“A woman is like a tea bag; you never know how strong it is until it’s in hot water.” We all laughed, but Eleanor Roosevelt’s favorite saying gives us a clue to what kind of person she was – never afraid of controversy or of standing up for her beliefs. We knew this public Eleanor, but felt a lot closer to the remarkable woman after touring her summer home and spending an hour and a half at Tea with Eleanor, in Roosevelt Campobello International Park.
In Your Bucket Because…
- Roosevelt Campobello International Park is a memorial not just to President Roosevelt and his family, but to a summer lifestyle of his era.
- The free Tea with Eleanor program gives an intimate and personal look at this remarkable woman.
- Good for those interested in American presidents, and in mid-century history.
President Franklin Roosevelt spent his childhood and early adult summers on Campobello Island, New Brunswick, and it was to this 34-room cottage that he and Eleanor brought their children in the early years of their marriage, until he was stricken with polio here in 1921. The cottage, for all its size (it was a big family, and they brought their staff with them), is rustic and quite unpretentious.
An Intimate View of Eleanor Roosevelt
When we heard about the Tea with Eleanor program, we expected to find someone impersonating the indomitable First Lady. We should have known that the National Park Service wouldn’t do something so hokey. Instead we were enlightened – and entertained — over our tea and cookies by two members of the staff whose obvious enthusiasm for their subject was contagious. Combined with a tour of the first house Eleanor ever had that was her own (she later recounted that when she first moved there she spent several days re-arranging the furniture “just because I could”) we left feeling that we had more than glimpsed inside her life and times.
The endearing, thoughtful and quite modest private side of Mrs. Roosevelt comes through clearly as Carolyn Newman and Debbie Mitchell take turns telling stories and pointing out memorabilia that decorates the room where tea is served in the Hubbard Cottage. We learned, for example, that the knitting needles in the glass case were hers, and that she began a knitting group in Washington to make mittens and socks for servicemen during World War II. We wondered if GIs worried about sweating into socks the First Lady had knit for them.
Tea Time at Campobello
Tea time was a sacred institution for Eleanor, and had been since she was a young girl. While at Campobello she served it promptly at 3 pm daily. She continued the tradition in the Governor’s Mansion in Albany, and at the White House when she was not traveling. Because Franklin Roosevelt could not travel as easily, she was his eyes and ears, traveling across the country during the Great Depression to report of conditions everywhere from bread lines and schools to coal mines. She was the instigator of much of the New Deal.
During World War II she spent six weeks visiting overseas troops and on her return wrote personal letters to the families of each serviceman she met. We learned far more intimate things about her, as well – of her difficult childhood after her mother died, of the grandmother who raised her and called her “the ugly duckling” in public, of the long road she traveled to overcome her sense of isolation and rejection.
The stories of Eleanor are alternately touching, funny and inspiring, and as Carolyn and Debbie take turns telling them, the other one keeps everyone’s china teacups filled. So engaged were all the visitors on the day we were there that the tea lasted longer than scheduled, and everyone hung around afterwards to talk to these two engaging ladies. Although we had toured them on the way in, after “meeting” Eleanor at tea we returned to walk through the house again, and to linger over the excellent photographs and displays about the family and their times, in the Visitors Center.
The second time through the cottage, we felt as though Eleanor were there with us, tugging at our sleeves to be sure we noticed the big birchbark bullhorn she used to summon the children to meals, the family pictures on the walls and the table where she served tea each afternoon.
Roosevelt Campobello International Park is on Campobello Island in New Brunswick, accessible from the rest of Canada only by water. A bridge connects it to its neighboring mainland, the nearby town of Lubec, Maine. Admission is free to the park, the houses and the tea. To savor more island history, plan to spend the night on Campobello at Owen House, a short drive away in Welshpool.