- Historic Sites
The House At Hyde Park
A biographer who knows it well tours Franklin Roosevelt’s home on the Hudson and finds it was not so much the President’s castle as it was his formidable mother’s.
April 1987 | Volume 38, Issue 3
His father died after a long illness when Franklin was eighteen, leaving his widow —who seems never even to have considered remarriage—free to pour still more of her formidable energies into ensuring that Franklin reached that goal. “You are everything to your dear mother,” Franklin’s godmother told him then. He would always be everything to her, and what his daughter, Anna, once called the “consistent, warm, spontaneous love” she offered him without stint explains better than anything else the confidence with which he faced the world. Sara Delano Roosevelt believed always that her son would succeed at anything at which he tried his hand, and so, eventually, did he. He learned that lesson and others almost as useful at Springwood.
“In thinking back to my earliest days,” FDR once wrote, “I am impressed by the peacefulness and regularity of things both in respect to places and people. Up to the age of seven … Hyde Park was the center of the world.” And he remained at its center. Raised here, apart from other children, served by tutors and governesses who came and went as needed, treated by servants, by tenants, even by the townspeople of Hyde Park as “Master Franklin,” an important personage, he found reinforcement for his parents’ teaching in everything and everyone he encountered.
Mike Reilly, a Secret Service agent who knew FDR well, once explained that while the boss had always been kind and cordial to him, “it was just a little too much to expect him to be ‘one of the boys.’ He never was ‘one of the boys,’ although he frequently made a good try. It was such a good try that it never quite came off.” At Springwood he had always been the boy, and no matter how life treated him elsewhere—at Groton or Harvard, in business or politics—in his mother’s house, he would remain so always.
Her affection and admiration never wavered, but it was sometimes alloyed with a fear that she might lose him. She had long before lost the father she revered; her beloved husband had died; her son and his family were all she had left, and she determined to hold on to them.
It had been Franklin’s fond hope that, as he grew to manhood, he would inherit some control over Springwood. On his honeymoon in England in 1906 he had held “many long and interesting talks … on farming and cattle raising” with old friends of his parents, and, he had told his mother, his “plans for Hyde Park now include not only a new house but a new farm, cattle, trees, etc. …”
In fact, however, both knew that in the end only her plans for Springwood really mattered. Sara Delano Roosevelt was to remain in charge to the day she died. Her late husband had left Springwood in her hands. “I see him in every room,” she once told her sister. “I hear his voice at every turn.” And whenever conflict arose between her and her son over “the Place” (mother and son both disliked the term estate), she held the upper hand, for she retained control of the bulk of the family fortune. “For years,” James Roosevelt recalled, “she squeezed all of us—Father included- in that golden loop.”
She encouraged her son’s youthful interest in forestry, liked him to oversee tasks she had set out for her tenants, sometimes listened to his advice, and did not object in 1911 when he began amassing adjacent parcels of land on which to experiment with trees. (He eventually planted some three hundred thousand of them.) But the Place itself- its fields and herds and flocks and beehives, its gardens and greenhouses and stables—remained under her exclusive care.
“She supervised very closely,” her superintendent remembered, “went over there [to the tenant farm that then stood across the road] pretty nearly every day.” FDR sometimes chafed under this arrangement, arguing that with modern methods he could put the Place on a paying basis. But his mother would not hear of it. Springwood was a gentleman’s country seat, whose tenant farmer’s first duty was to produce crops and poultry and dairy products for that gentleman’s family. Springwood food supplied Roosevelt tables for decades; when James Roosevelt was a student at Harvard in the late twenties, he was still receiving shipments of Springwood eggs and cream three times a week, precisely as his father had during his own student days at the turn of the century. Eleanor Roosevelt thought this a “terrible waste,” he remembers, “but I enjoyed it and Father never did anything to stop it.”
Franklin liked teasing his mother. At breakfast he would sometimes urge his guests to have extra helpings of eggs, explaining that they must be especially good because they were the most expensive in the world, costing his mother fifty cents apiece. The eggs were produced exactly as they had been in his own boyhood, Sara would answer, and they would continue to be produced that way. Sometime during the 1930s a Wisconsin senator wrote to the President, offering him a very good price on a constituent’s prize poultry. “Tell Ryan Duffy,” FDR told his secretary, “I have no chickens of my own and that my Mother has special chickens she does not want to mix with others.”