Beloved island: Canada’s hold on FDR

Franklin Delano Roosevelt called it his “beloved island,” an isolated part of Canada where this century’s most popular U.S. President spent some of the happiest days of his life. The island in question? The serene Campobello Island, a part of New Brunswick just a few kilometres from the mainland of Canada but more easily accessed from Maine. From Canada, it requires two ferry boat rides. From the U.S., a toll-free bridge links Lubec, Maine, with the island.

FDR first visited Campobello when he was just a year old after his father, James Roosevelt, purchased four acres on the island in 1883. By the summer of 1885, a house was ready and James moved in with his wife Sara Delano and their infant son.

For the next 36 years, the young Franklin spent every summer on Campobello Island, sailing the waters surrounding the island and tramping its wooded trails. As a young, robust and athletic father, FDR taught his children to sail and to enjoy the other outdoor pastimes he’d enjoyed during his own childhood. He organized hiking expeditions along the cliffs, involved the children in games of hares and hounds. One son, Franklin, Jr., was even born there.

However, tragedy struck in gust 1921 when the vacationing FDR was struck with polio, resulting in the virtual loss of the use of his legs. Friends carried him to a waiting boat to seek urgent medical attention, but he never fully recovered – he was forced to wear heavy leg braces and walk with crutches or be confined to a wheelchair for the rest of his eventful life.

It was almost a dozen years before Roosevelt was to return to his “beloved island.” Eleanor Roosevelt and their children continued to spend the summers at their Campobello cottage but convalescence and FDR’s increasing political involvement prevented his return. His disability and the isolation of the island, many decades before the bridge was built, also played a part – the trip was tiring and hazardous.

After four years as Governor of New York State, Roosevelt was elected President of the U.S. in 1933. After a hectic revamping of the American political and financial systems, FDR needed a rest. In June 1933, he sailed a schooner from Marion, Mass., to the island. But duty called after only two days and a U.S. Navy cruiser was rushed to Campobello to bring him back to Washington. Roosevelt managed only two more visits, two days in July 1936 and a further two days in August 1939. He was planning a visit in August 1941, but the international situation proved too volatile for him to get away.

Today, the 34-room summer home where the Roosevelt’s spent their vacations is the centrepiece of the 2,600-acre Roosevelt Campobello International Park. This sprawling park, occupying a large portion of the 16-kilometre-long island, was established in 1964 by Canadian Prime Minister Lester B. Pearson and U.S. President Lyndon B. Johnson, and is administered by an international commission of both Americans and Canadians.

The cottage stands on the crest of a hill, surrounded by towering pines, overlooking the cold, gray waters of the Bay of Fundy. Inside the large, rustic structure – more mansion than cottage – are family rooms and 18 bedrooms furnished in the style of the 1920s and early 30s: Wicker furniture in the rooms, bright and flowery wallpaper throughout, windows covered with ruffled, sheer curtains – informal, casual elegance.

FDR memorabilia fills the house. There’s a “What I want for Christmas” note by the seven-year-old FDR to his mother, a crib used by the baby Franklin, a set of duelling pistols purchased in Paris on his honeymoon, a model of a sailboat he built for his children, a small statue of FDR given to Eleanor by Frank Sinatra, the megaphone he used to call the children, four Mongolian prints from Madame Chiang Kai-shek and a large frame chair used to carry the handicapped president.

Every room of the house is open to the public, and maintained just as it was back in the days when Franklin summered there. The living room, dining room, nursery and family bedrooms – even the kitchen, laundry and icehouse remain intact. Nothing has changed – a visitor feels as if a young FDR may jauntily pop around the next corner, or that they might stumble across Eleanor serving tea in the gracious living room overlooking the bay.

Surrounding the house are gardens, wooded pathways and open fields with scenic views of New Brunswick and Maine islands and bays.

In 1967, Queen Elizabeth, the Queen Mother, opened the park’s excellent Visitor Centre with the words: “It is most fitting that the memory of so gallant and illustrious an American should be honored on the Canadian island which he loved.