Nestled in densely forested red clay hills some 70 miles southwest of Atlanta, Warm Springs and nearby Callaway Gardens are two of the Peach State’s most popular visitor attractions. But that wasn’t always the case.
Native Americans were undoubtedly the first to utilize the geothermal springs for which the town was named. Rising from 3,800 feet within Pine Mountain, pure, highly mineralized water flows at almost 1,000 gallons per minute and at a constant 88 degrees to provide a buoyant, refreshing bath without the normally enervating effects of some hot mineral water. With development in the late 19th century of the rambling Victorian-style Meriwether Inn, Warm Springs became a popular resort for Atlanta’s high society.
By the time, however, that the town’s most famous resident — President Franklin Delano Roosevelt — came to Warm Springs in 1924 seeking a cure for the poliomyelitis that had recently struck him down, the area was impoverished because of a collapse in farm prices following World War I and the once-elegant Meriwether Inn had slipped into disrepair.
When FDR, whose promising political career had been interrupted at age 39, found that soaking and exercising in the warm mineral waters helped his paralyzed legs, he bought the ramshackle resort and spent a large part of his time and personal fortune over the next few years converting it into a rehabilitation center for polio patients. In 1927 the facility was incorporated as the Warm Springs Foundation.
While governor of New York and just before being inaugurated as president in 1933, Roosevelt built a simple frame cottage nearby. It soon became known as the Little White House and it remained FDR’s favorite refuge during his turbulent four-term presidency — which spanned both the Great Depression and World War II.
Not many of us living today actually experienced the FDR years so the legacy of the nation’s 32nd president is left largely to the history books and museums. Good reason for the creation in 2004 of the FDR Memorial Museum, a sorely needed repository for a splendid collection of Roosevelt mementos and a revealing storyboard of a great world leader’s many accomplishments. It is a good thing, too, that it’s located right where it is. Warm Springs was pivotal to Roosevelt’s presidency and political career.
“Most historians would agree that the improvements FDR experienced, largely through self-treatment at Warm Springs, were sufficient to give him the optimism and courage to push ahead in politics,” says Michael Shadix, librarian at Roosevelt Warm Springs Institute for Rehabilitation, the present-day progeny of FDR’s Warm Springs Foundation. “FDR did not want people to know the full extent of his disability,” Shadix said, adding that Roosevelt might not have run for president if he thought he was perceived as disabled.
Visitors keen on history or those just seeking a bit of old-fashioned national nostalgia can easily spend a day at Warm Springs. Begin with a visit to the museum and Little White House. Don’t miss the museum’s introductory film narrated by Walter Cronkite that includes some historical footage from the Roosevelt years. Among the exhibits, you’ll find FDR’s immaculate 1938 Ford convertible equipped with hand controls that he loved to drive through the surrounding countryside; a 1930s kitchen with a radio that plays some of the president’s most notable “Fireside Chats,” and the famous “Unfinished Portrait” of FDR.
On April 12, 1945, just 83 days after taking office for a record fourth term, FDR was sitting for a portrait with artist Elizabeth Shoumatoff at the Little White House when he suffered a stroke and died a few hours later. The house remains precisely as the Roosevelts left it and the portrait, too, can be seen exactly how it was abandoned in mid-brush stroke by Shoumatoff more than 65 years ago. This is extraordinarily touching history.
For lunch there’s no better choice than The Bulloch House, an 1893 mansion just a block from Warm Springs’ downtown row of cutesy Victorian shops. Locals and visitors alike pack the place for the lunch buffet featuring Southern home-cooked dishes such as fried chicken, field peas, collard greens, okra and scrumptious fried green tomatoes.
There should be plenty of time in the afternoon for a drive through F.D. Roosevelt State Park, which straddles Highway 190 about five miles west of Warm Springs. FDR loved steering his Ford convertible up to Dowdell’s Knob for picnics and it is no secret locally that the president played a role in getting a detachment of the Civilian Conservation Corps (CCC) assigned to the park to build cottages, bridges and a splendid little swimming pool — all from native stone. CCC structures are all still in use today throughout the park, which at 9,049 acres is the largest in the state.
Active types will find 37 miles of hiking trails, two small lakes for boating and fishing (one of the lakes is subject to rental by groups), and Roosevelt Stables, which offers trail rides both hourly and overnight. Cottage rentals, RV and tent camping are all options at the park, which lists 140 sites served with water and electricity. The nearest private campground is Pine Mountain RV Resort, a few miles west of the park on U.S. Highway 27.
Just as warm water had proven a magnet drawing FDR to this once-impoverished area, a rare flower served at about the same time to attract Cason and Virginia Callaway to a corner of Harris County called Pine Mountain. Although surrounded by depleted cotton fields and abandoned farms, this was an idyllic spot punctuated by bubbling springs and the rare plumleaf azalea, found natively only within a 100-mile radius. This finding by an amateur botanist and an industrialist who operated a huge textile mill in nearby LaGrange sparked the beginning of what would become the world-renowned Callaway Gardens.
The Callaways wanted to protect the shrub and other native flora and they bought up much of the land where it grew to establish a preserve. Their horticultural instincts finally got the best of them and they moved to the property in 1935, planting gardens and constructing lakes. They eventually opened the place to the public in 1952.
The rest, as they say, is history and today Callaway Gardens ranks as one of the nation’s premier display gardens. With its accompanying educational and resort attractions, it arguably comprises the region’s finest family vacation complex.
You can drive, bicycle or walk to various attractions, including the Virginia Hand Callaway Discovery Center, a striking contemporary-style orientation center/theater/exhibit hall that’s the best place to begin a visit because it helps put the 13,000-acre gardens into perspective for you.
Nearby, a popular, seasonal Birds of Prey show featuring live raptors holds forth several times a day. There are acres of seasonal azalea gardens; a 7.5-acre model vegetable garden; the Cecil B. Day Butterfly Center; the John A. Sibley Horticultural Center that’s said to be the world’s most advanced greenhouse complex; Robin Lake Beach, which offers swimming and boating and plays host each summer to the world’s premier water-ski tournament and Florida State University’s famous Flying High Circus; and, for a moment of reverence, a lovely old chapel of stone and stained glass. There are two golf courses; one of them, the Mountain View, is a reputed monster course and former home of the PGA Buick Challenge. Add in 13 well-stocked lakes for fishing and there’s plenty for dad to do as well. During the holiday season, the displays at the drive-through Fantasy in Lights show consist of more than 8 million twinkling lights, and you can experience the sights and sounds from the comfort of your motorhome.
Scenically situated just a few miles off Interstates 85 and 185, Callaway Gardens and Warm Springs present a perfect stopover opportunity for passers-through — and a wonderful weekend getaway destination for residents of the Deep South.