What a Maine Road Trip Taught Eleanor Roosevelt

In 1933, on a surprisingly freewheeling ramble through the Northeast, the reluctant new First Lady crashed with potato farmers, packed a pistol, and realized what she could bring to the office.

Eleanor Roosevelt on the road trip through the Northeast
FDR Presidential Library & Museum
By Kate Ver Ploeg
From our May 2022 issue

The Maine State Highway Police had been waiting for hours. They were on the lookout for two women traveling in a sporty, light-blue Buick Roadster. The troopers peered through the fog that had enveloped Bangor — nothing. It was almost midnight. Where were they?

A hundred miles away, Eleanor Roosevelt and Lorena Hickok didn’t much care if law enforcement knew their whereabouts. In fact, they preferred to be off the map. When the First Lady drove away from the White House, in July 1933, for a three-week road trip through New England and Quebec, her goal was escape — from the Washington spotlight and the Secret Service, from the merry-go-round of luncheons and handshaking that overtook her life when her husband assumed office, four months before. This trip would be leisurely and indulgent, an incognito honeymoon, of a sort, for Roosevelt and the woman with whom she’d fallen in love.

But by the time Roosevelt returned to Washington, it would become something more: the catalyst for a transformation that would revolutionize the role of First Lady.

Roosevelt dreaded her new role. Independent and private, with a driving need to feel useful, she had spent the last 15 years building a professional life of her own. She was a co-owner of a furniture-crafts factory, a political-affairs teacher at a New York girls’ school, a radio commentator, and a leading Democratic organizer — until her husband’s election forced her to give it all up. First Ladies were hostesses and homemakers. They did not work for pay, and they did not meddle in politics.

“It must have been confusing and rather grim,” her granddaughter Anne Roosevelt says today. “She had to decide whether she was going to be bold . . . or just fade into the woodwork. And I don’t think that was an option for her.”

In Washington, FDR and his team were working quickly and purposefully to roll out the New Deal. For a woman accustomed to exercising leadership and compassion, watching from the sidelines must have been painful. “I never wanted to be a President’s wife,” Roosevelt wrote, shortly after FDR’s election. “Now, I shall have to work out my own salvation.”

Left: Roosevelt and Lorena Hickock. Right: Roosevelt in Dyer Book, with Grace and Norman Ellis.

The line comes from a letter to journalist Lorena Hickok, one of some 3,500 letters the two women exchanged during their lifetimes, now archived in the FDR Presidential Library. “Hick,” as Roosevelt called her, was one of the Associated Press’s highest-paid reporters. The two first met when Hickok covered FDR’s gubernatorial campaign in 1928. Four years later, Hickok was assigned to cover Eleanor.

A cigar-smoking, lipstick-wearing tough with a fondness for bright scarves and rich food, Hickok came to accompany Roosevelt everywhere: on the overnight train and to family luncheons, to the theater and to dinners for two in the Roosevelt townhouse. Their letters leave little room for doubt — and historians increasingly agree — that their intimate friendship soon became a romantic affair. “I’ve been trying today to bring back your face,” Hick would write to Roosevelt months after their road trip, “and the feeling of that soft spot just northeast of the corner of your mouth against my lips.”

At 48, Roosevelt was no naive schoolgirl, and Hickok was no opportunist or social climber. Roosevelt had first stumbled upon one of her husband’s affairs 15 years before, and some of her closest friends were lesbian couples. Hickok, distressed by the ethical conflict of having grown to love her subject, quit her job that June. When the Roosevelts moved into the White House, the First Lady wrote to Hickok almost daily. “You have grown so much to be a part of my life,” reads a letter from the day after inauguration, “that it is empty without you even though I’m busy every minute.”

The White House fishbowl left little room for privacy, but the lovers’ upcoming getaway promised three weeks of blissful independence. “What fun we’ll have just doing nothing,” Roosevelt wrote Hickok in early May, “or doing anything.”

The Secret Service did not agree. Five months earlier, a would-be assassin had fired on the president-elect. When the head of the agency heard the president’s wife was planning to drive her own car, without escort, he reportedly went straight to FDR’s closest advisor, plunked down a revolver, and said, “If Mrs. Roosevelt is going to drive around the country alone, at least ask her to carry this.” In her autobiography, Roosevelt claims to have carried the gun, albeit unloaded and locked in the glove compartment. In her 1962 book Reluctant First Lady, Hickok described the First Lady scoffing at the idea that anyone would try to abduct them. “Where would they hide us?” she laughed, pointing out her height and Hick’s heft. “They certainly couldn’t cram us into the trunk of a car!”

To Roosevelt, privacy was more pressing than security. Swapping DC plates for New York, the pair meandered through the Adirondacks and Vermont, then to Quebec’s Gaspé Peninsula. They read poetry aloud, watched the sunrise from Vermont’s highest peak, and enjoyed the luxury of Quebec’s Château Frontenac. Their last morning in Canada, Roosevelt scanned the weekend’s Bangor Daily News: “Bright Outlook Is Forecast for Maine Farmers,” a headline read. FDR had chopped farm-loan interest rates, the paper reported, and potatoes were bidding higher than they had in three years. Roosevelt made a note of it.

They were recognized at the border. Word spread to Caribou that the First Lady and her companion were headed toward town. By the time they were sitting down to creamed chicken on toast at Clara Piper’s Stop-In Shop, the Aroostook Republican had alerted the Presque Isle Star-Herald. By the time they were sipping hot tea with lemon, a state trooper had motorcycled from Presque Isle to break up the traffic jam outside Clara Piper’s window. Any hope of further anonymity evaporated.

Eleanor Roosevelt at Ellis Farm, in Dyer Brook.
Roosevelt at Ellis Farm, in Dyer Brook.

“I must say that I was not at any time a good subject for a photograph,” Roosevelt recalled. A morning of driving with the top down on gravel roads, through shadeless, fire-scarred New Brunswick forest and Aroostook potato fields, had done its damage. Windblown, dusty, and sunburnt, the two weren’t prepared for what they found an hour later in Presque Isle: flags, waving crowds, an official escort, an enormous bouquet. Trapped in her own parade, Roosevelt inched the Roadster along, both women forcing themselves to smile and wave.

News of Mrs. Roosevelt and her companion jumped from town to town that afternoon. As the couple drove south to Mars Hill in a downpour, a car full of waving young people pursued the Buick until Roosevelt pulled over to say hello. When she stopped in Houlton to ask directions to Bangor, a Maine State Police lieutenant readied his officers to escort Mrs. Roosevelt into the city.

Finally escaping the day’s crowds, Roosevelt and Hickok pulled up to an overlook in tiny Dyer Brook. In the evening quiet, they gazed across 40 miles of rippling, trackless forest to Katahdin, rising above a golden sea of lingering fog. When Roosevelt saw a gabled white farmhouse nearby, with a wraparound porch and a sign on a large, trim barn reading “Ellis Farm Tourist Camps,” she swung her Roadster up the drive. This, she decided, was where they would spend the night. The Maine State Police waiting to guide her into Bangor that evening would go home disappointed.

A potato farmer and enterprising businessman, Norman Ellis had opened a tourist camp on his family’s farm in 1928. For a dollar, guests could spend the night, for another they could have supper, and for 50 cents more, they got breakfast. Norman’s wife, Grace, was known to be an excellent cook.

Pulling up in front of the farmhouse, Roosevelt grabbed the bags from the rumble seat, dusted them off, and was already carrying them inside before Norman could get ahold of them. When Grace held out the guest register, Hickok asked, “Don’t you know who the lady is?”

“They may throw us out,” Hickok remembers Roosevelt saying afterward. She was sure the Ellises had not voted for Franklin. Today, Norman’s granddaughter, Meredith Karsberg, says he thought of Washington government as “just very well-educated people with fancy suits making big decisions.” But Norman “was a matter-of-fact person,” she says, who treated everybody equally, whether they were a farmer or a First Lady.

On the eve of her road trip, Eleanor Roosevelt in her Buick.
On the eve of her road trip, Roosevelt in her Buick.

Roosevelt and Hickok sat on the porch swing and looked out at the twilight. When the Ellises appeared, Roosevelt waved them over. “Sit down with us, please,” she said, “and talk it over.” Norman perched on the steps; Grace settled in a rocking chair. The four chatted about the president and about Eleanor’s radio work, the Depression, and, inevitably, potatoes. The year before, market prices hadn’t even covered the cost to raise them, and bushel after bushel of dumped spuds had clogged local rivers and streams. But Aroostook farmers were optimistic. Recalling that morning’s article, Roosevelt impressed Hickok with her deft, informed questions.

They finished with doughnuts and milk at the kitchen table. Finally rising for bed at 11, Roosevelt asked Grace to muffle the phone so she could get a night’s rest. When the Bangor Daily News got a tip just after midnight that the First Lady’s car had been spotted at Ellis Farm, they immediately rang to ask if she was a guest. “I’m not telling,” Grace said, then hung up. She didn’t answer the phone the rest of the night.

The next morning, the yard was swarming with locals. Roosevelt circulated among the crowd, posing for pictures and shaking hands. She admired the blossoming potato fields and the cattle and showed “a keen interest,” one local newspaper reported, “in everything related to farming.” She asked Norman to take her on a tour of three neighboring farms, and she particularly wanted to know, Hickok recalled, about farmers’ problems, their hopes, and their plans.

FDR wanted to know about them too. In fact, he wanted to know about everything, especially Maine: what they’d seen on the farms, the kinds of homes, and the types of people. When the pair briefed the president over dinner after their return, Hickok was surprised by the details Roosevelt had noted — assessing, for instance, a family’s relative prosperity from the wash on their line. “I realized,” Roosevelt later wrote, “that he would not question me so closely if he were not interested, and I decided this was the only way I could help him, outside of running the house.”

Roosevelt and Hickok would keep FDR informed throughout the Depression. Hickok became an investigator for the president’s new federal relief agency, reporting on conditions around the country. Her frequent letters updated Roosevelt, who then advised FDR. When Hickok toured West Virginia that August, she persuaded Roosevelt to come see coal miners’ destitution. Newly determined to be FDR’s eyes and ears, Roosevelt traveled 40,000 miles that year and 42,000 the next, gathering information on Southern farm programs and New England wages, segregated schools and subsistence homesteaders.

As Roosevelt’s orbit widened beyond Hickok, their passion seems to have simmered to friendship. Roosevelt supported Hickok financially, and Hickok suggested and edited a syndicated column in which Roosevelt expressed her social observations and concerns. By 1938, “My Day” reached a daily audience of more than 4 million, and it ran until Roosevelt’s death, in 1962.

While Roosevelt’s road trip began as an escape, her time in Aroostook helped her to see how she might be of use — to a president bound to Washington by a wheelchair and political responsibilities, to a country ravaged by the Depression, and, later, to a post-nuclear world in need of a tireless advocate for human rights. She was always observing and listening and learning, remembers granddaughter Anne: “That was part of how she found her own mooring.”