Millard Grimes: Tiny spot on a map, huge place in history

May 26, 2014 

I have the privilege of being a member of the Little White House Memorial Committee, devoted to keeping alive the memory and deeds of President Franklin D. Roosevelt, and his many connections to Georgia.

Georgia played an essential role in forming Roosevelt's view of the nation's problems and solutions during the 12 years he served as president. The Little White House Committee members work all year toward their goal but officially meet just once a year, on April 12 in Warm Springs at the Little White House where President Roosevelt died on that date in 1945.

About 12:30 that day he suffered a brain hemorrhage, while writing at a desk in the small living room of the Little White House. He was writing notes for the speech he planned to give at the first session of the United Nations, which he had largely created and hoped would avoid conflicts such as the two world wars he had lived through.

He never gave that speech, but his notes contain a meaningful line from his last inauguration, as he reminded Americans that "the great fact to remember is that the trend of civilization is forever upward."

Several hundred residents of the Warm Springs area come to hear the memorial observation speaker each year; a band from nearby Fort Benning plays and the moving invocation and benediction are given by the Rev. Bob Patterson of Warm Springs First Baptist Church. The Little White House is surprisingly small, as those who've been there know, and the grounds not designed for large crowds. Warm Springs itself is hard to find on a map or on the highway but the Little White House is still the most visited historic site in Georgia.

This year's speaker was Nina Roosevelt Gibson, a granddaughter of Franklin and Eleanor. She was only four years old when her grandfather died but lived for several years with her grandmother as a child. Ironically, she was also a victim of polio, when she was only eight years old, and when that childhood scourge was finally at bay due to the Polio Foundation, which Franklin founded at Warm Springs, and to the March of Dimes which helped fund the research that produced the Salk vaccine in 1957 that has virtually eliminated the disease.

Roosevelt was struck by polio in the summer of 1921. He could not stand or walk unaided for the remaining 24 years of his life -- during which time he was elected to four terms as president of the United States; created the modern national government which has made this nation the most productive, prosperous and successful in history; and led the Allied nations to victory over Nazism and fascism in World War II.

But what his granddaughter emphasized in her talk was the role Warm Springs and Georgia played in Roosevelt's life and the lives of his descendants. Ms. Gibson, who recently had a heart transplant, told of the Roosevelt family reunion held there last November with 150 in attendance.

If Warm Springs is hard to find today you can imagine how hard it was to find in October 1924 when Roosevelt made his first visit there. At least it was on a railroad and it was by train that Roosevelt made his many visits. The small station is still there, but it was restructured in 2003 and also serves as a welcome center today. A photograph of the old station circa 1935, reveals only one major change, the removal of "White" and "Colored" signs over the restroom doors.

Roosevelt came to Warm Springs, then known as Bullochville, after receiving a letter from a young man who claimed he had been cured of polio after bathing in the springs there.

So he took a train to Warm Springs where he found a rundown resort hotel with several cabins, operated by Thomas Loyless, a Columbus newspaper editor, who was financed by George Foster Peabody, a banker friend of Roosevelt's from New York, originally from Columbus.

Although never cured, Roosevelt enjoyed the buoyant effect from the warm waters and he eventually spent his entire inheritance to buy and develop Warm Springs where hundreds of polio victims have been treated. It is still the largest polio treatment center in the world.

Roosevelt made many trips to Georgia between 1927 and 1945, including, of course, his last one, arriving on a beautiful spring day, March 30, and dying 14 days later.

Roosevelt's life and deeds are the stuff of myths, but they were nearly all true and many of them occurred in little Warm Springs, Ga.

Millard Grimes, editor of the Columbus Ledger from 1961-69 and founder of the Phenix Citizen. is author of "The Last Linotype: The Story of Georgia and Its Newspapers Since World War II." A profile of Grimes can be found in the Georgia Encyclopedia, www.georgiaencyclopedia.org.

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