by Paul M. Sparrow, director FDR Presidential Library and Museum
On July 1st, the Trustees of the FDR Library and Museum will present the first Franklin and Eleanor Roosevelt Hudson Valley Vision Award to Dutchess County Executive Marcus Molinaro for his work championing the ThinkDIFFERENTLY Campaign. The award seeks to recognize those working to improve the future of the Hudson Valley for ALL residents, through engagement and inclusion. This recognition is in keeping with the lifelong commitment that both President and Mrs. Roosevelt had to supporting and promoting Dutchess County and the Hudson Valley.
“All that is within me cries out to go back to my home on the Hudson River…”
President Franklin D. Roosevelt wrote those words on July 11, 1944 as he reluctantly agreed to run for a fourth term. Even as he put words to paper, perhaps he sensed he would not live long enough to fulfill the dream of retiring to his beloved Top Cottage. His deep commitment to Dutchess County and the Hudson Valley are the reasons why his Presidential Library and Museum is in Hyde Park and not Washington, D.C.
Franklin Roosevelt’s deep roots in the native soil of Hyde Park started growing when he was very young. His idyllic childhood included exploring his family’s estate searching for arrowheads, ice boating on the Hudson River, collecting birds and planting trees.
His efforts as President to solve the Dust bowl environmental crisis of the 1930s were a direct result of his passion for trees and soil conservation.
On Saturday, December 10, 1938 FDR first announced his plans to donate all of his papers, art, ship models and books to the American people and to build a Presidential Library to house them. At the press conference that day he said:
“It is my hope that during my lifetime I will continue to live at Hyde Park, and if a period collection of this kind is permanently domiciled on what is my own place, I will be able to give assistance to the maintenance of the collection during my lifetime. … It is almost imperative that they should be placed in Hyde Park, and at the same time the ownership and title of all the papers, books, et cetera, should be in the federal government itself.”
This was an unprecedented act of generosity and patriotism – and he did it so that people could learn the lessons of the past to make a better world in the future. He also noted that he had paintings, books, and historical records, “…relating to the Hudson Valley and the town of Hyde Park.” His collection includes hundreds of books on the history of New York, many focused on Dutchess County.
FDR knew the Library and Museum would have a lasting impact on the region’s economy and he added a positive spin on the area’s tourism:
“I may mention that the place at Hyde Park is located on the New York – Albany Post Road – two hours from New York City by train or motor, and four and one-half miles from the City of Poughkeepsie, which has good hotel and other accommodations.”
The assembled press greeted that remark with laughter – perhaps the reporters had other views of the local accommodations – but FDR insisted “…don’t slam that last statement.”
It did not take long for FDR’s critics to voice their opinion. In a letter to the president dated December 13, 1938, Mr. Clarence Boothby wrote
“The decent citizens of this country are not all interested in perpetuating your memory to future generations, — in fact, we are only anxious to forget the stench of your egotistical, incompetent, unscrupulous and unspeakable costly administration as quickly as we can get you out of office.”
The President originally called it the “Hyde Park Library” but the Library Committee, made up of noted historians and scholars, felt that name was not distinctive enough. The “Crum Elbow Library” was suggested, referring to the original tract of land on which library would be built. FDR thought this idea was “swell.” However, he was the only one who thought so and was again overruled by the Committee who selected the name as the “Franklin D. Roosevelt Library.” R.D.W Connor, then Archivist of the United Sates, noted that “the President of the United States found himself unanimously overruled by a ‘packed’ court of his own choosing.”
A bill was put before Congress for the Library to be built with privately raised money and then turned over to the National Archives to run it. Of course not everyone supported this piece of legislation.
Republican Congressman Hamilton Fish, who represented Hyde Park, argued that “no bill should be brought before the House for the erection of a monument to a living man… It is utterly un-American, utterly undemocratic.” He wanted to know if there was to be a yearly maintenance cost limit on the project, and he proposed to limit annual maintenance to just $12,000, but it was rejected.
The loudest debate concerned WHERE the papers should be located. Republicans insisted that the papers should be housed at the new National Archives building in Washington, D. C., so “statesmen of the future may go over the papers and learn how not to run a government.”
But FDR insisted that the library be built in Hyde Park. The intensity of the opposition can be found in the words of the Republican Congressman from Missouri, Dewey Jackson Short, who said “I submit in all fairness, that there has never been such a public display of colossal conceit or such an unblushing parade of swashbuckling egotism as is contained in this measure….Only an egocentric megalomaniac would have the nerve to ask for such a measure, and yet it is going to be crammed down our throats this afternoon by an appeal to blind partisan prejudice.”
The Republican response was so vitriolic because they knew that passage was inevitable and would require only a simple majority. And indeed the final bill was passed on July 18th, 1938. Construction started in early 1939.
For FDR it was essential that his papers be housed next to his home. It was at Springwood that FDR found the strength to deal with his personal and political challenges. It was his belief that the Library would attract researchers and historians from around the world, and that they would only truly understand him if they experienced the beauty and magic of the Hudson Valley. During the laying of the cornerstone on November 19, 1939, FDR expressed those sentiments.
“It has, therefore been my personal hope that this library, and the use of it by scholars and visitors, will come to be an integral part of a country scene which the hand of man has not greatly changed since the days of the Indians who dwelt here 300 years ago.”
On June 30th, 1941, as war raged in Europe, President Roosevelt officially opened his Library and Museum. The poet Archibald McLeish captured FDR’s life-long ties to the Hudson River Valley in his remarks during the dedication: “They (the papers) belong by themselves, here in this river country, on the land from which they came.”
President Roosevelt said it best when he said:
“To bring together the records of the past and to house them in buildings where they will be preserved for the use of men living in the future, a nation must believe in three things. It must believe in the past. It must believe in the future. It must, above all, believe in the capacity of its people so to learn from the past that they can gain in judgement for the creation of the future.”
Since that day in 1941, more than 13 million people have visited the FDR Library and his home, including Presidents, Prime Ministers, Kings, Queens, politicians and Hollywood celebrities. Of course people are not the only thing FDR brought to the Hudson Valley. His Civilian Conservation Corps built the Beaverkill Bridge, FDR State Park, Harriman State Park and the Pine Meadow Lake, Sam’s Point Preserve and of course the Taconic Parkway. He also helped build multiple Post Offices, schools and roads in the region. Perhaps most importantly Franklin Roosevelt inspired the people of Dutchess County to take pride in knowing that one of our greatest presidents chose their community to house his legacy.