F.D.R’S CANADIAN ISLAND
On New Brunswick’s Campobello, Franklin Delano Roosevelt learned to swim, sail and talk with the “Harvard" accent of fishermen. He wasn’t horn there, though a lot of folk who still miss him like to believe that he was
IN SEASIDE New Brunswick there’s an island with an area of twenty square miles, a population of fourteen hundred fisher-folk, and a lot of memories of one of history’s great figures.
It is called Campobello and it’s where Franklin Delano Roosevelt, who led the United States through world depression and world war, spent some of his happiest and his most tragic days. It’s where he acquired his famous “Harvard” accent and his distinctive oratorical style, and where he was attacked by the disease that left him crippled.
On wave-beaten cliff-girt Campobello, near the mouth of the Bay of Fundy, Roosevelt learned to swim, sail a boat, hunt and cast a trout fly. Here he made his first speech, here he escaped from the
apron strings of a domineering class-conscious mother and discovered the dignity of humble hardworking people, and here he reached his decision to enter politics.
There is a persistent rumor that he was born on this island and suppressed the fact to further his career. Like a number of other F.D.R. legends, this lacks truth. The evidence indicates that his biographers are correct in stating, as they do, that he was born at Hyde Park, New York.
But he visited Campobello each year from his early childhood. He and Eleanor Roosevelt strolled hand-in-hand over its rugged trails when they were engaged, honeymooned in its familiar surroundings, and vacationed on it as youngparents.
And here, on the night of Aug. 17, 1915, while F.D.R. paced anxiously up and down like any husband whose wife is in labor, a hurriedly summoned general practitioner delivered his third son, Franklin Delano Roosevelt Jr.
The improvised delivery room in the rambling Roosevelt cottage was lighted by the yellow rays of an oil lamp and the door was draped with the Siars and Stripes. The flag was the idea of F.D.R., then the assistant secretary of the U.S. Navy. Perhaps he felt it proclaimed that the room was a liïtle part of the United States, even though it was on Canadian soil. Whether the gesture was purely sentimental, or had legal significance, may eventually be determined by the U.S. Supreme Court.
Of the four sons of Franklin and Eleanor Roosevelt, Franklin Jr., who represents New York’s twentieth congressional district at Washington, is most like F.D.R. He resembles him in appearance, outlook and personality, and shows promise of having the same talent for winning votes. He is already being mentioned as a possible candidate for the White House.
But the constitution says the president must be a native-born citizen. This has been interpreted as meaning born in the United States, and Franklin Jr. could not run for the highest office in his country unless the Supreme Court cleared his status and declared him eligible.
The legend that F.D.R. himself was born on Campobello may have resulted from the father being confused with the son. Perhaps to give it added spice, or perhaps because his opponents used it in an effort to discredit him, it is generally accompanied by the positive assertion that Roosevelt knowingly went to the White House under false pretenses and in violation of the constitution, and that all he did while he was there (from 1933 until his death in 1945) was illegal.
He Was Never Called Frank
While Roosevelt was president a number of Americans, prompted by curiosity or a desire to obtain grounds for impeachment, tried in vain to find something to substantiate the tale. They thumbed through New Brunswick’s birth registrations and are reported to have paid at least one private detective to question Campobello residents. They might have saved themselves the trouble, for the story, interesting as it is, cannot be fitted into the facts.
Historians agree that F.D.R. was horn Jan. 30, 1882. A note in the Hyde Park diary of his father, James, under that date, reads: “At quarter to nine my Sally had a splendid large baby boy. He weighs ten pounds without his clothes.”
James and Sara Roosevelt (Sally was a pet name) would certainly not have been on storm-swept Campobello at the end of January 1882, even had they had a cottage there then. And the records show that their cottage was not built until 1884.
In 1881 the island, long the private domain of the seafaring Owen family of Wales which produced three admirals for the Royal Navy, was purchased by a Boston and New York syndicate and developed as a resort for the wealthy. The syndicate put up two summer hotels, the Tyn-Y-Coed (Welsh for House of the Forest) and the Tyn-Y-Maes (House of the Fields). It also sold land to well-heeled Americans of appropriate social standing.
James and Sara Roosevelt
Continued on page 34
F.D.R.'s Canadian island
Continued from page 19
in 1883 bought ten acres on a brow overlooking Friar’s Bay and were on hand the next spring to supervise the construction of a twenty-five-room “camp.” With them was a lively toddler called Franklin — never plain F rank.
Campobello must have been a wonderful place for this child, as it is for all children. It has cliffs and caves and golden beaches and streams and lakes. Much of it is covered with evergreens.
Out. on the blue water seagulls dip over the herring nets, and fishing boats circle among the red and yellow buoys of the lobster traps. There are starfish and sponges and seashells to be picked up along the shore.
But F.D.R. was a lonely kid who lacked male companionship. When he was born bis father was fifty-four, wore heavy muttonchop whiskers, invariably sported a riding crop, and was, in the words of one biographer, “an enormous snob” who “thought that only dukes were really proper company.” James Roosevelt, while fond of bis son, was not the type to join him in games.
As soon as the boy was old enough to dodge bis nurse and his possessive mother lie haunted the wharves and struck up friendships with fishermen. One day he burst into the drawing room of his parents’ cottage, flushed with pride and excitement, and cried, “I can sail! I’m a sailor!” It turned out that his good pal, Captain Eddie Lank, had secretly taught him how to handle a boat and finally told him, “You’ll do now. You’re a full-fledged seaman, sardine-size.” F.D.R. was ten.
Sara Roosevelt was indignant but James was delighted. Yachting was an aristocratic sport, and where could you learn the fundamentals better than from a Campobello skipper? Lank was rewarded and continued the sailing lessons and also coached Franklin in swimming.
A Toad in Father’s Well
Later Captain Shep Mitchell, who knew the tides, currents, channels and reefs of the Bay of Fundy and Passamaquoddy Bay as few other men ever have, took Franklin on many cruises, letting him act as navigator.
During the First World War F.D.R.
! was assistant secretary of the U. S.
Navy. Campobello folk say he piloted i a warship into nearby Eastport, Maine, through dangerous rocks and shoals in a thick fog.
“As I heard it,” relates John F. Calder, one of Campobello’s leading citizens, “the captain of the ship said it couldn’t be done and wanted to drop anchor until the next day. However, there were reasons for speed, and Mr. Roosevelt, who happened to be aboard, said, ‘I’m familiar with these waters. I can take her in for you.’ ”
Calder, a white-haired giant with features that might have been carved from granite, is a retired fisheries officer and was a close friend of F.D.R. He knew him first as an athletic youngster, full of mischief.
“Once,” be chuckles, “there was a dead toad in his father’s deep well.
! The old gentleman offered five dollars to anybody who would remove it. Hezekiah Mitchell saw a chance to earn some change and have a joke. Down the well he climbed and brought up the toad. The old gentleman gave him five dollars and the task of disposj ing of the creature. Next day there j was again a dead toad in the well—the ! same toad. Again Hezekiah brought it : up for five dollars.
i “On the third day also there was a
dead toad in the well—still the same toad. Hezekiah collected again. Franklin was in on the conspiracy and laughed harder than Hezekiah.”
Calder himself was the butt of an F.D.R. prank when he was a fisheries supervisor, sworn to uphold the law. They went salmon fishing in the Pocologan River on the New Brunswick mainland. “Franklin,” he says, “got a fifteen-pound fish and I joined others with us in congratulating him. Everyone knew except me that he had illegally speared the salmon behind my back. He thought this was a great one to pull on Johnnie Calder, the fisheries supervisor.”
If you shut your eyes as you listen to Calder, you remember the “Fireside Chats” from the White House during depression days, and the speeches of the IJ. S. president during the Second World War. It might be F.D.R. himself talking. When Roosevelt died Calder was chosen by the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation to pay tribute to him on a national network. He sounded just like F.D.R.
Franklin Builds a Cottage
Most, people on Campobello speak like Roosevelt, because Roosevelt spoke like them. He didn’t get his accent from Harvard, hut from Campobello fishermen. He didn’t cultivate his oratorical style at Harvard either. He cultivated it as a member of the Campobello Debating Society and was tutored in it by John Calder and George Byron, retired King’s Printer of New Brunswick and once a celebrity in provincial politics.
Calder and Byron, who was known as the “silver-tongued orator of the Passamaquoddy,” wouldn’t have him on a debating team for quite a while. They didn’t consider him eloquent enough. Afterward Calder and Byron relented and had Franklin Roosevelt on one team and Eleanor on another. Eleanor, they say, was the more fluent.
Franklin and Eleanor were married in March 1905 and summered at Campobello. Now they drew plans for a cottage of their own, next to F.D.R.’s mother’s (James Roosevelt died in 1900). They wanted it to be simple, but big enough for a big family and plenty of guests; they built a rambling frame structure with sixteen bedrooms, most of them just cubicles, and sixteen other rooms.
In her book, This I Remember, Eleanor Roosevelt wrote: “While our children were small we went there every summer . . . the children have happy memories of it and of the life we lived there. Franklin was always on vacation when he came to Campobello, before he had infantile paralysis, and many of the children’s happiest times were with him there.”
In 1910 F.D.R. walked into John Calder’s little office. “John,” he said, “I need your advice. The Democrats in Duchess County want to nominate me as a candidate for the State Senate. I realize I have to choose a life calling. If I enter politics I have to sacrifice business. What should I do?”
“Franklin,” drawled Calder, “you don’t need my advice or the advice of anybody else. You’re going into politics, and that’s all there is to it.”
Roosevelt left next day for Hyde Park, accepted the nomination, and campaigned so effectively that although he was a Democrat he won a constituency the Republicans had held for twenty-two years. He was then twentyeight. At Campobello the fishermen celebrated his victory.
F.D.R. established his reputation overnight by bucking the Tammany Hall grip on the Democratic Party in New York, and by the spring of 1913
President Woodrow Wilson appointed him assistant secretary of Navy. He was the youngest man ever to hold this post. At Campobello Eddie Lank, now dead, could boast, “I taught the assistant secretary of the American Navy all he knows about boats.”
Franklin and Eleanor Roosevelt still summered on the island, although the First World War forced Franklin to shorten his visits. In 1920, the year he was Democratic candidate for the vicepresidency on a ticket with James M. Cox of Ohio, he spent only a few days at Campobello. The Cox-Roosevelt ticket was beaten by Warren Harding and Calvin Coolidge, and in 1921 F.D.R. felt he at last had time for a real holiday.
The Doctors Were Puzzled
He arrived at Campobello the first week in August on the yacht Sabalo. On Aug. 10 he took his wife and sons for a sail. They saw a forest fire and went ashore to help fight it. To cool off they had a swim in a nearby lake, Glen Severn. Later in the day F.D.R. swam again in the ice-cold Bay of Fundy.
That evening he was shaken by chills and on Aug. 11 he had a high temperature and pains in his legs. The same Dr. Bennett who had delivered Franklin, Jr., was summoned from Lubec. He was puzzled by the symptoms. So was Dr. W. W. Keen, a Philadelphia diagnostician who was vacationing in the district. Not until Dr. Robert W. Lovett was brought from Boston on Aug. 25 was F.D.R.’s disease diagnosed as polio.
On Sept. 15, Dr. Lovett said the patient could be moved to New York for treatment. F.D.R.’s fisherman friends, sadly carried him down to the shore on a stretcher and ferried him to Eastport on a launch. There they lifted him into a private railway car through the window, and said good-by.
Campobello fisherfolk missed their friend. But they glowed with pride when they heard of his heroic battle to regain his health, his efforts to aid other polio victims, his return to politics in 1924 as campaign manager of presidential candidate AÍ Smith, his own election as governor of New York State in 1928, and, finally, his election as president in 1932.
Mrs. Roosevelt, who still visited them, usually accompanied by one or two of her children, told them of these things. She also explained tactfully that F.D.R., as a cripple, didn’t like to come back to the place where he had so loved to walk the woodland paths and ride horseback and scale the cliffs. Campobello understood.
But after his inauguration in March 1933 his mood changed. He had risen above his physical handicap. He arrived in Campobello on June 29, 1933, at the helm of the yacht Amberjack II. Every one of the town’s men, women and children were on the wharf at the village of Welchpool to greet him as he manoeuvred alongside. So were thousands of spectators from the mainland.
The crowd cheered, then there was a sudden shocked silence as F.D.R. was lifted from the cockpit of the yacht into a waiting car, for few had realized how helpless he was. But the cheering broke out again, and the boats of the sardine fleet blew their whistles, and the flags and bunting fluttered in the light breeze. The U. S. cruiser Annapolis and the U.S. destroyers Ellis and Bernadon, lying out in the channel, let loose with their sirens, and band music floated over the water.
That night there was dancing in the old Owen mansion, now occupied by a
New York textile tycoon. Two of the president’s sons, Franklin Jr. and John, and a daughter-in-law, Mrs. James Roosevelt, led the grand march. A mile away on the Roosevelt summer estate F.D.R., his wife and his mother sat up late reminiscing with people they knew and liked. And occasionally the president’s mother glanced disapprovingly at the Canadian rve highball in his hand. Next day half of Campobello was invited to a picnic on the Roosevelt beach.
After his 1933 visit to Campobello, which lasted three days, F.D.R. returned to the island just once more, for a single day in 1936.
“Come and see me at Washington” he told John Calder then, and Calder did, that same year. He and three companions traveled to the U. S. capital in state in a borrowed Rolls-Royce, and Roosevelt had the red carpet spread for them at the White House.
When they wanted to have a look at the Senate in action F.D.R. scribbled a note: “This will admit the bearers
to the president’s seat.” Then he grinned at Calder. “How’s that, Johnnie?” he asked. “Good enough?”
When King George and Queen Elizabeth were guests at Hyde Park in June 1939 over the week end, the Roosevelts had Rev. Raymond Smith, then Campobello’s Anglican clergyman, come and preach the Sunday sermon. In 1941 F.D.R. planned to stop at Campobello on the way to his Atlantic Charter conference with Winston Churchill at Placentia Bay, Newfoundland. At the last minute the arrangements had to be changed.
11 is Fisher Friends Wept
When he died on April 12, 1945, at the age of sixty-three, tough old island fishermen wept openly. In August 1946 they stood with bared heads at the unveiling of the first Roosevelt monument erected in Canada—a red granite cairn with a bronze tablet bearing this inscription: “In happy
memory of Franklin Delano Roosevelt, 1882-1945, statesman and humanitarian who, during many years of his eventful life, found in this tranquil island rest, refreshment and freedom from care. To him it was always the ‘beloved island.’ ”
F.D.R.’s cottage is still there, owned now by his second son, Elliott. Mrs. Linnea Calder, a cousin of John Calder, looks after it.
Mrs. Roosevelt, now permanent United States representative on the United Nations Assembly, goes to Campobello still, but infrequently and usually for only two or three days or a week. Her children go there too, and her grandchildren, but it is not like it was when F.D.R. was alive.
Meanwhile most of Campobello’s gay summer colony has vanished. As John Calder says, “The old fellows have died off, and the youngsters are going elsewhere.” The two hotels have been torn down and the lumber with which they were constructed sold to pay off back taxes. Some residents hope for the day when Campobello’s status as a resort will be revived. Others say, in effect, “We’re better off tending our nets than trimming millionaires’ lawns and waiting on tables.”
Ironically, F.D.R.’s favorite island won’t even be an island any more if one of his cherished dreams— the Quoddy power project—materializes. This great undertaking, conceived by his summer neighbor Dexter P. Cooper, a famous engineer, would harness the tides of Passamaquoddy Bay by a series of dams and locks, and generate one million horsepower. Campobello w'ould be a section of one of the dams, joined to the mainland.