Roosevelt's Dream

Senoia man pens book on Warm Springs

by W. Winston Skinner

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F. Martin Harmon’s new history of Warm Springs is “a labor of love” – but a bittersweet one because of repeated missed opportunities.

“Georgia has missed the boat on Warm Springs. The significance of the place has never been taken advantage of, like it could have.”

“The Warm Springs Story,” published in May by Mercer University Press, chronicles the story of Warm Springs from Creek Indian days to the present. Harmon spent 13 years as public information director for the Roosevelt Warm Springs Institute for Rehabilitation. Now retired, he looks back on missed opportunities to capitalize on Warm Springs’ unique blend of tourism, history and healing.

This is far from the first book about Warm Springs, but it takes a cumulative, overarching approach not used before.

“It’s a story I think anybody could enjoy,” he said. The book chronologically tells the story of Warm Springs as a pioneer hamlet with warm waters reported to bring healing through its days as a resort for affluent families from Columbus and its evolution under Franklin Roosevelt into a haven of hope for people with polio.

While Harmon’s focus is the Warm Springs Institute and its legacy of healing, he fully covers Roosevelt’s presence in the community and his dreams of a major resort in conjunction with the rehabilitation center and the tensions between the tourism and medical facilities.

“Not only am I talking about the milestones, but I go into the individual people. The individuals’ stories make the book come alive,” Harmon said.

Harmon did lots of research and interviewed former patients, staff and staff family members.

Harmon described Warm Springs historically as Jekyll Island West. “In Warm Springs, there are two distinct historical communities,” he said. In the early 1900s, well-to-do folk from Columbus built cottages at Warm Springs to get away from heat and humidity in Columbus. They ultimately abandoned the place when the focus turned to polio, but the disease brought another crowd – people who wanted polio treatment and a home of their own at Warm Springs.

A Pulitzer who married a descendant of poet Clement Clarke Moore was among them. Another was a noted concert pianist whose wife had polio.

The first board members FDR recruited were Wall Street tycoons. “They had daughters and sons and nephews who had polio,” Harmon noted.

When Roosevelt died at the Little White House in 1945, staff and visitors had to go through the foundation grounds to get to the president’s retreat. The foundation – now the institute – was then a treatment facility, and polio was a virulent scourge feared throughout the world.

The decision to open the Little White House as a museum led to the creation of an entrance off Georgia Highway 85 and a separation of the public from the polio patients.

A few years later, the Salk and Sabin vaccines all but eliminated polio, but the pieces of the Warm Springs story had been divided among several entities.

One of Harmon’s conclusions is that Warm Springs might have more fully realized its potential had Roosevelt not returned to politics. Roosevelt thought Warm Springs had the potential to attract visitors like Pinehurst in North Carolina or even Saratoga Springs in his native New York.

Warm Springs as a European style spa was part of Roosevelt’s vision. “As charismatic as he was, you can imagine the fundraiser he could have been,” Harmon said.

Harmon noted that visitors now can almost never touch – much less get in – the water that brought FDR to Georgia. A campus pool sits empty.

Plans several years ago by Perrier to turn much of Warm Springs into an amusement community like Busch Gardens were struck down as locals refused to sell their land to the water purveyor.

Harmon was a preacher’s kid whose family moved around several times all over the South during his use. He grew up mostly in Texas and Tennessee.

A journalism and history double major, Harmon started out as a sportswriter – first for the Johnson City Press Chronicle and then the Nashville Banner. Connections led to sports information jobs at universities – the last being Georgia State.

“Roosevelt came along. It was getting close to my 50th birthday,” Harmon remembered. He was ready for a change.

“The history” convinced him to go to work at the Meriwether County institution. “Roosevelt is one of my heroes,” he said. During his tenure at Warm Springs, there were many exciting events including a polio reunion that brought survivors from all over – and press coverage from the likes of the Washington Post.

A Smithsonian exhibit at the institute brought visitors from 48 states and 30 foreign countries during its two-and-a-half-year stay.

When Harmon got the job at Warm Springs, his wife, Sharon, was working for a company in north Atlanta. She had the opportunity to work from home, but was unable to stray too far from the company location.

The Harmons went house-hunting and settled on place in Senoia in 2000.

Harmon will be signing his book along with other local authors: Connie Bratcher, Sid Brown, Jimmy Orr, P.S. Rawlins and Beau Sides – at Barnes and Noble at Ashley Park on Thursday from 6-8 p.m.

Since his first book signing – appropriately – at the Warm Springs Welcome Center in June, Harmon has traveled to Florida for SMC3's Connections Conference. Jack Middleton of SMC3 is “a Newnan resident and Warm Springs supporter,” Harmon said. Middleton purchased about 250 copies of Harmon’s book – with a special imprint – for distribution to attendees at the conference.

Other upcoming book events include a signing on June 28, at Senoia Coffee Company from 1-4 p.m. and an author’s talk and signing at the Carnegie Library on July 8 at 2:30 p.m.

Harmon’s next book, “Charles ‘Left” Driesell: A Basketball Legend” hearkens back to his early career as a sportswriter and will be released sometime in October

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