Val-Kill is a special place that serves as a window into Eleanor Roosevelt's private and public life. Its understated beauty, natural setting, and unpretentious amenities may appear surprising to first-time visitors because of its simplicity; a vision that seems incongruous with expectations for the home of one of the most influential women in American history.
FDR purchased the parcel of land that would become Val-Kill in 1911. Eleanor became acquainted with the property in the early 1920's, utilizing the east bank of the Fall-Kill for picnicking. Known for their love of outdoor activity and informal gatherings, the Roosevelt's adopted the picnic spot as a favorite place away from the main house to relax in a secluded, natural setting.
Built on land her husband, Franklin Delano Roosevelt (FDR), owned, two miles from the “big house,” Val-Kill was both a retreat and center of advocacy and activism. Here, she tested progressive ideas, discussed controversial issues, and inspired students and civil rights and labor leaders to debate and organize. She welcomed world leaders, hosted United Nations (UN) colleagues, and lobbied politicians. She shed new light on democracy; social, economic, and political justice; and peace with her prolific writing and gatherings of diverse people.
The idea for Val-Kill stemmed from one of these picnics with Eleanor Roosevelt's close friends Marion Dickerman and Nancy Cook. During one lively discussion, FDR imagined small industries that could keep farming viable during hard economic times. Eleanor tested this idea. With FDR's consent, they decided to build a cottage and workshop. Financed with the women's income, Val-Kill Industries revived handcraft traditions suitable for family-owned farms. Handcrafts such as furniture-making, metalwork and weaving added income, especially in winter. As a skills training program, Val-Kill Industries later provided a model for New Deal recovery programs.
In 1936, the Val-Kill factory was redone as Eleanor’s home, and that of her secretary Malvina ”Tommy” Thompson. Once completed, the cottage became the nucleus of Franklin and Eleanor's overlapping network of friends and political associates. It was a place to entertain friends, political associates, and foreign leaders in a relaxed, Roosevelt style. Eleanor wrote many of her 27 books, 2,500 articles, and over 550 columns here. Politicians journeyed here to seek her support and advice. After FDR's death in 1945, Val-Kill became Mrs. Roosevelt's permanent home. In Val-Kill's tranquil setting, Mrs. Roosevelt continued the tradition of convening people who shared her vision.
Eleanor Roosevelt’s legacy in human rights and
world peace emerged from this simple place. Val-Kill,
her main home from 1945 until she died in 1962,
nourished her personal freedom and political independence.
She described Val-Kill as the place “where
I used to find myself and grow.”
When her husband contracted polio and was unable to walk unaided, Eleanor helped FDR get back into public life. She traveled widely, in New York state when he was governor and later across the nation when he was president. She researched and investigated problems needing his executive attention. FDR benefitted greatly from her humanitarian and social justice commitments. She faced criticism and threats for her stands on racial justice and other sensitive social issues. She continued this work throughout her life and became one of the most beloved figures of her time.
Eleanor Roosevelt championed social welfare and
civil rights, wielding influence through FDR and on
her own. Her Val-Kill Industries experiment, training
out-of-work rural folk in traditional crafts, was a
prototype for national New Deal projects. She traveled
widely as first lady to witness US poverty and
labor conditions, and the ravages of World War II
abroad. After FDR’s death in 1945, she supported
humanitarian causes. She led the UN Human Rights
Commission in the landmark Universal Declaration
of Human Rights. One of the most powerful and admired women of her time, her call for “equal justice,
equal opportunity, equal dignity without discrimination”
for all still resonates and inspires today.