When a president takes a personal interest in a town, it can have a far-reaching impact. That was certainly the case for Warm Springs, Ga., where Franklin Delano Roosevelt’s legacy still defines this community of 400.
FDR was attracted to the pastoral area in the 1920s after hearing about a man who claimed to have been healed of polio by swimming in the 88-degree mineral waters for which the town is named. While the president was not cured of his own polio, he experienced enough improvement that he established a vacation home, the Little White House, amid the pines, oaks, hickories, and wild azaleas of the mountain community.
His presence in Warm Springs attracted hundreds of other polio victims to the tiny town. But no facilities were large enough or accessible enough to house them all, and many were turned away.
The president recognized the need and purchased 1,200 acres, which included the local tavern, hotel, and 26 cottages of a declining resort, to establish a treatment center. This, plus an additional 3,000 acres he bought later, was the only property he ever owned.
“He was a prominent person with money who could’ve gone anywhere in the world for healthcare,” says Martin Harmon, public relations director for the Roosevelt Warm Springs Institute for Rehabilitation, now a state-run facility which sees 6,000 patients annually. “But he was interested in helping these other people with polio, if he could.”
Suzanne A. Pike was an early patient at the clinic. Born with clubfeet, she began treatment as an infant and was able to stand on her own at 4. To honor her achievement, FDR invited her to his annual Thanksgiving dinner, held in the main dining hall of the institute.
“I was nervous and shy and didn’t want to go,” says Pike, now a tour guide at the state historic site. “But my mother insisted, reminding me that one didn’t get invited to eat with the president every day.”
Pike remembers a gregarious, compassionate man. Although he hid his illness from the general public, he relaxed at Warm Springs and allowed himself to be seen in braces and on crutches.
But FDR didn’t confine himself to the hospital. Driving his hand-controlled 1938 Ford, he was known to pull into the yards of local families and honk his horn. When the startled residents emerged, the president would ask questions about their jobs, homes, and lifestyles. The insights he gleaned from these conversations helped inspire many of his most successful policies, including the New Deal and the Rural Electrification Act.
This intimacy with the locals endeared him permanently to the community. When he died in 1945 in his modest Little White House, his body was driven through the grounds one last time. The public mourned his passing and lined the railroad tracks for miles, heads bowed, hats in hand.
Just a few years later, the Salk vaccine virtually eradicated polio in the United States. To survive, the Warm Springs institute expanded its treatment to patients with brain and spinal cord injuries, stroke, diabetes, and post-polio syndrome. And in 1996, the $11 million Center for Therapeutic Recreation opened on-site, offering training in paralympic sports. The Roosevelt Cup is held there every other year, when athletes from eight countries compete in tennis, basketball, and track & field.
But Warm Springs is known for more than the generosity of its most famous resident. Building upon FDR’s spirit of helping those in need, the Good Shepherd Therapeutic Center in Warm Springs, adjacent to Roosevelt State Park, was established in 1982 and provides horse and pet therapy to disabled persons.
FDR’s house and grounds also are open for tours, attracting about 120,000 visitors annually. All the original furnishings are on view, and the famous “Unfinished Portrait,” in progress the day he died, is still propped on its easel. His beloved car, with its “FDR 1” license plate, remains parked in the garage.
The town itself has one traffic light and consists mainly of a cluster of small shops and cafes, much like when FDR lived here.
“People are often surprised at the simplicity of the place,” says Mary Thrash, an interpretive ranger.
But, as he often said himself, that’s exactly what the president loved about it.