In our old road atlas, off the coast of Maine there are a few red squares, showing some points of interest. “Largest Whirlpool in Western Hemisphere” and “Campobello Island.” I tried once to see the whirlpool (The Old Sow Whirlpool) from land, but concluded I needed a boat. Campobello Island might be pretty nice to see with a boat, but it is not necessary.
After our visit to St Croix International Historic Site, my wife and I headed south toward Campobello Island International Historic Site. Campobello Island is in Passamaquoddy Bay, just across the water from Maine, in New Brunswick Canada. It is connected to the U.S. by bridge, but you can only get to the rest of Canada via ferry. Passamaquoddy Bay must have been a rich fishing grounds at one point. On one side of the bay, Eastport, Maine was once the “sardine capital” of the world and clearly had money at one point. Cod would have been abundant before the fishery collapsed, and herring weirs dotted the coast before that industry declined. Passamaquoddy was also the setting for Pete’s Dragon, as I was reminded by my wife throughout our visit.
The Canadian customs agent was grumpy, which is not usually our experience. I don’t think he liked it that when he asked where we were going, I referred to Campobello Island, meaning the Roosevelt House instead of the entire island. “You’re right here!” he barked when I said we were coming to Canada to see Campobello. The distance between countries is a small stretch of water, but despite the proximity, there are differences between the countries. These differences are immediately apparent – particularly the pronunciation of “about.” After the grumpy customs officer allowed us into the country, we crossed the bridge, and almost immediately were upon the park. The visitor center staff rushed us over to “the cottage” so we could get on the next tour. “It’s aboot to start!”
The cottage was the summer home of FDR and Eleanor Roosevelt. FDR spent his most of his summers on Campobello from boyhood until he contracted polio here at the age of 39, in 1921. His parents owned a different cottage on the island, and purchased the cottage next door for Franklin and Eleanor a couple years after their marriage. It is decorated as it likely was in 1920, a year before FDR contracted polio. Unlike the Roosevelt home in Hyde Park, this home had few accommodations for a wheelchair, likely because FDR visited the island only a few times after he was paralyzed.
The first room on the tour is a game room of sorts, set up as if the family had just been in the room – FDR’s hat is on the table, cards and parcheesi games are spread around. The rest of the house seems both comfy and sparse. The adjoining room for a political aide next to the master bedroom is one of the only things that make this house different than most family cottages. That and the servants’ quarters, 18 bedrooms, 6 bathrooms, and 7 fireplaces.
The most striking thing about the cottage and museum was seeing pictures of Roosevelt as a vibrant young man, sailing, golfing, and swimming. The family camped, swam and romped all over the island. The photos are casual – scenes of a picnic, a campsite, a day of sailing. The FDR I am familiar with is the President, paralyzed but desperately trying to hide it. Seeing pictures of him as a vital young man changed my perception of him. That and the fact that there are a lot of dogs in these photos too. I like families with dogs.
After touring the immediate grounds, we followed the urging of one of the Roosevelt sons, who, in the visitor center movie, encouraged us to explore the island. We hiked to a overlook of Friar’s Head, but the tide (which seemed low to us) prevented us from getting anything but a distant view of the rock pillar. We walked along the beach, and checked out the massive salmon hatcheries that are offshore from the cottage. We tried to pick out the various places we had been to in Maine that day, all just across the river. The views of the bay are spectacular, and we stood on the porch to admire the view for a few minutes after the tour.
We drove along some of the carriage roads around the cottage, ending up at a bog with a large boardwalk and nature trail. The bog flowers were in bloom and the fog clung to spider webs through the bog making it a beautiful hike. I had flashbacks to my botany class in grad school and wanted to identify everything while my wife walked ahead and savored the silence. I imagine a young Franklin Roosevelt knew these trails and bogs well, and that this experience in nature influenced him as President when he established the Civilian Conservation Corps and greatly expanded the National Park Service throughout his administration.
FDR called Campobello “my beloved island.” Eleanor Roosevelt loved the island immediately after her first visit, and came back with the family after FDR could not. She also returned shortly before her death for the dedication of the bridge named for her husband. There are photos of her sitting on the ground, leaning against a tree with a satisfied smile on her face. Everything about her seems to be saying, “I am happy to be back.” Campobello Island is worth the marathon drive to get there – a beautiful place that offers insights to a family that made hugely important contributions to the U.S. and the world. And it is a place to love.