First Family Picnic
FDR mixed work with fun while vacationing off the coast of Maine.
- By: Joshua F. Moore
Never let it be said that Franklin Delano Roosevelt was a stick in the mud. When FDR took a holiday on Campobello, the Canadian island connected to Lubec by a causeway, in July 1936, he didn’t arrive like most presidents would have.
Instead, the lifelong sailor rented the fifty-six-foot schooner Sewanna and set out from Pulpit Harbor, on North Haven Island. It took the thirty-second president and three of his sons two weeks to reach Campobello (trailed the whole way by a flotilla consisting of a destroyer, the presidential motor yacht Potomac, and another schooner), as FDR and crew took the long route, via South Brooksville, Mount Desert Island, and Nova Scotia. “The ‘boys’ sailed in for an hour to-day just to show off their beards! F. has side burns and looks just like his Father’s portrait,” Eleanor Roosevelt wrote after watching her husband make landfall. “Funny how men love to grow hair, I think it makes them feel virile.”
But after a single night ashore, FDR had shaved and changed into his suit and tie, taking Eleanor, just right of center, and some forty guests to a picnic on Herring Cove, on the island’s east side. In addition to the family — Sara Roosevelt, the president’s mother, is seated on a rock, at upper right, and the Roosevelt boys are lounging in the background — FDR invited some Canadian dignitaries, with whom he shared an especially close relationship. Newsreel footage of the day shows FDR, at left, sharing laughs, frankfurters, and serious conversation with New Brunswick Premier Allison Dysart, at far left. Eleanor and her group of female acquaintances, meanwhile, seem content to enjoy some cookies with J.B. McNair, the attorney general of New Brunswick.
As candid as this scene appears, it was actually a carefully orchestrated affair. Standing behind the unidentified photographer who took this image were scores of onlookers, people who had come to Campobello for a glimpse of the president. Having everyone sit on the rocks also helps downplay the president’s lack of mobility, as he’d contracted polio and lost the use of his legs during a visit to Campobello fifteen years earlier. The day after this picnic, FDR greeted two thousand people in Eastport, where he had driven to see a model of his doomed Quoddy tidal project, for which Congress had cut off funding shortly before this photograph was made.
Though that project failed, the bonds that the president forged with Canada helped the two countries partner through World War II and led to cross-border utility and trade agreements that Mainers still benefit from today. In honor of the friendships FDR established, the U.S. and Canada now administer, fund, and operate the southern half of Campobello as an international park, the only such arrangement in the world.
- By: Joshua F. Moore