works Progress Administration. The Rural Electrification Administration. The Soil Conservation Service. And from here, he commanded American armies up to the final days of one of the world’s worst conflicts, World War II.
President Roosevelt died in the Little White House on April 12, 1945, while sitting in his favorite brown leather chair for a portrait, which was brush strokes away from being completed. He had suffered a cerebral hemorrhage. On the day of his death, the house was sealed off and carefully preserved. For decades, the portrait sat on its easel in the room where it remained unfinished. Today, the “unfinished portrait” by artist Elizabeth Shoumatoff, as well as a companion portrait that she later finished, are displayed in the adjoining 11,000-square-foot museum, along with impressive exhibits that chronicle Roosevelt’s life, his role in America’s recovery from the Great Depression, his leadership during WWII and his personal struggle with polio.
About a mile from the Little White House are the spring-fed pools that initially attracted FDR to Warm Springs. The original pools and bathhouses built on this site were part of the Warm Springs summer resort area, which grew up around the therapeutic springs as soon as Meriwether County was created in 1827. By 1832, the small resort town was known to have had two bathhouses located a few feet from two of the largest springs. By lowering a gate, the water level could be raised to about four feet within a few minutes—the length of time for someone to undress.
At first, the springs were visited by nearby plantation owners, who built summer cottages at Warm Springs. But as the springs became known for their medicinal qualities, others came from across the young country. By 1875, there were six open-air masonry pools, capturing the warm spring water. In 1893, two new pools were built, one for men and one for women. The resort area itself survived several owners, fires and the Civil War. It’s most fashionable era came during the Gay Nineties when the Victorian-styled, three-story Meriwether Inn was built overlooking the pools.
By the time Roosevelt arrived in 1924, however, the resort’s heyday was long gone and the pools were somewhat rundown. Roosevelt hoped the pools would help him rebuild the leg muscles that polio had destroyed. After one day of exercise in the water, he was able to stand up in four feet of water—something he considered a major accomplishment. In 1926, Roosevelt spent two-thirds of his personal fortune to buy the $200,000 resort and turn it into a health spa for treating polio patients.
Today, you can walk down into the drained pools where a basin-type fountain pumps water from the 11 springs beneath the concrete—just enough for you to dip in your hands and feel the water’s 88 degree warmth.
For me, a trip to the Little White House is not complete without a sunset visit to Dowdell’s Knob. This is a perfect reason to carry a cooler of wine and cheese or peanut butter, jelly and lemonade—depending on who your traveling companion is.
Dowdell’s Knob faces south, a flat rock outcrop that juts out over Pine Mountain Valley at an elevation of 1,395 feet. From here, the land between the Flint and Chattahoochee rivers is as far as the eye can see. Oak Mountain to the south. Manchester to the east and Shiloh to the west. The greenness of a deciduous forest. The vastness of a starry sky.
The knob is named for the Dowdell family, cotton planters who once owned much of Pine Mountain Valley. But Franklin D. Roosevelt gave it prominence. It was one of his favorite spots. He came here often with friends, hosting elaborate catered picnics where martinis flowed and servants served steak on china and linens. At times, he came here just to sit, as he did in the early spring of 1945—right before he died at Warm Springs.
Be it wine, lemonade or a martini, I raise my glass—a toast to FDR always seems most appropriate.
Between 1924 and 1946, Franklin Roosevelt visited Warm Springs and Georgia forty-one times. He sought relief at the warm springs in Meriwether County. After being elected as the thirty-second president of the United States in 1932, he used his new home at Warm Springs, "The Little White House," as a retreat from the rigors of leading a nation. Between therapeutic sessions in the warm springs pools, Roosevelt would fish the waters of the Flint River, drive the countryside between Manchester, Greenville and Gay, visit the Cove for bootlegged whiskey and fiddle playing, and spend hours on Dowdell Knob just thinking as he looked out over the great river valley below him.
Located on Pine Mountain, this 9,047-acre park is deeply rooted in the historical era of four-time President, Franklin D. Roosevelt.
Experience the life of an American President during a difficult era of American History at Franklin D. Roosevelt's Georgia home, The Little White House.
The historic Warm Springs pools where President F. D. Roosevelt received therapy for his polio are preserved for visitors and are open for occasional swims.