Presidential Haunts in Upstate New York

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July 20th 2016
Published: July 21st 2016
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Once I got out of the NYC area, this day was just one pleasant surprise after another. It was indeed a great day for travelling. The weather was spectacular - sunny but not too warm. I spent more time outside today than I had anticipated, but it was the perfect day for enjoying the out-of-doors. I suppose my day can be divided into three parts: Sleepy Hollow, Hyde Park, and Kinderhook. Since I spent the most time in Hyde Park, that is where I 'located' this journal entry.

First off, let me say that the Knights Inn in Pine Brook, NJ, is no luxury stop. It'll do if you need a bed, and the neighborhood appeared to be safe; but the sink area was unclean and the bed was hard as a rock. I left a little after 8:30 this morning and didn't look back. I hadn't planned on going into any major metropolitan areas, but with traffic being lousy, the GPS routed me through the upper end of Manhattan via the George Washington Bridge. That was unpleasant. The traffic was better than anticipated, but the toll for crossing the bridge is $15 for cars. Yes. Incredible. And there's no warning either. You can't get out of there and if you have no money, you are screwed. Once through that mess, though, I set a path toward the north.

My first stop was the cemetery at Sleepy Hollow. I didn't think I could pass up a trip to that legendary place since I would be going within 10 miles of it. It was a labyrinth, for sure. They give you a map at the entrance, so you can find where any of the 'famous' people are buried. They've even recreated the Headless Horseman Bridge, which they admit upfront is not the original. Aside from Washington Irving, the author of "The Legend of Sleepy Hollow," there's a Rockefeller or two buried there, along with Leona Helmsley of all people. I think Andrew Carnegie might be there, too, but the roads are so narrow and serpentine, spread out over a large area, that I really only went to see Irving. I happened upon the Rockefeller and the Bridge along my way, too. It was a fun side-trip that took less than 30 minutes. I think they have tours of the area you can take, and retrace Ichabod Crane's route, but that seems a bit too much for a town called Sleepy Hollow.

The rest of my day was spent off of the interstates, so I got to enjoy some of the small-town upstate New York you always hear about. I also got to endure some slow drivers and ridiculous traffic. None of that, however, was able to keep me away from my presidential visits.

In Hyde Park, you can find the homes of both FDR and Eleanor Roosevelt. Both have been turned into museums, and FDR even has his presidential library there. His was the first presidential library, and the only one that a sitting president actually used. The price of admission to the FDR home (which comes with admission to the library and museum) is $18, and if you have the National Parks Pass, it's half price. I took what I could get. The folks at the Martin van Buren site later in the afternoon couldn't believe they charged anything with the pass, but that's become the story of my trip. Anyway, there are frequent tours of FDR's home - guided by a park ranger, probably every half hour. It's the only guided tour they give. Before you take the tour, there's the requisite video that gives you context for what you're going to see. Throughout the place, they've done a good job integrating both FDR and Eleanor, since they both played such huge roles in world affairs for so long.

The FDR ancestral home only dates from the 1860s, but the Roosevelts had been in NY since the 1680s at least. Poor Dutch immigrants got rich in the banking business with Alexander Hamilton after the Revolution, and the rest is history. At the actual home, you can see pretty much all of the rooms, though every one of them is roped off. You get to see the first floor, with a TV from 1939 and many of the birds that FDR caught and taxidermied himself as a boy. Upstairs are all the bedrooms, including the room where FDR was born and where heads of state, including British monarchs, slept when they visited. Once done with the house, you're free to visit whatever you want on the grounds. Nearby is the rose garden, full of all sorts of brightly-colored flowers (and yes, dozens of species of roses, clearly labeled). In the middle of it all are the graves of FDR and Eleanor. On the way back to the visitor center, you find the huge presidential library and museum. It doesn't look so big from the outside, but it's got so much on the inside. The guide said you could take three hours and still not be done. He was right - I only had an hour, and I did have to speed through several parts of it. I'd rather do that, though, than have too much time and get bored. They have several videos of varying lengths, audio recordings of both FDR and Eleanor from radio broadcasts, lots of maps, old photos, and thousands of smaller memorabilia. Two items of note are the paper-mache Sphinx in the shape of FDR's head, and then FDR's 1936 Ford Phaeton that he drove around Hyde Park. You have to go all the way through the museum to get to the car. The experience is entirely overwhelming, and I would've planned at least 5 hours there if I had known they had such good stuff. I also would've planned a stop at Val-Kill, Eleanor's site across the street. But I had to move on. A reason to come back, I guess.

You may laugh, but I honestly REALLY wanted to see the Martin van Buren site at Lindenwald in Kinderhook. It's just over an hour north of the FDR site, again using the Old Post Rd. There was unexpected road work along the way, and I frankly thought that my chance of getting a tour of the home were wrecked when my GPS said my arrival time would by 3:40. The place closes at 4:30 (thus my need to get there early), and these home tours usually last an hour. I was relieved when I got there and the ranger was so accommodating! He said the last tour was actually at 4 (whew!) and that they had a 15-minute video I could watch beforehand. Not on a loop, just on demand. So I got to watch that, peruse the gift shop, and use the facilities before the tour. The visitor center is actually in some kind of mobile home, but it's clean and welcoming. Plus the rangers are all amazing.

It turned out that only I and an elderly Indian couple were on the last tour (again, this pattern emerges), given by the same ranger who welcomed me. And he didn't act like he was in any rush to get done by 4:30. In fact, I looked at the time when we finished, and it was 4:55. He didn't skip any parts or make us feel like he had anywhere else to be. We got to see the entire house, which includes the oldest example of indoor plumbing - including a tub and an indoor water closet (toilet with running water) - that I had ever seen; this was from about 1850. Apparently, van Buren was so proud of it, he invited the townspeople, who lined up by the dozens, to see the indoor toilet! We were allowed upstairs and into the basement, too. Most of the pieces were original to the time period, and van Buren's bedroom actually had all original pieces owned by the man. I found out quite a few things about MvB: he was the first president born in the official USA; he was the only president whose native language was not English (Dutch); he was responsible for organizing the first national-level political party in the USA (and even the world, it seems) - the Democratic Party; and he ran for president 4 times but was only successful on the 1st attempt. I gained a lot of respect for the man, though in his early years he was known for not taking a stand on any of the big issues - one of the reasons he was elected in 1836; but he finally did take a stand on slavery, and it cost him a likely 2nd term in 1844. I was particularly pleased to be able to visit his home, and when we were done, I made my way to the cemetery in Kinderhook to pay my respects at his grave.

Now I am in Albany, staying at my 2nd airbnb place - but my first for an actual room in somebody's actual house. She's out with a friend, and I've enjoyed the peace and quiet, the very nice shower, and a cool evening. On my way in, I stopped by an old courthouse in the art deco style, so check out that picture. I'm always on the lookout for that. Tomorrow, I'm heading further north to Saratoga battlefield before turning east to visit the Calvin Coolidge site in Vermont. It looks like I may even get to sleep early tonight!

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