After picking my car back up in Montclair, NJ I drove back up to Hyde Park, NY to see more of the FDR Presidential Library and Museum. When Amy and I were there last Thursday we didn’t have enough time to tour the house, which is something I wanted to do. Visiting the Roosevelt home, Morgan Library, and Vanderbilt Mansion became a powerful counterpoint to the Lower East Side Tenement Museum. Having recently read about Teddy Roosevelt’s support of Progressive legislation after being taken to the tenements and interviewing those living and working in such squalor makes me hope that others in high political office can find a similar well of compassion and empathy in our own day and time.
After FDR’s home I took time to drive through Vassar College, where my cousin, Cleo’s son, Owen went. It was as beautiful a campus as I had heard. Amy and I had the chance to visit with Owen who is currently finishing a PhD at Oxford in England when we were there a few years ago.
Yesterday was a day filled with visits to four small, but very interesting, sites: Eleanor Roosevelt’s Val-Kill, the Old Rhinebeck Aerodrome, President Martin Van Buren’s home in Kinderhook, NY, and the Shaker communities in New Lebanon and Hancock, MA. Each was remarkable in its own right.
Eleanor Roosevelt generally ranks high as a FLOTUS. My father thought the world of her. He had to have back surgery at Walter Reed Hospital while he was in service during WWII and during his lengthy convalescence the First Lady visited the hospital in her Red Cross capacity to cheer up the troops. He never forgot her compassion to the soldiers. I continue to be impressed with her work on behalf of those at the margin whether about race, Appalachian poverty, women, or the working poor. As she often said, “I am the agitator; Franklin is the politician.”
I doubt that many know of the Old Rhinebeck Aerodrome, but if you have interest in aviation, especially early aviation, it is a worthy stop. I had been there before…in 1969! Family vacations were not a thing we had when I was growing up. I can only remember two, one when I was 9 that took us to Montreal to see Expo ’68 (a year late) and the other in ’70 that took us south to Williamsburg’s Colonial Village. Before then, money was too tight. After that, mom was too sick. But in ’69 we climbed into our Rambler Ambassador station wagon and headed north. The first stop as we drove the Hudson River Valley was a town called Rhinebeck. Dad, who always told me, “Anyone can drive a car!” had taken flying lessons after he got out of the service in a biplane. He never got his licensee, but he had grown up in the ‘20’s and ‘30’s when aviation was in its infancy, and he was fascinated by the barnstormers and stories of WWI pilots. So our fist stop was the Old Rhinebeck Aerodrome where, believe it or not, on weekends WWI planes had dogfights (NB: dogfights are not! Dog Fights, but aerial combat!). A WWI Fokker Triplane (that the Red Baron flew) would go up against a Sopwith Camel Biplane. I. Was. Hooked! It was there I learned about Capt. Eddie Rickenbacker, who flew with the famed “Hat in the Ring” squadron. A few years later, when I crossed into the adult section of my hometown library as a 12 year old, I’d check out a 600 page biography of Rickenbacker and read every page; his remarkable life that spans the first three quarters of the 20th Century taught me so much about American history and set the standard for Biography since. Although the dogfights only happen on weekends, I was grateful to see the old planes in the museum and was delighted when one took off while I was there. I often wish I’d taken my dad’s advice and learned to fly myself.
The drive from Rhinebeck to Kinderhook wasn’t long but began to take me into apple country. The farms and orchards were beautiful against the Catskill and Adirondack mountains driving up the Hudson River Valley. I always enjoy driving new roads, and this one followed the old post road from NYC to Albany. It was no coincidence that President Martin Van Buren bought and renovated a home along the old road, since anyone heading to the NY State House in Albany would pass by his front door. The eighth President of the US, he lived in the house from after his Presidency from 1841-1862. He was the only President for whom English was a second language (he grew up as a son of Dutch immigrants, although his father served in the Continental Army) and is most known for being a Jacksonian Democrat and helping to foster a two-party system.
From Kinderhook I went East/North East to New Lebanon, NY to a Shaker settlement. I was surprised when I went into the “admissions” building to find out the community is now a private High School! So I drove 5 mile east into Massachusetts to discover Hancock, MA which, Danna Brooks assured me, had a more robust site. She was not wrong. I’ve visited Shaker communities in New Hampshire and Kentucky, but seeing this one with its distinctive round, stone, barn, was fabulous. Having grown up in Bethlehem with its holy history of the Moravian founders gives me a special appreciation for religious nonconformist communities. Still, the Shakers with their commitment to celibacy set a high bar that, in time, led to the doom of the sect. Nevertheless, their unique and distinct witness of “egalitarian ideals” and “Hands to Work and Hearts to God” provided a remarkable vision of a life lived to “simple gifts” to God’s glory. Whenever I have a chance I like to visit their communities to contemplate on the ways, as Richard Foster says in his book, _Streams of Living Water_, how the “tributaries” of faith feed the “living water” that is our collective Christian witness. Plus their architecture! The Stone Barn at the Hancock site is a gem.
I finished my day in Saratoga Springs, NY, where I’ll spend the next few days in an old Victorian Age spa town. Known for its horse racing, there is so much more to this region and I’m grateful for a few days to explore.