Travel Log: Phase 2!

Morris Island Light

(Huber Heights, Ohio; March 19, 2018) Phase 2 is underway! This will be a short leg. It began in Georgia, and right now I’m at my brother’s in Ohio again. Next week I trek to new lands: Tennessee, Arkansas, Mississippi, and Alabama. Middle of next month I’m going to Hawaii (Phase 3), so I only have a couple of weeks for Phase 2. However, while Tennessee and Arkansas are very unexplored states for me, I’ve spent a lot of time in Mississippi and Alabama over the years, so I’ll only put a day or two in each of those. Phase 1 covered 4,552.5 miles. Phase 2 will not cover so much, but then when I fly to Hawaii and add up the mileage of the flight…well, Grand Tour USA is definitely racking up the miles!

I drove up the Columbus, Georgia, to start Phase 2 at the National Civil War Naval Museum. I’ll discuss this facility after I finally swing through Vicksburg, Mississippi in a couple of weeks. (There is a logic to that decision—you’ll understand when I get to it.) I also spent some time in Columbus, and discovered it’s a rather charming town in its own right, the perfect place to have a Coke and a smile!

You see, John Pemberton invented the formula for Coca-Cola in Columbus in 1886. A wounded Civil War veteran, he was trying to find tonics that would lessen dependency on hard-core pain killers. What he invented was the basic formula for Coca-Cola. Atlanta is the “home” of Coke because Coke went into mass production there, but Columbus is the birthplace of the famous American soft drink. Pemberton’s former home is a private residence that isn’t open for tours, but the Columbus Visitors Center maintains a small exhibit on the genesis of Coca-Cola…and a wealth of information on western Georgia attractions. The center is in downtown Columbus, and is an easy stop to make while orientating yourself.

Georgia is home to former President Jimmy Carter, of course. But western Georgia boasts a small, quiet town named Warm Springs. Anyone who is familiar with our 32nd president, Franklin D. Roosevelt, will perk up their ears at the name “Warm Springs.”

FDR was an athletic, rather elitist dandy until being stricken by polio in 1921. The fight to regain the use of his legs began a humbling process that turned Roosevelt’s gaze outward from the rich, playboy life he was bred to. He first traveled to Warm Springs in 1924 to swim in the 88 degree waters that bubbles up year-round from the Georgia mountains. Although the waters could not return FDR’s ability to walk, he believed so strongly in the therapeutic value of swimming in the warm waters that he founded what is today called the Roosevelt Warm Springs Institute for Rehabilitation.

Warm Springs and FDR's Little White House
One of FDR’s specially-designed wheelchairs and his leg braces are on display at the museum.

After founding the institute and building the historic pools that harnessed the spring water, FDR’s efforts were continued by the Foundation for Infantile Paralysis (known today as the March of Dimes). The hydrotherapy enabled many polio victims to strengthen their remaining muscles, find relief from pain, and interact in a community of fellow polio victims. These people created a sort of perpetual-motion machine of inspiration helping children and adults alike heal as much as possible and re-engage with life through new skills, clever tools and innovative prosthetic devices.

FDR’s personal cottage was completed in 1932, and he used it 16 times during his four terms as president. Roosevelt became one of Warm Spring’s favorite residents during this time for reasons that went far beyond the money and hope the institute brought to polio victims.

FDR had his cars retrofitted with hand controls so he could drive (thus helping maintain the public illusion that he was not crippled). Part of his personal therapy at Warm Springs was driving himself and his guests around the back roads of Georgia. The freedom of driving gave him a renewed sense of independence and optimism.

And this is where the FDR story really takes a really interesting detour (pardon the road pun!) from the expected course of his high-brow life. FDR’s sensibilities and sympathies had already been elevated by the common struggle against polio he shared with his fellow patients. The next logical step in his education was talking to the common folk he encountered on his drives. The legends of the great FDR stopping his car in some poor farmer’s drive to spend an hour chatting are entirely true. These conversations led the east coast scion of wealth to develop a deep affinity for the basic humanity of everyone he met. This awareness would inform much of his priorities and policies as president.

The chair and desk he was sitting in while having a portrait done in April 1945 when he suffered his fatal stroke are still there, in place. Three months into his fourth term, his new vice president completely untrained and largely unaware of executive branch function, FDR abruptly succumbed to the strain of nearly 13 years in office and died suddenly just as World War II was coming to a close. The unfinished portrait itself is on display in the museum on the grounds. It is a sobering thing to look at it and know the exact moment the artist stopped worked as FDR slumped.

Warm Springs and FDR's Little White House
The chair and desk Roosevelt was sitting in while having his portrait done when he suffered a fatal stroke and died in April 1945.

The site is run by the state of Georgia, and there is no shortage of park guides to answer any question. My favorite guide was Rita Hutcherson, who was on duty over at the historic pools FDR had built to harness the spring waters. Rita is a woman of medium height, close-cropped white hair, and boundless energy. She is a fountain of information about institute Roosevelt founded to turn the fountains coming out of the Georgia mountains into a therapeutic retreat.

Time with Rita is well-spent. She can tell you in detail the specific activities and therapies conducted in each pool, how young boys and girls were separated for specific activities, FDR’s routine when he was in Warm Springs, and even the plans Georgia has to restore and refill the historic pools. Currently the spring water is used to fill modern, enclosed pools at the institute, but the desire to get FDR’s pools back in operation is a long-sought goal (a ceremonial fountain has spring water bubbling up in the historic pools, but it does not fill them). Rita will talk you through Roosevelt’s path from the site of the old train station to Georgia Hall, the institute’s main building. Roosevelt made it a point to go straight to Georgia Hall and greet the institute’s children every time he arrived, and would make a beeline there again to say farewell every time he left.

Historic Pools at the Roosevelt Institute
Tour guide Rita Hutcherson tells visitors the story of FDR’s development of the Roosevelt Institute at Warm Springs.

Admission for adults is $12.00. You can pay at either the Little White House site or at the pools, but you’ll need to keep your receipt so you can get into other site. The pools are located about a mile down some lovely back-country Georgia roads from the Little White House. Plan on two, maybe three hours to tour both sites. You’ll need only a half an hour at the historic pools, but you’ll spend well over an hour at the Little White House. Take the 12 minutes to watch the introductory movie at the museum. It will give your visit greater context as you get an idea of the nation and world-shaping events influenced by the small town of Warm Springs on Franklin D. Roosevelt.

Grand Tour USA, Phase 2, is now underway!

Historic Pools at the Roosevelt Institute
A multi-image composite panorama of the three inter-connecting pools Roosevelt had built.  Today a ceremonial fountains bubbles up water from the springs in the center pool, but these have been replaced by modern, enclosed facilities at the institute.

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Attraction information:

Columbus Visitors Center:

Roosevelt’s Little White House State Historic Site:

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Nathanael Miller’s Photojournalism Archives:

Instagram: @sparks1524


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