It is an iconic image of Jackson County history – the photograph of President Franklin Roosevelt’s motorcade rolling down Main Street. But FDR’s visit to Sylva was not a part of his trip to dedicate the Great Smoky Mountains National Park. Instead, he passed through here on September 9, 1936. As was the case with a stopover at the National Park four years later, FDR was just a couple of months away from re-election. His 1940 Smokies speech reflected the nation’s concern with war, but in 1936 the theme was economic recovery.
Roosevelt had just completed his 4000 mile “drought tour” through nine hard-hit states in the Great Plains, and that was the subject of a fireside chat on September 6, 1936:
I saw livestock kept alive only because water had been brought to them long distances in tank cars. I saw other farm families who have not lost everything but who, because they have made only partial crops, must have some form of help if they are to continue farming next spring.
I shall never forget the fields of wheat so blasted by heat that they cannot be harvested. I shall never forget field after field of corn stunted, earless and stripped of leaves, for what the sun left the grasshoppers took. I saw brown pastures which would not keep a cow on fifty acres.
Yet I would not have you think for a single minute that there is permanent disaster in these drought regions, or that the picture I saw meant depopulating these areas. No cracked earth, no blistering sun, no burning wind, no grasshoppers, are a permanent match for the indomitable American farmers and stockmen and their wives and children who have carried on through desperate days, and inspire us with their self-reliance, their tenacity and their courage. It was their fathers' task to make homes; it is their task to keep those homes; it is our task to help them with their fight.
His address to the nation came on the eve of Labor Day and he alluded to the observance:
There are those who fail to read both the signs of the times and American history. They would try to refuse the worker any effective power to bargain collectively, to earn a decent livelihood and to acquire security. It is those short-sighted ones, not labor, who threaten this country with that class dissension which in other countries has led to dictatorship and the establishment of fear and hatred as the dominant emotions in human life.
All American workers, brain workers and manual workers alike, and all the rest of us whose well-being depends on theirs, know that our needs are one in building an orderly economic democracy in which all can profit and in which all can be secure from the kind of faulty economic direction which brought us to the brink of common ruin seven years ago.
There is no cleavage between white collar workers and manual workers, between artists and artisans, musicians and mechanics, lawyers and accountants and architects and miners.
Tomorrow, Labor Day, belongs to all of us. Tomorrow, Labor Day, symbolizes the hope of all Americans. Anyone who calls it a class holiday challenges the whole concept of American democracy.
FDR in Cherokee, 9/9/36
I’ll resist the temptation to use the old cliché that history repeats itself, but we do live in a day when even a President’s pep talk to school kids is blasted as socialist indoctrination. Back then, Roosevelt caught flak for "socialist leanings" and being “too political.” He did maintain the wonderful capacity to laugh at himself. Time magazine reported on his 1936 swing through Western North Carolina:
Dr. Ross T. Mclntyre, the White House physician, last week pronounced President Roosevelt physically "in the pink" after his 4,000-mile Drought tour. That his spirits were also tiptop appeared when White House correspondents filed into their first press conference after his return, primed to josh him about his "nonpolitical" campaign.
Would his speech at New York's Democratic State Convention later this month be "political," asked one? Franklin Roosevelt threw up his hands, widened his eyes in mock horror. "Oh, no!" cried he.
Of course, there was a political agenda behind the trip that brought FDR here, as the Time article explained:
To counteract Gene Talmadge's anti-Roosevelt convention of "Goober Democrats" at Macon last winter, Southern New Dealers had for months been planning to demonstrate their loyalty at a "Green Pastures" rally in Charlotte, N. C. On his way to address it with a "nonpolitical" speech, President Roosevelt left his train at Knoxville, climbed into an open automobile and headed a caravan of Democratic Governors and Congressmen up a new 140-mile highway through Great Smoky Mountains National Park. Its woodsy peaks and valleys "thrilled and delighted" him. Caught in a thunder shower at lunch time, he wriggled into a slicker, washed down fried chicken and caviar sandwiches with a bottle of beer.
The National Park showcased one of the great successes of the New Deal, the Civilian Conservation Corps. In 1933, FDR had signed a bill providing $1.5 million to develop the park, and the CCC was integral to that effort. At its peak, the CCC ran 16 camps in the park housing more than 4,300 men building fire towers, trails, walls and other infrastructure.
The 1936 article continued:
At a Cherokee Indian Reservation near Sylva, N. C., Chief Standing Deer (Jerry Blythe) capped the President with a headdress of eagle feathers, mumbled some Cherokee which made him the tribe's Chief White Eagle. White Eagle got his feathers off before photographers could snap.
"Chief White Eagle" NOT wearing a feathered headdress
The brief stop in Cherokee, just before FDR came to Sylva, was a milestone of sorts. Several sources identify it as the last time that a sitting President (no pun intended) would visit an Indian Reservation…until the presidency of Bill Clinton six decades later!
After leaving Sylva, FDR continued on to Asheville, where he spent the night of September 9 at the Grove Park Inn.