Old timers recall Roosevelt’s trip to the SmokiesWritten by Becky Johnson
The Great Smoky Mountains National Park staged a reenactment this week of President Franklin Delano Roosevelt’s dedication of the newly created park nearly 70 years ago.
Roosevelt’s trip to the region in 1940 is still remembered by many. Throngs of people lined the main streets of Waynesville, Bryson City and Cherokee for a chance to see the heroic President roll by en route to Newfound Gap, where he would speak at a dedication ceremony for the new park.
“President Roosevelt was next to God,” said Henry Foy, who watched from the side of Main Street in Waynesville. “He was in the backseat and held up his hat and waved it out both sides.”
As is often the case with big milestones, anyone alive at the time seems to remember where they were when Roosevelt’s entourage drove through town.
“That was the biggest day of my life,” said J.C. Freeman, 81, who watched from the roadside in Bryson City. “He was in an open topped car. They roped the roads off. I was holding the rope as close as I could get. I thought that was one of the greatest things that could happen to a boy.”
Joyce Patton of Canton, just 7 years old at the time, was most excited at the prospect of seeing Roosevelt’s black Scottish Terrier pup named Fala.
“[Roosevelt] was waving with his cigarette in the holder. I saw right away that he didn’t have the dog,” Patton said, recalling her disappointment. Patton’s parents, who were park supporters, made the long car trip up to Newfound Gap to hear his speech. They were seated near the front, close enough to see Roosevelt getting out of his car into a wheelchair.
“At that time nobody knew he was paralyzed. They lined the ramp going up to the lectern with Secret Service and Park Rangers so most people couldn’t see him in the wheelchair,” Patton recounted.
While the park was officially created in 1934, Roosevelt’s dedication happened six years later on Sept. 2, 1940. By then, the Civilian Conservation Corps had carved trails, campgrounds and roads into the park, including the overlook at Newfound Gap. There Roosevelt stood with one foot in each state while delivering his speech in front of the newly finished Rockefeller Memorial, erected as an homage to the family that donated $5 million for the park’s creation.
Commodore Casada, 99, caught a ride up the mountain from Bryson City to witness the big event. Although like many, his interest was in seeing Roosevelt — not honoring a park he resented.
“I hadn’t accepted the park yet. It just always seemed to me like somebody was taking something that was mine,” said Casada, who grew up on land seized for the park. Although he added, “Now I’m glad we gave it.”
Roosevelt’s speech was laden with references to the brewing war in Europe, calling for the need to protect America’s great landscapes and natural history as well as the nation’s freedom.