But how does such a tourist attraction keep drawing back the locals, year after year? Doesn’t one reach a saturation point of feeling like “seen one Victorian-Christmasy mansion, seen ‘em all”? Well, lately there seems to be a trend toward innovation and interactivity in the seasonal offerings (and not just during the holidays) at many of these sites. Elsewhere in these pages you’ll read about culinary events, mystery theatricals and scavenger hunts that give visitors of all ages something to do besides gape at the fancy décor as they tour our Valley’s historic homes and museums.
Another trend that is most welcome in these financially challenging times is the practice of setting aside certain days when the entrance fee to a site is waived. In Hyde Park, one such invitation will be extended to the public this Sunday, December 5 from 9 a.m. to 5 p.m. at the Vanderbilt Mansion National Historic Site, where the National Park Service will host its annual Holiday Open House. The Mansion will of course be decorated for the holidays, and refreshments will be provided by the Roosevelt-Vanderbilt Historical Association from 1 to 5 p.m.
A whole slew of Open House events will follow on Saturday, December 11 at the cluster of sites associated with the Roosevelt family. But first, take note of a free presentation sponsored by the Franklin D. Roosevelt Presidential Library this Sunday, December 5 that couldn’t be more timely, somehow managing to meld a vintage feel-good Christmas story with this week’s explosive news about the reams of government secrets exposed by WikiLeaks. It’s an author talk and book-signing starring Ted Gup, a Guggenheim fellow, Fulbright scholar, current chair of the Department of Journalism at Emerson College in Boston and a former investigative reporter for Time magazine and The Washington Post, where his mentor was Bob Woodward.
Gup is a longtime expert on the subject of the Feds’ dirty laundry and author of a couple of controversial best-sellers titled Nation of Secrets: The Threat to Democracy and the American Way of Life (2007), winner of the Shorenstein Book Prize from Harvard University’s Kennedy School of Government, and The Book of Honor: Covert Lives And Classified Deaths at the CIA (2000). He got into a bit of hot water in 1992 when he publicly disclosed the existence of a top-secret bombproof underground bunker in West Virginia, called Greenbrier, to which members of the US Congress were supposed to be evacuated in the event of a nuclear attack. Although Gup contended that the Cold War-era facility was long obsolete by the time his article was published in the Post, it stirred up quite a ruckus – including, predictably, some calls for the journalist to be tried for treason.
With that sort of background, it would be reasonable to expect that Gup would be holding forth this weekend on the subject of the WikiLeaks brouhaha; and if a question-and-answer session is provided at the end of his talk, the subject will undoubtedly be raised. But Ted Gup has another story on his mind these days: a heartwarming story of long-kept secrets, and it’s his own family skeletons that he’s outing this time. The new book that he’s touting on his current tour is titled A Secret Gift: How One Man’s Kindness – and Trove of Letters – Revealed the Hidden History of the Great Depression.
Ted Gup’s family lived for generations in Canton, Ohio, where the unemployment rate neared 50 percent during the Depression. Just before Christmas in 1933, when things seemed bleakest, a man who called himself B. Virdot took out an ad in the local newspaper. He offered to send $10 anonymously to each of 75 families who wrote to him and described their plight. The response was so overwhelming that he had to halve the size of the gifts to send checks to 150 families. True to his word, “Virdot” never revealed his own identity in his lifetime, nor those of the needy folks who had appealed to him for help.
Seventy-five years later, Ted Gup’s mother handed him a suitcase containing the original letters written to B. Virdot, whose true identity was Sam Stone – Gup’s grandfather. A Secret Gift is Gup’s reconstruction of what became of those who wrote to “Virdot” and the true reasons why Sam Stone made the gifts in the first place. Following his presentation on this surprising and highly personal story, Ted Gup will be available to sign copies of his book. This event, which kicks off at the Henry A. Wallace Visitor and Education Center at 2 p.m., is free and open to the public.
That’s this weekend. On Saturday, December 11, the Franklin D. Roosevelt Presidential Library and Museum and the Home of FDR (Springwood) National Historic Site will be open to visitors free of charge from 9 a.m. to 5 p.m., hosting a series of free holiday events. The Eleanor Roosevelt National Historic Site (Val-Kill) will also be free and open to visitors from 4 to 7 p.m. on the 11th.
Kids are the focus of many of the free holiday activities at the FDR sites. The fifth annual Children’s Reading Festival will be held in the Wallace Center from 12 noon to 4 p.m. Noted children’s book authors will read from and sign copies of their books, including Peter Ackerman, author of The Lonely Phone Booth, at 1:30 p.m.; Jennifer Berne and Keith Bendis, the minds behind Calvin Can’t Fly: The Story of a Bookworm Birdie and Manfish: A Story of Jacques Cousteau, at 2:15 p.m.; and Karen Kaufman Orloff, who wrote I Wanna Iguana and I Wanna New Room, at 3 p.m. In addition, there will free photos with Santa from 1 to 3 p.m., and children can make holiday cards for sailors on the USS Franklin and Eleanor Roosevelt beginning at 12 noon. Refreshments will be served throughout the afternoon.
At the Home of FDR National Historic Site, there will be readings from Dickens’ A Christmas Carol; and visitors to the Roosevelt Library will get a chance to see the current exhibition, “Our Plain Duty: FDR and America’s Social Security,” free of charge. Both the Library and Home will be decorated for the holidays as they were during the Roosevelt presidency.
Meanwhile, at Val-Kill, refreshments and music will be provided by the Roosevelt-Vanderbilt Historical Association. Visitors will be required to take a shuttle from the Wallace Center, as there will be no onsite parking at Val-Kill on December 11 from 4 to 7 p.m. Parking at the sites is limited and attendees are encouraged to carpool when possible. Normal entry fees will apply at Val-Kill prior to 4 p.m.
The Franklin D. Roosevelt Presidential Library & Museum is located at 4079 Albany Post Road (Route 9) in Hyde Park. If you have questions about the event or need to request an accommodation for a program, such as a sign language interpreter, please contact Cliff Laube at (845) 486-7745 or e-mail firstname.lastname@example.org. Visit www.fdrlibrary.marist.edu for additional information.