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Eleanor Roosevelt's Val-Kill

"The greatest thing I have learned is how good it is to come home again," Eleanor Roosevelt once told a friend. This short sentence tells of her deep love for this modest little stone cottage, the only home that was ever truly hers.

Possibly the most honored and beloved woman of 20th century America, Eleanor Roosevelt was more reluctant participant than eager politician. An unhappy childhood spent in Tivoli, the early death of her beloved father, and marrying at age 20 into one of the most prominent families in the nation set the stage for her ascendency.

When she married Franklin she assumed she would be the mistress of her home. However, Franklin's mother, Sarah Delano Roosevelt, was a formidable presence and ruled the lives of Franklin & his family until her death. Sarah was the grande dame of Hyde Park and she accompanied here beloved son everywhere he went, from the city townhouse she built and decorated for Franklin & Eleanor to their vacation home at Campobello to the country estate, Springwood, in Hyde Park. Sarah was the mistress of the house and expected to be deferred to in all matters. Eleanor found herself giving in to Sara at all points in all things.

When Franklin was elected to NY's Senate in 1910 and later his appointment as Assistant Secretary of the Navy, Eleanor was finally free of her mother-in-law and formed her own circle of political and private friends. As she persued her political work in the Democratic party two women became her closest friends, Nancy Cook and Marion Dickerman.

In 1924 during a visit of these friends to the Hyde Park estate, Franklin, Elenaor and her two friends picnicked at one of Eleanor's favorite spots, Fall Kill, on the estate. The conversation turned to Eleanor's complaints that Sara was closing the estate for the year, making this the last outing of the season. Franklin suggested that the three friends build a cottage nearby. The three thought the idea grand, Franklin hired the architect and in 1925 the small fieldstone cottage was ready and christened Val-Kill after the nearby stream.

Her friends moved in immediately and Eleanor spent weekends and holidays. Here at last was a place she did not have to surrender to her mother-in-law's control. She could have the friends she wanted, come and go as she pleased and be alone to her thoughts when she wanted. It was her house, her's alone.

The next year the three friends had built a larger structure to hold Val-Kill Industries, an experimental business they started with their friend Caroline O'Day. The four women wanted to found a business to employ local craftsmen to keep them from having to leave their homes and move into the city. They believed that if the farm-workers could be trained in manufacturing skills they would have the ability to sustain an income when farming was tough. For 10 years local men and women made replicas of early American furniture, pewter and weavings.

Despite Val-Kill Industries making products of high quality, the enterprise, like so many others, was forced to fold as another victim of the Great Depression.

Instead of closing down the factory building. Eleanor, by now First Lady, converted it into two apartments for herself and her secretary Malvina "Tommy" Thompson, with several guest rooms to handle the overflow from the big house. During the hectic Roosevelt presidential years, Hyde Park was a welcome refuge for Franklin from unceasing activity in Washington, as well as a quiet place for Eleanor to rest after her whirlwind trips around the country. When Franklin could not accompany her to Hyde Park, Eleanor spent her visits at Val-Kill rather than in the imposing mansion. "My house seems nicer than ever and I could be happy in it alone!" she wrote her daughter Anna. "That's the last test of one's surroundings."

Foreign heads of state who visited the president usually spent time at Hyde Park. After visiting the Roosevelt home, dignitaries such as Winston Churchill and Queen Wilhelmina of the Netherlands dined beside the outdoor fireplace at Val-Kill. Eleanor continued this tradition of informal gatherings outside her cottage long after Franklin died. As specified by his will, she turned the big house over to the US Government but kept the Val-Kill complex for herself, living in the converted furniture factory, which she renamed Val-Kill Cottage, for 17 more years.

In this placid setting she received some of the most important world leaders of the time. Nikita Khrushchev, Marshal Tito, Haile Selassie, and Jawaharlal Nehro all came to Hyde Park to see Franklin Roosevelt's grave and pay their respects to his widow. To Eleanor, these visits were opportunities for her to discuss humanitarian issues candidly with influential men. She was also hostess to Adlai Stevenson, a frequent visitor, labor leader Walter Reuther, and John F. Kennedy, who sought her blessings for his 1960 presidential campaign. There were other guests who were less famous but no less welcome. Each summer she entertained more than 150 youngsters from the local Wiltwyck School for delinquent boys. She put on an all-American picnic. The children ate hot dogs and played games, and afterwards Eleanor read to them from Kipling. Eleanor's family and personal friends often stayed at Val-Kill; she delighted in planning large holiday celebrations for loved ones. Despite the steady procession of family and guests, Val-Kill was most important as this great woman's sanctuary. It was the one place where she could relax and work uninterrupted late into the night.

After Eleanor died in 1962, her house was made over into four rental units. In 1970 the property was sold to private developers who planned to build on the land. Worried that the development would damage a valuable historic asset, concerned citizens organized a drive to preserve the site, which in turn sparked interest in establishing a national memorial. In May 1977 President Jimmy Carter signed the bill creating the Eleanor Roosevelt National Historic Site, "in order to commemorate for the education, inspiration, and benefit of present and future generations the life and work of an outstanding women in American History."

Visiting Val-Kill

Upon arrival, visitors are asked to view a lively and informative video presentation in the main visitor center on Eleanor Roosevelt. The Eleanor Roosevelt National Historic Site, Val-Kill Cottage, the Depression-era workshop and Eleanor's home from 1945 to 1962, is open to visitors, as is the Stone Cottage (if not in other use), the original residence on the site.

A tour of the grounds includes the outbuildings, the flower gardens, the swimming pool, the Val-Kill pond. Visitors are also invited to walk the trails that meander through the site's wooded areas.

Hours: The Eleanor Roosevelt National Historic Site is open Thursdays through Mondays from 9:00am to 5:00pm. (The last guided tour begins at 4:30 pm.) The site is closed Tuesdays and Wednesdays. The grounds are open daily year-round until sunset. Closed Thanksgiving Day, Christmas Day, and New Year's Day

Entrance Fee: Entrance to the park grounds is free. An $8.00 fee for adults includes a Guided Tour of the Home of Eleanor Roosevelt (Val-Kill). Children ages 16 and under are admitted free of charge. All visitors (including children) must have a tour ticket in order to join a Guided Tour. Access to Val-Kill is by guided tour only.

Tickets for Val-Kill are issued at the Val-Kill Orientation Center at the site. Families or individuals may also reserve ahead by contacting our Reservation Center at 1-800-967-2283 or by secure website at http://reservations.nps.gov. Reservations are accepted up to five months in advance.

Golden Age Passports, Golden Access Passports, Golden Eagle Passports, and National Park Passes provide for free entry to any available tour at the Roosevelt-Vanderbilt historic sites. In addition, the accompanying spouse and children of the cardholder will be admitted without charge.

Specifics on visiting Eleanor Roosevelt's Val-Kill were correct at time of publication. We would suggest that you confirm dates and times prior to your visit.
 
 
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