Trailside Talk: Words from FDR

Trailside Talk: Words from FDR

Mike Hembree

Although there are amazing places to visit along the trails of Great Smoky Mountains National Park and visual wonders deep in the backcountry, one of the most dynamic spots to put one’s feet is only a few yards from a heavily traveled roadway.

At Newfound Gap, generally considered the “center” of the Smokies, you can stand in the footsteps of the country’s 32nd president, Franklin D. Roosevelt, and ponder the thoughts he shared during his September 2, 1940, dedication of the park.

GSMNP was chartered in 1934, but it was thrust into the national spotlight on that late-summer day six years later. Roosevelt traveled as part of a motorcade to Newfound Gap and, standing with one foot in Tennessee and one in North Carolina, dedicated the Smokies, as he put it, “to the free people of America.”

President Franklin D. Roosevelt speaks from the Rockefeller Monument at Newfound Gap. Image courtesy of NPS.
President Franklin D. Roosevelt speaks from the Rockefeller Monument at Newfound Gap. Image courtesy of NPS.

Eighty-one years later, it is interesting to look back on FDR’s speech and take note of how little it dealt with the flora, fauna, facts, and figures of the park and how much it was centered on matters of broader national and international importance.

As Roosevelt spoke, war was raging across Europe, and there were expectations among the nations battling the Axis powers that the US eventually would send its military forces to join the Allies. This reality could be felt in homes across the country as terrible headlines brought difficult news every day and Hitler’s march threatened stability on both sides of the Atlantic.

FDR had begun the task of bracing Americans for the reality that the US would be playing a role far beyond supplying equipment and monetary support to the Allies, that American lives eventually would be put in harm’s way.

“The greatest attack that has ever been launched against freedom of the individual is nearer the Americas than ever before,” Roosevelt said. “To meet that attack we must prepare beforehand—for preparing later may and probably would be too late.”

Reaching his conclusion, Roosevelt said, “The winds that blow through the wide sky in these mountains . . . have always blown on free men. We are free today. If we join together now—men, women, and children—and face the common menace as a united people, we shall be free tomorrow.”

Newfound Gap's Rockefeller Memorial honors a $5 million donation from the Rockefeller Foundation to assist in land acquisition to complete the Great Smoky Mountains National Park. Photo courtesy of The Living New Deal.

The wonders of the park, protected as a grand sanctuary and pocket of wilderness in the increasingly crowded Southeast, were hailed by FDR as he spoke about conserving “the pine, the redbud, the dogwood, the azalea, the rhododendron, the trout, and the thrush for the happiness of the American people.”

It is good and right, he said, “that we in all this should conserve these mountain heights of the old frontier for the benefit of the American people. But in this hour we have to safeguard a great thing—the right of the people of this country to live as free men.”

Fifteen months later, the US would be plunged into war after the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor. Roosevelt’s attention over the final years of his life (he died in April 1945) was Smokies LIVE concentrated on the war effort, even as the park he dedicated under the shadows of dark clouds slowly grew into one of the nation’s favorites.

Mike Hembree is a veteran journalist and the author of 14 books. He has visited 26 national parks and hopes to add many more to that list.

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