Campobello’s happy and tragic memories

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[This is a repeat of one of my favorite posts – Enjoy!]

Nineteenth-century author Sarah Orne Jewett wrote about visiting the
home of the Brontë sisters in England: “Nothing you ever read about them can make you
know them until you go there. Never mind people who tell you there is nothing
to see in the place where people lived who interest you. You always find
something of what made them the souls they were. And at any rate, you see their
sky and their earth.”

I love this quote because it’s precisely why I enjoy visiting the restored homes of famous people from the past. There are over eight thousand historic house museums
in America and I’ve often wondered how so many house museums can
manage to keep their doors open to visitors. But people are generally curious
about how others lived. We live our private lives within the walls of our
homes, and historic house museums offer a peek into the most personal
spaces.   They reveal our tastes, our priorities and sometimes our secrets. If you want to learn about a person, visit his home.

A stone’s throw from the easternmost city in the United States, Lubec, Maine, sits a small island called Campobello. Part of New Brunswick, Canada, the remote and tranquil place served as a retreat to Franklin and Eleanor Roosevelt throughout their lives. They refered to it as their beloved island. Franklin grew up spending summers on the island, learning to sail, fish and swim in its waters and when he was older, organizing an annual golf tournament. He later taught his children these activities and took them on picnics and hikes.

The Roosevelts’ deep red thirty-four-room cottage on Campobello Island is a spectacular place to peek behind the scenes into the family’s life. The Roosevelts spent summers in the cottage from 1909 to 1921. The restored cottage (interpreted in its 1920 appearance) is spacious yet not luxurious. It did not have electricity or a phone.  Kerosene lamps and candles provided the light. Running water was gravity-fed througout the cottage.

The room which I found most compelling is the master bedroom on the second floor. Here in 1921, at age 39, Roosevelt woke during the night with the paralysis that would profoundly change his life.  The paralysis of his legs heralded the onset of polio. His Campobello neighbors discreetly helped carry his paralyzed body on a stretcher down to a waiting boat.

This defining event forced him to look at his future in a new way and to make tough decisions. He could choose to confront his disability head on or succumb to defeatist feelings. His wife Eleanor said “Franklin’s illness… gave him strength and courage he had not had before. He had to think out the fundamentals of living and learn the greatest of all lessons ─ infinite patience and never-ending persistence.” He chose to continue his political
journey and this decision landed him a permanent place in American history ─ twelve years later was elected president of the United States, the only man to be elected to the office four times.

The house sits surrounded by the meadows, lakes and bays where the family spent many happy days. It is the only international historic site jointly owned and operated by
Canada and the United States. If you visit in the summer, you will see giant dahlias of all colors which thrive in the cool maritime climate. Don’t miss a visit to East Quoddy Head lighthouse, but be sure to check the tide charts to avoid getting stuck at high tide.

About Tim

Author, public historian, and consultant. Author site: - My fifth book, Star Spangled: The Story of a Flag, a Battle, and the American Anthem, was published in May 2020. Consulting site: I specialize in exhibition development, interpretive planning, education strategy, and history relevance. I'm passionate about helping history organizations of all sizes and kinds make history more relevant for their communities and the people they engage with. I'm happy to consider many types of writing projects for informal learning organizations. Reach me at or
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