First Lady Incognito
A classy car and an even more impressive driver attracted attention in Caribou seventy-five years ago.
Photo Courtesy of Ren and Pamela Parziale
Ever since the nineteenth century, celebrities, politicians, and other well-heeled visitors have been attracted to Maine because of their ability to disappear from the public eye here. Eleanor Roosevelt, captured in this remarkable and previously unpublished photograph during a stop in Caribou during the summer of 1933, was not so fortunate. While her light blue convertible had drawn plenty of notice during the two weeks that she’d spent driving through northern New England and Quebec, it was not until she entered The County from Canada — “It was a relief when we arrived at the most fertile of all Maine counties — Aroostook,” she wrote — that she was finally recognized as the newly minted First Lady. The probing questions about the New Deal’s impact on the local economy that she and her traveling companion, Lorena Hickok, asked of a potato farmer were what first tipped off the locals that she was more than an idle tourist, and the next day the pair found themselves the guests of honor in the impromptu parade shown here. For Mrs. Roosevelt and her badly sunburned passenger, whose sleeve is faintly visible over the steering wheel, the attention was hardly welcome. “Miss Hickok said I used some unbecoming language as I tried to drive properly in the crowd and still wave with one hand,” she recalled in her memoir, This I Remember.
This photograph, discovered in a former Caribou family’s photo album and forwarded to DOWN EAST, appears to have been taken just as the First Lady was backing her 1933 Buick roadster onto High Street to lead the parade, her luggage still stowed behind the automobile’s rumble seat. A fleet of Fords, at far right, idles in the road in front of the public library, its arched entrance as plainly visible just left of center as it is today. The crowd that has gathered in front of the dress and shoe shops, at far left, consists of well-dressed businessmen, boys, and a few women who have come out to see the famous woman and listen to what she had to say during her brief stop in Caribou. Later in the day she would proceed on to Skowhegan and, eventually, to the Roosevelts’ vacation home on Campobello.
For the new president, his wife’s trips were both scandalous and vital. Mrs. Roosevelt insisted upon traveling without Secret Service protection, but she did allow security personnel to provide her with a pistol and the marksmanship training to make it useful (though she admitted it might have been more so if only she had brought ammunition along on this particular trip). Upon returning home the First Lady would schedule a private meal with her husband so that she could explain all that she had seen and experienced in her travels, thus providing firsthand reports of how America was recovering from the Depression. And in Republican strongholds like Aroostook County, the ability of a Democrat to travel incognito — except for an impromptu parade or two — was as important to the recovering country as was the great woman behind the wheel of this classic automobile.
- By: Joshua F. Moore