The National Park Service – the legacy initiated by that other Roosevelt, the one fondly called Teddy – is nearly a century old in its mission to preserve our country’s awesome natural landscapes and historical monuments. It has launched programs to attract new generations of visitors, particularly aiming to diversify the demographic that comes to sites all over the country each year. In our own back yard in Hyde Park, special activities and events – like the End-2-End Hike on June 6, the Beatrix Farrand Lecture Series on June 7 and Project Write: Writing into History, A Young Writers’ Program to be held in July – are offered to augment visits to local historic sites.
This month at the Franklin Delano Roosevelt Historic Site, the schedule is packed. A special evening featuring World War II-era entertainment will take visitors back to the Roosevelt days as the FDR Presidential Library hosts a USO Show on Friday, May 22 at 7 p.m. Attendees will be transported to the 1940s for an evening of comedy, historic film footage and music in the Wallace Center. Come take a trip down Memory Lane – or create new ones under the spell of mid-century entertainment.
On Saturday and Sunday, May 23 and 24, the lawn in front of the Library will take on the appearance of a World War II encampment from 10 a.m. to 4 p.m., replete with period military vehicles and soldiers in GI dress, ready for battle. History enthusiasts, families, teachers and students will get a vivid feeling of what our soldiers endured during that conflict. A Graveside Memorial Service will be held in the Rose Garden at the Home of FDR National Historic Site on Monday, May 25 at 1:30 p.m. to honor fallen veterans. Often attended by up to 150 people, this annual wreath-laying ceremony welcomes one and all.
And mark your calendar for Jay Ungar and Molly Mason at the third annual Val-Kill Picnic and Square Dance on Saturday, May 30 from 1 to 4 p.m., to be held at Eleanor’s own Historic Site. Also, check out the free lawn concerts at Music in the Parks held throughout the summer, and the Teaching in the Hudson Valley Summer Institute for teachers held on July 28 through July 30.
The newest exhibition on display in the FDR Museum is one that taps into the popularity of this mid-20th-century president in a unique way. “The Spirit of the Gift: Gifts of State and Affection” is now installed in the museum’s William J. vanden Heuvel Gallery for visitors’ perusal: an exhibit that reflects both the wide range of interests that FDR had (he was said to be “a great collector”) and the broad appeal that he and first lady Eleanor Roosevelt inspired in everyone they met.
The gallery is laid out with remarkable items that came from celebrities, such as Walt Disney (a still from a 1930s cartoon), Roy Rogers, Cecil B. DeMille and Shirley Temple (she sent him a little bag and made him an official member of the Shirley Temple Police Force), or from heads of state presiding over governments all over the world – the Dalai Lama, British royalty, a Moroccan sultan, Madame Chiang Kai-shek – and from everyday folks, sometimes anonymous individuals, who happened to take a liking to their president and his spouse and wanted them to have some memento of appreciation.
Museum curator Herman Eberhardt and staff have assembled just a few of the thousands of gifts amassed by the Roosevelts, noting that since the FDR Library’s creation in 1941, the custom of displaying gift collections has become common in presidential libraries. “The tradition goes way back beyond our history; the idea that when heads of state meet, they exchange gifts, goes back to the Middle Ages,” says Eberhardt. “We see it in our own history from George Washington on.” Many of these iconic cultural items represent the artistry of foreign lands – ostentatious statuary, ornate tiaras and textiles, gold cigarette cases, fur gloves – and were often presented ceremoniously.
In contrast, the things sent to Roosevelt by his loving constituents would simply arrive in the mail. They were sorted and kept in a space in the White House. Later they were transported to Hyde Park, where FDR kept them in a special viewing room – he called it the Oddities Room – which soon became overcrowded with such things as a special vest covered in buttons, a powderhorn from a famous battle, a pair of Native American leather gloves, a brass bell made from melted-down German coins, an elaborately carved clock case, a quilt with Eleanor’s image embedded in it and many more unique creations.
FDR avidly collected stamps, rare books, ship models, prints and drawings, so his admirers might make an image of his face out of stamps or another done in typeface, or send him a real working toy submarine that shoots torpedoes. He was a tremendous populist, connected with everyday Americans, and the things that he received from them reflect that connection. And in wanting to display the things that his people sent him, Roosevelt underlined how important it made him feel to be thought of by them.
A pictogram portrait of FDR created by Frank Nedbalek epitomizes this mutual devotion of the people for the man who led them through a war and out of poverty. The outer border of the pictogram contains the words “V DEC 7 1941 / PEARL HARBOR / MANILA WAKE / V MAN OF THE HOUR” in miniature type. Even smaller type that appears within the border contains patriotic slogans and excerpts from some of FDR’s early wartime speeches. Like many of these handmade gifts, this one must have taken the artist uncounted hours of intricate work to accomplish.
The Museum has also acquired non-gift items that reflect the political, social, military, diplomatic and cultural life in America during the 1930s and 1940s, now numbering over 34,000, including thousands of digitized documents, letters and photos. But it’s this room full of gifted tokens of appreciation that offers visitors a sense of how the Roosevelts were regarded by one and all. “The Spirit of the Gift: Gifts of State and Affection” exhibit – a chance for people too young to have a personal memory of the era to understand the legacies of Franklin and Eleanor Roosevelt – is scheduled to run through December 31.
With all these treasured historic locations concentrated in Hyde Park, there is much for visitors to see and do this summer, and the Roosevelt Ride Free Shuttle Service, provided by the National Park Service and Metro-North Railroad, makes it easier for people coming into the region by train to hit all the hot spots. From now through October 31, a shuttle will run from the Poughkeepsie Station to the Franklin D. Roosevelt Home and the FDR Presidential Library and Museum, the Vanderbilt Mansion National Historic Site, the Eleanor Roosevelt National Historic Site at Val-Kill, Top Cottage and back again.
In an effort to accommodate special-needs visitors, the FDR Presidential Library and Museum has also recently launched a bilingual (English and Spanish) Audio Description (AD) Guide for people who are blind or have low vision. The AD Guide can be downloaded at no charge from the Library’s website and is accessible on handheld Tour-Mate devices available at no cost from the Museum’s New Deal Store. It offers information on the Museum’s permanent exhibit text and verbal illustrations of exhibit spaces, documents, artifacts and interactive features. Made possible with a grant from the Dyson Foundation, the AD Guide is yet another reflection of a commitment to ensure that the Library and Museum are fully accessible to all visitors. Eleanor and Franklin would have had it no other way.