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A Glimpse at Eleanor Roosevelt's Modest Life

Treading where greatness once stood can instill a sense of awe, but on the grounds of Val-Kill, the Eleanor Roosevelt National Historic Site, the greatness of this inimitable woman is virtually palpable. The aura of the site's many illustrious guests -- from John F. Kennedy to Winston Churchill to King George VI and Queen Elizabeth -- lingers, too, adding a touch of magic to a modest home. Located in Hyde Park, about two miles East of the Franklin D. Roosevelt Presidential Library and Museum site, Val-Kill was a gift from FDR to Eleanor, a reprieve from the stress of Springwood, the Roosevelt family home. The Hudson Valley is littered with Dutch names and Val-Kill refers to the babbling "valley stream" that courses through the property's grounds, which boast three buildings: Stone Cottage, a factory-turned-home and a playhouse.

Even in a place of respite, Eleanor's irrepressible enterprising nature came to the fore. With two friends, Eleanor founded Val-Kill Industries, a furniture factory designed expressly to teach local farmers an income-earning skill they could use in off-seasons or conditions of under-employment. Val-Kill Industries pieces are distinctive in their simplicity and pure functionality, and today can be found in museum collections. A number of examples are on view in the building in which they were once manufactured, a structure that was converted into a home in 1936, and which became Eleanor's full-time residence following FDR's death in 1945.

Within those four walls, Eleanor carried out her quotidien tasks, that boggle the minds of today's busiest people: She received and responded to thousands of letters from fans worldwide; an original blogger, she wrote a daily syndicated newspaper column, "My Day," from 1935-1962; she welcomed guests of great renown; and she hosted an endless visitation cycle of her five children and 29 grandchildren. In her "My Day" entry on July 8, 1948, Eleanor, with characteristic wit, wrote: This is working out as a very successful summer. But to most people it might seem as if we were running a children's camp at Hyde Park, for we have had an average of nine children steadily since early June. When one or two leave, others arrive. However, they all fall into the routine very quickly...We picnic by the pool for luncheon every day, and that seems to be a perfect idea because the children do not have to take off their bathing suits, which always creates sadness and controversy.

Val-Kill National Historic Site Sign" Eleanor Roosevelt National Historic Site Val-Kill (NY)" by  Ron Cogswell is licensed under CC BY 2.0

The greatest delight of Val-Kill is the surprise of its parsimoniousness--especially in light of Eleanor's status and wealth--though it does not want for coziness or warmth. The home's interiors have been restored to the 1962 layout, complete with Eleanor's knitting bag resting in the lap of her favorite chair. The house is small and tour groups are restricted to limited numbers, all the better to absorb the many trinkets that earned pride of place in Eleanor's life. If you're lucky, the Park Ranger guide will take you upstairs to Eleanor's bedroom, a humbling and gratifying experience, and an intimate glimpse into the life of a woman who seemingly never slept.

A few organizations are hard at work to preserve Eleanor's legacy, including Honoring Eleanor Roosevelt: A Project to Preserve Her Val-Kill Home. HER recognizes that Val-Kill was the only place Eleanor -- who was orphaned, shipped off to school in England, and later lived in the Roosevelt family estate under a domineering mother-in-law -- ever called home, in addition to being the only National Historic Landmark dedicated to a First Lady. HER strives to restore Val-Kill piece-by-piece, and is currently in the process of converting the original Stone Cottage into a state of the art visitor center. Visiting Val-Kill couldn't be easier: The Roosevelt Ride is a newly launched free shuttle which connects visitors from the Poughkeepsie Metro-North train station to both Val-Kill and the FDR Presidential Library and Museum. Reservations must be made in advance, so be sure to check the schedule. The Val-Kill schedule shifts from season-to-season, and currently is not open on Tuesdays and Wednesdays. Check the most recent schedule information HERE.

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