Memorizing facts about the presidents is boring for kids; they forget what they learned as soon as the test is over. One way to give your children lasting knowledge is to visit presidential sites. An easy day trip from New York City is the Franklin D. Roosevelt Home and Presidential Library in Hyde Park. You can take guided tours of the formal home and the First Lady’s cottage, explore interactive exhibits about Roosevelt’s life and presidency, and hike several miles of scenic trails.
Want to have fun with your kids while teaching them a history lesson? Visit the home of a former United States President. If you have older teens who are preparing to vote for the first time, it can be a very meaningful experience for them.
The U.S. Parks Service maintains 32 presidential homes. A unique one to visit is the Franklin D. Roosevelt Home and Presidential Library in Hyde Park, New York, a small town on the eastern shore of the Hudson River. Roosevelt maintained this site as his primary residence from the cradle to the grave and also established the first presidential library here.
Operated by the U.S. National Park Service, the Roosevelt site is pristinely maintained and staffed with friendly and knowledgeable rangers. Within minutes of my arrival, I had my ticket for a 10:30 a.m. tour and the lowdown on logistics at other area attractions, including Eleanor Roosevelt’s cottage and Vanderbilt Mansion.
At Home with the Roosevelts
Our ranger welcomed the morning tour group to the Hyde Park site, home to the Presidential Library, Museum, and the Roosevelt family home, Springwood, where FDR was born in 1882.
The group was composed of several families with both younger and older children. The guide made sure to engage the kids. She offered to take a picture of them sitting next to statues of President and Mrs. Roosevelt and doled out interesting trivia. For example, she told us that Roosevelt is buried in the garden beneath a monument that’s the same size as his Oval Office desk.
Springwood doubled in size during a renovation by FDR in 1915, to accommodate the large Roosevelt family (6 children!) and FDR’s political ambitions. Added were 5 bedrooms for servants, a playroom and schoolroom, and a formal portico that served as the backdrop for future presidential photos.
The interior is distinctly Victorian with heavy, somber furniture, dense layers of chintz, and samples of Franklin’s many museum-worthy collections. Besides stuffed birds and nautical memorabilia, the President was and may still be the world’s single largest individual stamp collector – he had over 1 million!
Roosevelt never regained the use of his legs after a bout with polio at the age of 39, so he was physically disabled when he took office, a secret he kept from the world. He never appeared in public in the wheelchair he used at home which was a wooden kitchen chair with attached wheels. Springwood had an elevator to transport him from floor to floor. He also maintained a private retreat at the far eastern edge of the property that was completely barrier free.
The guided tour ended at the house but the ranger encouraged us to explore the many trails on the property and to spend some time in the Presidential library, the first and only one to actually be used by a President in office. It’s a trim Dutch Colonial building with an inviting lobby decorated with hundreds of letters. It was nice to be reminded there were quaint methods of correspondence that existed before email.
In addition to the President’s study, there are many exhibits dedicated to FDR’s childhood, his political rise, his recovery from polio, and his terms of office. A particularly impressive exhibit was dedicated to Roosevelt’s New Deal, the sweeping reforms and programs he implemented during his first term to end the Great Depression. His initiatives included jobs acts, banking reform, an end to Prohibition, and Social Security. FDR was willing to throw a lot of stuff at the wall; some of it stuck, some didn’t, but the country appreciated the effort and the sincerity of the President’s intentions that he conveyed during his many “Fireside Chats”. You can listen to samples in a replica 1930’s-era kitchen.
An Unconventional First Lady
I blipped through the Library rather quickly so I could dash over to Val-Kill, Eleanor Roosevelt’s cottage. I was beginning to fawn over FDR (So brilliant! A Harvard man! Dashing good looks!) so I needed a reminder that he had a great wife who he treated rather shabbily. Eleanor, like Hillary Clinton many years later, stood by her man, but also carved out her own deep and lasting legacy. She spent little to no time on her social responsibilities as First Lady and instead focused on spending her days with America’s people so she could understand their problems and use that knowledge to influence her husband’s policies.
After FDR’s death in 1945, Eleanor continued to advocate for international peace and was a staunch supporter of the civil rights movement. She had her share of enemies; the Ku Klux Klan at one point placed a $25,000 bounty on her head. Her wood-paneled cottage is simple and common, but history was made within its walls. Guests to Val-Kill included Churchill, Senator John F. Kennedy, and Soviet leader Nikita Khrushchev.
I felt a bit ashamed that I’ve lived my entire life within spitting distance of Hyde Park and was so ignorant about how much modern history was made here. I barely scratched the surface during my visit and can’t wait to return. It’s ascended to the top of my “Places to Take Visiting Friends and Family.”
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If You Go
The FDR Presidential Library and Museum and the Home of Franklin D. Roosevelt (operated by the U.S. National Park Service) are open 7 days a week. Check the website for hours of operation and tour times. A joint admission is offered for $18 (seniors $6; children 15 and under are free). A separate admission ($10) is charged for Val-Kill.
The grounds are lovely with many marked trails to explore. If you climb to Top Cottage (President Roosevelt’s private retreat), you’ll be rewarded with long views past the Hudson River to neighboring Ulster County.
From May 1 – October 31, the Parks Service operates “The Roosevelt Ride.” Visitors arriving by train via Metro North are picked up at the Poughkeepsie station and shuttled to the main park site. Additional shuttles are provided for transport to Val-Kill and nearby Vanderbilt Mansion, and guests are returned in time to catch the 5:00 p.m train back to Grand Central. The service is free.
Food service on site is limited to Uncle Sam’s Canteen, a simple, clean snack bar. I suggest packing a picnic to nibble at during the day instead. Or take a short walk from Val-Kill to Clancy’s Cafe and Creamery. They offer simple sandwiches and delicious homemade ice cream.