WARM SPRINGS, Ga. -- Suzanne Pike remembers gazing up at a smiling Franklin D. Roosevelt from her wheelchair. It was during one of the president's trips to Georgia where he sought relief from the crippling effects of polio in the warm mineral water gushing from the base of Pine Mountain.
"I knew it was a big time when he came," said Pike, 72, who is a chief ranger overseeing the pools where Roosevelt exercised. "Everyone would come to town to greet him at the train station. The ladies of the town had a picnic for the president."
After contracting polio at the age of 39, Roosevelt made about 40 trips to Warm Springs from Oct. 4, 1924 - when he took his first dip in the mineral water - until his death here at the retreat known as the Little White House, on April 12, 1945.
During those 21 years, Roosevelt was elected president for four terms - the only man ever to do so - and led the nation through two of its greatest crises - the Great Depression and World War II. He also created a foundation at Warm Springs to help other polio victims.
Now his ties to Georgia are highlighted in a new $5 million museum at the 160-acre FDR Little White House Historic Site, about 70 miles southwest of Atlanta.
Warm Springs, a west-central Georgia town of 500 people, is in a mountainous area rich in tourist attractions and outdoor activities. There is golf, horseback riding, camping and hiking along the 23-mile Pine Mountain Trail, which is spectacular in spring with blooming dogwoods, azaleas, mountain laurels and rhododendrons.
The 11,000 square-foot FDR museum was dedicated by Georgia Gov. Sonny Perdue on April 12, the 59th anniversary of Roosevelt's death at the age of 63.
Reflecting the concerns of a president who walked with leg braces and designed his own wheelchairs, the museum has unusually wide doors to accommodate visitors with disabilities.
Visitors can see the 1938 Ford convertible with hand controls that Roosevelt drove around the countryside, learning firsthand about rural poverty from farmers in the area. They can watch a 12-minute video narrated by Walter Cronkite that chronicles Roosevelt's Georgia connection. They can also listen to Roosevelt's famous "fireside chats" on an old table radio in a 1930s kitchen, illuminated by a bare electric bulb.
Some of Roosevelt's leg braces are included in the displays, along with one of the kitchen chairs he transformed into a wheelchair with the addition of wheels and a foot rest. His homemade wheelchairs provided more mobility, giving him the ability to propel himself by moving the wheels.
"He knew he wouldn't be elected if he rode in a conventional wheelchair," said David Burke, a ranger at the site. "He knew that if he were on crutches, it would draw pity. He knew if he was pushed in a wheelchair, he would be unelectable."
Visitors can also see the pools that Roosevelt used for soaking in the 88-degree mineral water. These pools are now empty, but the nearby facilities of the Roosevelt Warm Springs Institute for Rehabilitation uses water from the same springs for medical therapy.
Other displays focus on Roosevelt's creation of the Rural Electrification Administration in 1935, to bring electricity to rural homes; and the Tennessee Valley Authority in 1933, to develop the Tennessee River system for navigation, flood control, national defense and generating electric power.
"We're telling the story of what Roosevelt experienced in Georgia and how his experiences helped change the world," Burke said. "Some needed programs were developed here, such as rural electrification and the TVA."
The museum also features large black-and-white photos of Roosevelt, including one showing a smiling Roosevelt in a black tank-top bathing suit after he had exercised and soaked in the springs. When the picture was published in newspapers around the country, desperate polio victims began arriving in droves at Warm Springs seeking help. Many people tried to avoid contact with the visitors because doctors weren't certain how the disease was spread.
One family, unable to send their son in a regular passenger car, crated him and his wheelchair and shipped them from Pittsburgh to Warm Springs in a freight car, Burke said.
Farther up a hill from the museum is the actual home, with a 48-star U.S. flag flying out front. Its sun deck, built like the fantail of a ship, overlooks a tree-lined ravine. Roosevelt was working at his desk in the house when he suffered a stroke and died. Every clock in the house is frozen on the time of his death - 3:45 p.m.
Pike, who was born with clubfoot and was the first non-polio victim to be treated by the foundation, said many polio victims exercised in the pools enjoyed by Roosevelt. Displays at the museum include an "iron lung," a tubular, airtight chamber that helped polio victims breathe. They lay in the chamber, sometimes for days, while the machine forced their paralyzed bodies to inhale and exhale.
Pike said she was invited to sit with other children at Roosevelt's dining table during one of his visits. He held her hand briefly and spoke benevolently to her.
"He was loved by all the patients," she said. "The older kids called him Doc Roosevelt. The younger ones called him Rosie. We knew we would get special privileges when he was here."
If You Go...
LITTLE WHITE HOUSE HISTORIC SITE: Located at 401 Little White Rd., Warm Springs, Ga., 1/4 mile south of Warm Springs on Georgia Highway 85 Alt. - U.S. Highway 27 Alt. Open daily 9 a.m. to 4:45 p.m. Admission $4 to $7. Camping permitted in Roosevelt State Park. For more information, visit www.fdr-littlewhitehouse.org or call (706) 655-5870.
ROOSEVELT WARM SPRINGS INSTITUTE FOR REHABILITATION: Tours available. Call (706) 655-5669 or visit www.rooseveltrehab.org.
WARM SPRINGS: For help in planning a trip, learning about local attractions or finding accommodations, visit www.warmspringsga.com/ or (800) 337-1927.
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