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American Lives

Warm Springs (Georgia)

by Laurie Stevens, 7 January 2024

 

Warm Springs, GA
Photo © Laurie Stevens

Warm Springs, Georgia, lies a little over one hour, or about ninety miles (145 kilometers), to the south-west of Atlanta.

Formerly the land of Muscogee (Creek) Indians until 1826, the region's geology and hydrology in the foothills of Pine Mountain created multiple warm and cold springs which, following the settlement of Europeans, pushed them to create various resorts as the rail lines were constructed.

Warm Springs itself has the strongest outflow, at 914 gallons (415 liters) a minute, at a steady temperature of 88 degrees F (31C). The water's mineral content also makes it naturally buoyant.

Franklin D Roosevelt came here in 1924 in the hope of recovering from the effects of polio, which he had contracted in 1921 and which had paralyzed him from the waist down.

After he swam in the waters, for the first time in three years he was able to move his right leg. He purchased one of the declining Victorian resorts and for the next twenty-one years expended much time and money in making Warms Springs a major polio treatment center.

Warm Springs, GA
Photo © Laurie Stevens

The Georgia Warm Spring Foundation was founded in July 1927 by Franklin D Roosevelt and Basil O'Connor for the treatment of polio patients.

Roosevelt spent two-thirds of his personal assets to acquire the Warm Springs property. Enjoying the benefits of the therapy he received here in Warm Springs, Roosevelt was able to focus on his passion: politics, pursuing that to reach the office of president of the United States.

Warm Springs, GA
Photo © Laurie Stevens

Roosevelt's 1932 election to the presidency facilitated the foundation's further fundraising efforts, with its work in alleviating the debilitating effects of polio being pioneering.

The work expanded in 1938 when the Roosevelts created 'The March of Dimes' to unify a national effort to eradicate the disease.

Warm Springs, GA
Photo © Laurie Stevens

After the Georgia Warm Springs Foundation was created the pools area was formed into a hydrotherapeutic treatment center, to a design by the architect, Henry Toombs.

A public pool was built between the treatment pools and a nearby state road. These treatment pools were supplanted in 1942 by an indoor pool which was built on the main foundation campus due to the difficulty of moving patients to these pools.

Warm Springs, GA
Photo © Laurie Stevens

The treatment pools were then used occasionally for treatments and for recreation purposes, but were finally closed in the 1960s. The Department of Natural Resources stabilized and renovated the springs and pools complex for visitation during 1994-1995 for the commemoration of the fiftieth anniversary of FDR's death.

The pools lie empty today but are in the process of being re-stabilized, and are due to re-open in 2024. At this cistern visitors are able to place their hands in the constantly flowing water, feeling the warm temperature and soothing mineral properties.

Warm Springs, GA
Photo © Laurie Stevens

The 'Iron Lung', or tank respirator, was a life-saving machine for polio patients who were rendered unable to breathe on their own due to paralysis. Death was common in this phase.

Invented in 1927 by two Harvard graduates, Philip Drinker and Louis Agassiz Shaw, the Iron Lung was a frightening and intimidating image which struck fear into the population and is most identified with the scourge of polio before it was conquered as a disease by the Salk vaccine in 1955.

Warm Springs, GA
Photo © Laurie Stevens

Poliomyelitis is a highly infectious viral disease which mainly infects children under five. It is spread person-to-person through various means and can affect the spinal cord, causing irreversible paralysis.

Better hygiene had caused the population to lose immunity, since it had been passed on from mother to child and so on. While other diseases had started declining from the nineteenth century, polio saw an increase in epidemics in the twentieth century. No one know what caused it or how it was spread.

Much like Covid, public events, pools, beaches, and theatres were closed, and thousands fled the cities. One morning you could be out playing or living your life, and hours later you'd be lying on the bed with a fever, never to walk again, quite possibly dying. Even a patrician such as Franklin Delano Roosevelt was not safe from the disease.

Seen here are the original changing rooms just off the pool area.

Warm Springs, GA
Photo © Laurie Stevens

In 1980 the facility was renamed the 'Roosevelt Warm Springs Institute for Rehabilitation', which is administered today by the Georgia Department of Labor.

The institute encompasses 940 acres of territory (380 hectares). New facilities have been added, and patients with post-polio symptoms, spinal cord injuries, strokes, and other disabilities find treatment at Warm Springs.

Warm Springs, GA
Photo © Laurie Stevens

As president-elect, during the Depression winter of 1932-1933, Roosevelt went twice to Warm Springs, staying in his new house there. Finished in 1932, the Little White House is a modest, six room, one-story cottage. The wooden building features a four-columned central temple-form portico.

Both Eleanor Roosevelt and FDR's personal secretary and closest confidante, Marguerite 'Missy' Lehand, had their own rooms adjacent to FDR's. A deep wooded ravine lies to the back of the house and a large sundeck was built for its enjoyment.

As FDR had come south here to Warm Springs, he had seen for the first time true rural poverty. He later claimed that many of his 'New Deal' policies were thought of here at his home in Georgia.

Warm Springs, GA
Photo © Laurie Stevens

Now a National Historic Landmark, the Little White House was built while FDR was governor of New York. Daisy Bonner cooked the first meal and the last one in the Little White House.

She began cooking at the earlier Meriwether Inn and went on to cook for FDR until his death in 1945. He nicknamed her 'Queen of the Larder' for her cooking skills.

She died in 1958 and is buried in a grave in Warm Springs which was later lost but which was found and commemorated after fifty years. Sadly, she is the only person who was never interviewed after FDR's death.

Warm Springs, GA
Photo © Laurie Stevens

While posing for a portrait on 12 April 1945, FDR suffered a cerebral hemorrhage and died a short while later in this bed. Harry Truman was sworn in that day as president.

'The Unfinished Portrait' is by Elizabeth Shoumatoff, who, interestingly, was a Republican and not a fan of FDR or his party. It is one of the most famous unfinished portraits in the world and is ubiquitous.

FDR was embalmed here before being taken by train from Warm Springs, setting off a wave of national mourning.

Warm Springs, GA
Photo © Laurie Stevens

There was a small staff on hand to help FDR in the times he spent and received company here at Warm Springs. These were the quarters which were created for them to the front of the house, but interestingly they had another resident in the form of Lucy Mercer, with whom FDR carried on a romantic relationship.

She was a wealthy widower who had previously been in FDR's affections. Eleanor Roosevelt learned later that Lucy had visited FDR at Warm Springs on occasion and was present at his passing here.

Main Sources

Adrien Miller - The President's Kitchen Cabinet: The Story of the African Americans Who Have Fed Our First Families, from the Washingtons to the Obamas (University of North Carolina Press, 2017)

Other Sources

Georgia History website

Georgia State Parks

New Georgia Encyclopaedia

 

Images and text copyright © Laurie Stevens except where stated. An original feature for the History Files: American Lives.