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June 21, 2000: Column on Save America's Treasures: Val Kil Cottage, New York

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June 21, 2000

This past Saturday, I took a step back in time, reacquainting myself with an old friend. At the Eleanor Roosevelt National Historic Site in Hyde Park, N.Y., I had the pleasure of naming Mrs. Roosevelt's cottage, Val-Kill, an official Save America's Treasures project. Val-Kill is one of a collection of buildings nestled in a 180-acre area that was originally part of the vast Roosevelt family estate. It was Franklin Roosevelt who, in 1924, suggested that Eleanor build a fieldstone cottage on the site so that she and her friends could enjoy a permanent year-round retreat. Sharing FDR's concern about the exodus of rural New Yorkers to large cities in search of jobs, Mrs. Roosevelt believed that if farm workers learned manufacturing skills in addition to agriculture, they could rely on a second source of income when farming was not profitable. So, a year after the Stone Cottage was completed, Eleanor and three friends constructed a second, larger building to house Val-Kill Industries.

For 10 years, local men and women worked in the Val-Kill factory, turning out replicas of Early American furniture, pewter pieces and weavings. A novel undertaking, the factory attracted considerable attention, including a story in the New York Times under this forward-thinking headline: "Woman-Run Factory ... A Feminine Industrial Success." In 1936, Val-Kill Industries -- business down after the Depression -- closed, and Mrs. Roosevelt began to stay in the cottage herself. After the death of her husband in 1945, it became her permanent home. To walk through Val-Kill today is to take a step back into Eleanor Roosevelt's life. The furnishings reflect her personality -- jelly jars side by side with priceless family heirlooms. Photographs depict a steady stream of visitors, from the 150 "neglected and abandoned boys" of the nearby Wilwyck School, to Winston Churchill, Marian Anderson, Jawaharlal Nehru and John Kennedy, who arrived in 1960 seeking her support for his presidential run. "My mother-in-law once remarked that I like to 'keep a hotel,'" she explained. "And I probably still do. There usually seem to be plenty of guests, and they may include almost anyone from the Emperor of Ethiopia to my newest great-grandchild. Sometimes, there are so many guests that they arrive by busload -- perhaps a group of college students from various foreign countries ... or perhaps a crowd of 75 or so employees of the United Nations who have been invited for a picnic." Val-Kill Cottage was the place that allowed Mrs. Roosevelt to live and work on her own terms, offering her the independence she needed to champion her beliefs and articulate her ideas. It was at Val-Kill that, as the U.S. ambassador to the United Nations, she drafted large portions of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights and wrote many of her daily "My Day" columns.

History professor Allida Black is editor of the Eleanor Roosevelt Papers at George Washington University, where she is assembling, organizing, annotating and publishing the vast collection of columns, letters, articles and interviews that have been scattered around the world until now. Professor Black says of Val-Kill: "It was a place vibrant with commitment to social justice and spirited debate. It was (SET ITAL) the (END ITAL) place reflective of Eleanor Roosevelt's spirit and democratic vision."

After Mrs. Roosevelt's death in 1962, the cottage was divided into four rental units, and in 1970, along with the surrounding property and buildings, it was sold. But concerned citizens rallied in opposition when the owner announced plans to demolish the house and develop the property. The citizens won out, and in 1977, the property became the Eleanor Roosevelt National Historic Site, the first such site dedicated solely to a First Lady.

Imagine the loss to history -- the loss to our generation and generations to come -- if Val-Kill had been replaced by a strip mall, or Mrs. Roosevelt's letters and papers had disappeared. More and more, the woman Harry Truman called the "First Lady of the World" is taking her place in history. But there is no better way to know her than to walk through the rooms where she herself said, "I used to find myself and grow." And there is no better way to understand her influence on democracy and freedom around the world than to preserve and publish her papers. Of all the wonderful projects that the White House Millennium Council has organized to celebrate the new millennium, Save America's Treasures is perhaps closest to my heart. For without the publicity and matching federal and private funds that official Treasures projects receive, many of our national treasures -- like Val-Kill and the Eleanor Roosevelt papers -- would be gone forever. Now, thanks in part to the generous contributions of many women inspired by Eleanor Roosevelt's example, this important site will be preserved and protected, as will the ideals that she stood for.

Eleanor Roosevelt once wrote that universal human rights begin " in small places, close to home." Indeed, it was in her home -- a converted furniture factory -- that she found the strength and the energy to champion her belief in the fundamental dignity and worthiness of mankind.

I hope one day you will have the opportunity to visit Val-Kill, where you'll find Mrs. Roosevelt's strength and energy alive, and maybe even a little contagious. To find out more about Hillary Rodham Clinton and read her past columns, visit the Creators Syndicate web page at www.creators.com.


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