The Spirit of Warm Springs (Part 2 of 3)
Sources include Warm Springs by David M. Burke, Jr. and Odie A. Burke and West Central Georgia in Vintage Postcards by Gary L. Doster.
Newcomers do not quite understand until they have been here for a week or two – but it gets them all – the old spirit of Warm Springs. FDR, 1935
In 1924, the towns of Warm Springs and Bullochville merged as one town under the name of Warm Springs, Georgia. On October 3rd of that same year, the Southern pulled into the depot at Warm Springs. On board, Franklin and Eleanor Roosevelt cautiously waited for Tom Loyless to greet them in the foreign environment far from New York. FDR hadn’t walked in three years. Polio had virtually ended his political career. Now, he was in Georgia on the off chance that he could someday walk again. Whomever it was that lifted him from the train that day didn’t realize that he was carrying on his shoulders the person who would complete the transformation of Warm Springs. Nor could he have imagined that he was toting the future president of the United States into an old automobile for transport to a dilapidated cottage.
Upon his first swim in the pools the next day and for the next few weeks thereafter, Roosevelt’s life changed. Roosevelt would go on to purchase the resort and Warm Springs using two-thirds of his personal fortune. He would also create the Georgia Warm Springs Foundation for polio patients. FDR would also drive the countryside, meet people, and gain an understanding of their problems. He observed lack of education, the high cost of electric power, and the effects of the Great Depression years before it hit the nation as a whole. Warm Springs had a profound effect on FDR. He received an education, one that he could not have earned had he remained in New York. Always expressing confidence, he spoke about the spirit of Warm Springs and of a bright future in the town.
Sitting beside the pool in October 1924, Roosevelt expressed the enthushe experienced in Warm Springs. He stated that for the first time in three years, he was able to move his leg. He also allowed photographs to be taken of him swimming. The interview, syndicated nationally, drew unwanted attention. His life and the fate of Warm Springs was about to change forever as polio sufferers across the country made plans to meet Roosevelt in Georgia. His editorial in the Macon Telegraph in April 1925 sealed the deal, “There I was, large as life, living proof that Warm Springs, Georgia, had cured me of 57 different varieties of ailments.”
In April 1925, on his second visit, there were a number of polio patients waiting on him who had heard about his “cure” on his previous visit. All he wanted was to spend time alone fishing, swimming, and making plans to improve the resort with Tom Loyless and George F. Peabody. This intrusion, however, pushed him to helping other polio sufferers, as there wasn’t a doctor, and he took on the role for which he was fondly called “Doc” Roosevelt. Roosevelt saw potential in the property as a combined recreational and health resort that would use the springs as a source of income and healing. He spent much of 1925 contemplating this, wanting to develop a resort equaling that of Pinehurst in North Carolina.
Polio patients were not allowed to ride the train with other passengers in 1925. Fred Botts (pictured above), traveling to Warm Springs, rode in the baggage car from Pittsburgh inside a wooden cage built by his brother. Upon arrival, FDR taught him to swim. Fred was so skinny that it was feared the power of the springs would pull him through the drain. Franklin Roosevelt and Fred Botts became lifelong friends who could depend upon each other. Here they are seen on the walking board practicing their skills together during a therapy session. Botts would later become the registrar of the Georgia Warm Springs Foundation. At any time, he would call the president and receive his attention regarding matters in Warm Springs.
In 1926, the large pool was redesigned into the shape of a T in memory of Tom Loyless who had recently passed away. It was also at this time that George Foster Peabody discussed selling the resort. Roosevelt found himself a cottage and began buying land nearby for a farm. While on this spending spree, his law partner, Basil O’Connor, drew up papers to purchase the resort for $195,000, two-thirds of Roosevelt’s personal wealth. Roosevelt bought some 1,200 acres, which included old cottages, the Meriwether Inn, and the warm springs as its centerpiece. As more patients arrived, most of them children, Roosevelt developed muscle-testing charts and established exercise routines in the pools. The youngest patients began calling FDR “Doc” Roosevelt, while the older children called him “Rosey.”
FDR invited Dr. LeRoy Hubbard (below left), an orthopedic surgeon from New York to Warm Springs. Conducting studies from June through December 1926, Dr. Hubbard concluded that the benefits of water therapy improved the muscular conditioning of polio patients. The American Orthopedic Association approved his recommendations, and the Georgia Warm Springs for polio patients moved closer to becoming a reality. Helena Mahoney (below right) was the first physical therapist in Warm Springs. She supervised Dr. Hubbard’s prescribed exercises, while recruiting additional “physios” from Peabody College in Tennessee to assist in these “experiments.” Roosevelt sent out the call for assistance, describing a “Pioneering Opportunity” for doctors and therapists. A foundation brochure stated thousands of people were partly or wholly crippled from polio. The brochure continued by stating, “I think most cripples, children or adult, are worth taking an interest in. Economically, this work is sound; humanly, it is right. We need pioneers.” These young therapists, or “physios,” from Peabody College answered Roosevelt’s call for medically qualified help as they arrived in Warm Springs.
With the combining of health and recreation at Warm Springs also came fear and friction between the two users of the resort. The patients used one of the smaller pools, and the water flowed from it in the larger public pool. At the time, many thought that polio spread through water and there was a growing concern among the resort patrons who feared catching the disease. The T pool was extremely popular with visitors, but friction between polio patients and guests increased. Patients wanted their privacy, and guests didn’t want to swim with those inflicted with polio. These concerns from the recreation side also bled over into other areas such as dining. FDR and the other polio patients were forced to eat in the basement of the Meriwether Inn. The presence of the patients in the dining room also made the paying guests uncomfortable. Aside from the discrimination, Franklin Roosevelt also began to observe other problems occurring. At this time, 80 Georgia banks including the one in Warm Springs closed their doors. His travels throughout the Warm Springs and Pine Mountain region brought him face to face with the plight of many people who were feeling the effects of the Great Depression. FDR was establishing a relationship with the people of America. They felt like he was their friend, and he was able to relate to the “common man” because of his time in Georgia. Arthur Carpenter notes, “Many a family in Meriwether and adjoining Harris Counties owed their first acquaintance with Franklin D. Roosevelt to the fact that he had driven to their dooryard for a friendly chat. He knew them, knew their troubles and problems, as well as their joys.”
In 1927, The Meriwether Inn still looked fashionable enough in pictures, but it was deteriorating at a rapid rate. Tourists had all but quit coming to Warm Springs as more and more polio patients arrived seeking help because of the stories circulating about the curative powers of the springs and the treatments being developed by FDR. Cottages once owned by the wealthy seeking relief from the cities now became dormitories for the incoming handicapped visitors, who were mostly poor. Repairs were made as money allowed to convert these aging homes into fully accessible buildings that would accommodate wheelchairs. The cottage row became known as “The Colony.” Money needed to refurbish the decaying cottages ran short as Roosevelt observed banks in the area beginning to close and many family farms failing.
Hand-colored postcards were produced and distributed that touted the strength and temperature of the Warm Springs. As new owner of the resort, FDR tried many ways to encourage and promote tourism. In 1927, FDR wrote “Aside from the therapeutic value, we have so many natural resources for the families and patients that the swimming, golf, riding, and quail shooting ought to appeal to those in perfect health.” FDR also commissioned Donald Ross, of Pinehurst fame, to enlarge the course from five holes to nine with plans for an additional nine-hole course later. Under the auspices of Bobby Jones, the course opened in July. Roosevelt still had hopes of bringing tourists to the playground he envisioned in Warm Springs.
Mr. and Mrs. Edsel Ford, friends of the Roosevelts, traveled many times from Detroit to visit Warm Springs. They were deeply impressed with the work that was being done for polio patients. In 1928, the Fords donated money that allowed FDR to hire architect Henry Toombs to design a hydrotherapeutic center. Their donation of $25,000 to the Georgia Warm Springs Foundation created the Edsel Ford Pool that looked more like a country club resort than a therapeutic center. The glass enclosure allowed sunlight in and during the winter months, heated air in the pavilion made swimming a pleasant experience. It was also called the “Private Winter Pool.”
While Franklin Roosevelt spent most of his time in Warm Springs, he was desperately wanting to return to politics. He was hesitant about it; not sure he was ready. In a letter to his mother, he expressed his thoughts, “Dearest Mama, I have had a difficult time turning down the Governorship, letters and telegrams by the dozen begging me to save the situation by running…I only hope they don’t try to stampede the Convention tomorrow and nominate me and then adjourn!” On October 3, 1928, four years after his first swim in Warm Springs, Franklin Delano Roosevelt was nominated for the governor of New York. On October 5, he made his way up the ramp and into political history.
Next week, our last installment in the series on Warm Springs - and our last History Spotlight of the year. Thank you all for your love of our history, our places, and our people. You make preservation happen. If you are not a member, we hope you will join us!
Elizabeth B. Walden