One can imagine an early spring day in Georgia’s Piedmont region as sunny and warm, trees blooming with splashes of green, red and yellow, and melodious in the way only birdsong can make it. You could add “panoramic” to the palette since this specific day in April was seen from the point at Dowdell’s Knob on the eastern end of Franklin D. Roosevelt State Park.
But President Roosevelt himself likely didn’t dwell on the striking view of the Pine Mountain Valley below him. On April 10, 1945, he had other things on his mind — American boys dying in Okinawa and Germany, the wisdom of forming a United Nations organization and dozens of other grave issues as the leader of the free world. Or maybe the vista spread out before him with distant low-lying mountains was a diversion for a time.
History tells us FDR sent his Secret Service agents walking back up the road away from the scenic point on this day, requesting total privacy as he sat in his car thinking, legs stricken with polio. He told them to come back when he honked the horn, and that was two hours later.
Two days later, Roosevelt suffered a massive stroke while having his portrait painted in his Georgia home, the Little White House in Warm Springs. He died that April 12 afternoon at age 63, the portrait unfinished.
“Those last peaceful hours of one of the giants of world history seem to linger here, where the echoes of his era can be heard in the quietness,” says an elegy in stone at Dowdell’s Knob. A recent trip to FDR State Park by my wife Teresa and I helped fill in the gaps of what I know of this era of almost 70 years ago.
Although presidential historians put FDR in the “top three” tier of greatest presidents along with Washington and Lincoln, in the last few years Roosevelt has taken a beating in some political circles because his New Deal policies and social programs have morphed into entitlements to millions of Americans.
My view? We should thank Congress and succeeding presidents through the decades for not putting a stop to that.
In our modern era, most people are not attuned to the “spirit of the times” in those days. That’s because they probably weren’t alive back then. I would suggest they do some historical reading about how 13 million Americans were out of work, how banks and family farms were failing, and how our country’s beautiful natural resources were being ravaged at an alarming rate.
In the first days of his unprecedented four terms as our nation’s chief executive, Roosevelt shepherded legislation through Congress — what a novel idea for a president — and put millions of people back to work through his “alphabet agencies” like the Civilian Conservation Corps (CCC), the Works Progress Administration, the Rural Electric Administration and others. I mention those three specifically because they dealt with employment — and modernizing the South.
You see, Roosevelt was born into New York high society. But on many of his dozens of trips to Warm Springs even before he was elected president he came down off his farm on Pine Mountain and drove through the valleys in his car with all hand-controlled equipment. It was there he met impoverished Georgians who were struggling due to the Great Depression, and it made a profound impression on him. In fact, you might say the New Deal was forged in FDR’s mind, at least, in the Peach State.
Truth be known, we may not have as many state and federal parks today — including Fort Mountain — if not for the CCC boys back then.
Up in South Carolina my Great Uncle Shark (my mom’s Uncle Paul) was put to work in the CCC building towers out west. He later transformed the opportunity into a career of building communication towers for DuPont that helped him support a wife and four daughters. Since first beginning work in Ellijay almost 28 years ago, I can recall many times being in the homes of older citizens here and seeing photos of FDR on living room walls.
FDR, with the support of Congress, brought ample food to the table by implementing his programs, but more importantly, he brought hope. You can see the change in photographs before and after the New Deal took off. Before, we see the slumped figure of an unemployed man leaning against a lamp post on a street corner. Afterward, we see the smiling faces of men laboring while planting thousands of trees — and getting three square meals a day.
Roosevelt sometimes got his Secret Service men to remove a car seat so he could sit and look out over the valley from his Pine Mountain perch at Dowdell Knob. The memorial statue there is of him sitting on a car seat — with space for a visitor to sit and have his or her photo snapped.
When I picture-mailed my mother a photo of me on that seat with him, she texted back, “He’s one of my heroes!” Thousands and thousands of Americans, particularly of an older generation, still feel the same way.
No, I wasn’t alive when she and her family were picking cotton just to survive in the Palmetto State, but I trust her judgment intuitively. If she says he was a great man, that’s good enough for me.