Franklin Roosevelt visits the mountains

Published 11:57 am Thursday, January 11, 2024

By Jadon Gibson

Contributing Columnist

Franklin Delano Roosevelt came to the mountains of Kentucky, Tennessee and Virginia with his uncle Warren Delano Jr., Theodore Roosevelt, also FDR’s uncle, was president of the United States.

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The young Roosevelt had recently graduated from Harvard when he visited Harlan and Bell counties in Kentucky and Lee County in Virginia. He aided his uncle in assessing titles and surveys for Kentenia Corp.

“An energetic, collegiate type of fellow, Roosevelt often dressed in a turtleneck sweater with a large H (for Harvard),” an elderly resident recalled several years later. “He got on and off his horse in leap frog fashion and was busting with energy.

“He and his Uncle Warren Delano were both friendly with local residents and often stopped at local stores where they visited and exchanged greetings.

“They sat around the pot-belly stove and spun yarns with the local residents. FDR studied the mountain men as they chewed tobacco and spat on the stove causing it to sizzle. After awhile FDR was chewing and sizzling as loud at the old-timers.”

Eleanor Roosevelt’s book, This Is My Story, published during FDR’s presidency in 1937, included this letter which was written by her husband during his mountain visit in 1908.

“June 12, 1908. This letterhead is erroneous as to our location as we have come many more miles into the mountains, staying at Mr. Henry Smith’s house about three miles from Harlan, Kentucky,” he wrote on stationary with a Pennington Gap, Virginia letterhead. “We arose Saturday morning at Pennington at 6 a.m. and took the train 18 miles down the valley to Hagen and found horses waiting for us at the station.

“We dropped down into the valley along Catron’s Creek and came to the Smith house in the early evening after traveling 22 miles or 23 miles in all. It was the roughest trail and worst road in a county that is famous throughout the land for bad trails and even worse roads.

“Mr. Smith is perhaps the most prosperous farmer of the county and his bottomlands along the valley are splendid. I must close this hurriedly as the mail is going.”

In a June 15, 1908 letter FDR penned, “We breakfasted late yesterday at 7 o’clock and sat around for an hour discussing legal and political affairs. We then rode about 3 and a half miles into Harlan.

“That was like seven miles anywhere else because of the horrible conditions of the roads here. This afternoon we rode five or six miles up Martin’s Fork which is the most beautiful country we have seen yet. The sides of the valley going up 2,000 feet, heavily wooded with great poplars, chestnuts and a dozen or two other deciduous trees is splendid. Every mile or so there was a fertile bottom with fine crops and a stream of crystal water. Tomorrow we are going to an all day ride up Clover Fork.”

Warren Delano Jr, FDR’s uncle, was a vice-president of Kentenia Corp. as well as a director of the L&N Railroad at the time. He was instrumental in getting L&N to build a branch into Harlan County.

Kentenia took its name from Kentucky, Tennessee and Virginia, where it had extensive land holdings. The main offices were in Big Stone Gap, Virginia.

Warren Delano and FDR attended an elaborate dinner celebrating Kentenia’s first anniversary.

The menu included shaddocks (the antiquated name for grapefruit), oyster soup, roast turkey with cranberry sauce, baked ham with currant jelly, French peas, potatoes, string beans, asparagus, cornbread, ice cream, cakes and fruit.

The menu also included several types of wine and a cigar for each attendee.

It was a time of excitement and optimism. The railroad was under construction and with each passing day it was drawing nearer to Kentenia’s holdings.

Jadon Gibson is a writer from Harrogate, Tennessee. Thanks to Lincoln Memorial University, Alice Lloyd College and the Museum of Appalachia for their assistance.