Just northeast of the easternmost tip of the United States, across a bridge and past the Canadian border guards, you’ll find a quiet, picturesque island with a rugged coast, a handful of lighthouses and a 34-room summer cottage reeking with history. Campobello is an island in the Bay of Fundy, nine miles long and three miles wide. For decades, Franklin Delano Roosevelt spent summers on his beloved island. Today. a visit to his summer home transports you to the time and place where a wealthy future president relaxed, recharged and nearly died.
His wealthy parents first brought him there when he was teething. The island at the time hosted wealthy East Coast rusticators seeking cool air and nature. Young Franklin learned to love the sea at Campobello. His father gave him a 21-foot sailboat, and Franklin treasured the time they spent sailing together.
His father also hired a Passamaquoddy chief, Tomah Joseph, to teach him how to paddle a canoe. Joseph made Roosevelt a birchbark canoe and taught him about his tribe’s history and culture.
The Roosevelts returned to Campobello every summer.
Franklin married Eleanor in 1905, when he was 24 and she 21. After they had the first of their two children, Franklin’s domineering mother gave them the sprawling cottage on Campobello Island. Eleanor brought the children there every summer; Franklin came when his political career allowed him the time.
They added a wing in 1910, bringing the total number of rooms to 34, including 18 bedrooms. It had neither electricity nor a telephone. But the house is light and airy, open to the outdoors with verandas that face the ocean.
Franklin ran for vice president of the United States in 1920 and lost. He then practiced law in New York City. That gave him the freedom in 1921 to vacation with his family at Campobello for the first time in years. One day in August he spent the day sailing. That night he skipped dinner saying he felt ill and went to bed.
He had contracted a paralytic illness, possibly polio. The next day his leg felt weak, by the next, both legs were paralyzed. He suffered chills, fever and excruciating pain. Eleanor nursed him in his bedroom, probably saving his life.
A month later he left Campobello on a canvas stretcher, clutching his little terrier, Duffy. He was lifted through the window of a trin and taken to New York where a hospital would treat him for polio. His promising political career seemed to have lost its promise.
Twelve years later, in June 1933, Roosevelt returned to Campobello aboard a presidential yacht. Dozens of small craft, sardine carriers, fishing vessels, naval destroyers and Coast Guard cutters greeted him at Friars Head with pageantry and a parade. There were pennants and buntings and Scottish pipers and a military band.
He only returned twice after that.
The Roosevelt Cottage
Franklin died in 1945. The family continued to use the house until 1952, when Eleanor sold it to industrialist Armand Hammer. When Eleanor died in 1962, Hammer deeded the property to the governments of the U.S. and Canada. In 1964, they created a 2,800-acre International Park, the only park in the world owned by two countries.
Today, the park includes four other cottages from the same era. It also includes carriage roads and hiking trails to beaches, bogs, forests and ocean headlands.
The Roosevelt cottage, completed in 1897, was designed by Willard Sears, a New England architect who also designed what is now the Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum, the Pilgrim Monument in Provincetown and the Stone Chapel at Phillips Andover Academy. Roosevelt’s mother bought it from its first owner, Mrs. Hartman Kuhn, who liked Eleanor. Kuhn made Sara Roosevelt promise to give it to Franklin and Eleanor.
There’s more to the island than the Franklin Roosevelt’s summer cottage and the park. Country roads wind through the picturesque island, past beaches, rocky headlands and lighthouses: Mulholland Lighthouse (visible from Lubec), Friar’s Head, Raccoon Beach, Liberty Point and Head Harbour Light Station. Welshpool, an old fishing village, has accommodations and restaurants. About a thousand people live on the island.
Five Things You’ll Remember From Your Visit to Campobello
Tomah Joseph’s birchbark canoe hangs from the ceiling of the visitor center, an impressive sight. The visitor center also offers exhibits about Franklin Roosevelt, a video and a gift shop.
Light and air fill the house, which opens to the outdoors with a veranda overlooking the bay. The large bay window in the main room overlooks the grounds sloping to the Bay of Fundy. It’s a spectacular view. You may see seals or whales.
When Franklin was stricken, Eleanor nursed him in their marital bed. They didn’t have California kings in those days. Given that he was over six feet tall and she was almost as tall as he was, it’s hard to imagine how they ever got a good night’s sleep when he was well. While nursing Franklin, Eleanor slept on the window seat in the room and Roosevelt’s political advisor, Louis Howe, slept in the next room.
Roosevelt family memorabilia fills the house, though much of the furniture didn’t belong to them. Franklin’s marine paintings, sailboat models and two of Tomah Joseph’s works of art give a sense of the people who lived there. But the photographs also reveal some Roosevelt family dysfunction. Eleanor, for example, always turned away from the camera, and the children often look unhappy. Franklin’s mother, right in the center, stares straight at the photographer. Docents at the cottage bring their own interpretation to the Roosevelt family dynamics.
With no electricity in the house, the children had to make their own entertainment. The playroom has some of their artifacts: a fishing rod, toys, games, model building tools and a ship model. The Secret Service used the room when Roosevelt visited as president (the children had grown up by then).
To Visit Campobello
The cottage and visitors center are open from the last Sunday in May through the second week of October. The grounds and trails remain open year round. Admission to the park and the cottage costs nothing. Tea With Eleanor gets high marks from reviewers. Two docents recount the First Lady’s life over tea and cookies that Eleanor would have served.
You can get to Campobello by car over the bridge from Lubec, a Maine fishing village, or by ferry from Eastport. From Canada, take a ferry from mainland New Brunswick to Deer Island, and then a second ferry to Campobello Island.
Bring your passport. And a sweater. Don’t expect crowds.
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Images: Exterior shot: By New Brunswick Tourism – Roosevelt Campobello International Park / Parc international Roosevelt de Campobello, CC BY 2.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=43694472. Dining room: By David Wilson from Oak Park, Illinois, USA – 20020714 10 Dining Room at Roosevelt Home Campobello Island, CC BY 2.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=43694449. Bookshelf By btwashburn from Belmont – Roosevelt Cottage, Campobello Island, CC BY 2.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=43694549. Main room By btwashburn from Belmont – Main room, Roosevelt Cottage, Campobello Island, CC BY 2.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=43717478. Sailing to Campobello By FDR Presidential Library & Museum – 47-96 1214, CC BY 2.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=43717612. Head Harbor Light By Skeezix1000 – Own work, CC BY-SA 3.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=4412784. View from Roosevelt Cottage by Ron Cogswell via Flickr, CC BY 2.0.