Mrs. Franklin Roosevelt of New York Builds a Workshop to Glorify an Ideal

Craftsman Magazine 1932

One day, six years go, the life story of a great woman began to carve itself in wood.  Mrs. Franklin Delano Roosevelt passing through the small community of Hyde Park, New York,  in late October was impressed with the care-free idleness of lank farmer boys loafing on the Post office steps.  Inquiring of the passing constable she learned, “oh, harvestin’s done.  Nothin’ now till Spring sowin’.”

Hyde Park was a rural section with arming its chief concern, and therefore its citizenry saw nothing unusual in the construction of a new road through one of the meadows some few weeks later.  It was not until a cottage and a two story workshop had been erected and young boys of varying ages and dimensions invited to Val-kill to learn the art of craftsmanship, that a stir rustling the countryside cleared off the Post Office steps.  Boys were wanted!  All-year-round jobs were offered!  Mrs. Roosevelt had established a community workshop where the manual arts---with woodworking in highest favor---could be learned.

Boys, to learn woodworking, must have instructors.  For that purpose expert craftsmen were employed.  But Mrs. Roosevelt did not stop there.  Her primary purpose accomplished, she went further in deciding to market the furniture her shop produced.

While her courageous ideal in fostering this group of woodworkers was to direct the youth of this community into a craft, she foresaw its practical application and prepared to make furniture of such artistic beauty and fine workmanship, it would have a market value and be treasured for generations to come.  With romance of this ideal in her heart, she found an art to translate it and, with business acumen, a public to buy it.

Mrs. Roosevelt made Val-kill all the more significant when she chose to reproduce a definite style and period of furniture.  Wisely, because of the timely interest in American antiques, she picked Early American.

In the workshop at Val-kill power tools were installed and master craftsmen employed.  While a complete set of machines was set up for general use of the shop, each expert had another set comprising a lathe, bench saw, and planer for his own use, installed on his own bench.  The expert and his individual set of tools are as inseparable as the doctor and his instruments.  Tools to him are sacred things.  Now and then “Tool Day” is formally declared and the machines are cleansed and made ready for another two or three weeks.  At first the boy apprentices admitted to regular duty and placed on the weekly pay roll, were little more than sightseers.  They strode about gazing in awe at the miracles of lathe and band saw.  But they enjoyed spending their hours in what seemed at first to be a mechanical zoo, and in time one boy showed a preference for lathe work, another for finishing, still another took to carving and his enthusiasm and aptitude for the work prompted him to go further, study design in New York city.  Today he is an expert.

Associated with Mrs. Roosevelt at Val-kill is Miss Nancy Cook, furniture designer, draftsman, and general manager.  Upon her rested the responsibility of being at once, studious and creative, and keeping her eye on what the public will buy.  Armed with pencil and paper she visited many museums, exhibits, private homes finding rare pieces, sketching rough notes and dimensions here and there.  After such a tour, she returned to her office in a New York skyscraper on Madison avenue, swept her enormous desk clear and went to work making full size drawings for dozens of projects.  With a sharp eye for utility, Miss Cook selects pieces that can be adapted to practical present-day sues, rather than furniture of the ornamental variety  With her own drawings, to full scale, under her arm she sets out for Hyde Park.  But long before she crosses the meadow approaching Val-kill, she has decided which one of her craftsmen gets to do the job.  If the piece in the making is a desk, Miss Cook assigns the work to the craftsman who does that type of construction with the greatest skill.

Once the drawing is presented to the chosen craftsman, the responsibility of handing every operation is his.  From selecting the most suitable pieces of kiln-dried wood in the cellar of the shop to polishing down the last coat of wax or varnish, the piece never leaves his hands.  There are no specialists for each operation, for mass production is not used at Val-kill.

Somewhere on each completed piece of furniture turned out, carefull inspection will reveal to you, the name of “Karl,” “Otto,” or “Frank,” or perhaps the first name of some of the other members of the group.  Its only trademark is the name of the man who built it.  And “trademarking” is done with pride and calls for ceremony at Val-kill.

Arriving on the scene with a new design, Miss Cook dons her work smock and gets the spirit of a true craftsman, helping out here and there, and, unable to resist the urge of every true craftsman, in watching the turning of a table leg, gets the urge to have the feel of holding the chisel.  Miss Cook’s versatile abilities urge her on to help the next man at his carving on a dining-room service table.  Later she lends a hand in the finishing of a table top---where the photographer caught up with her and took the accompanying view.  Meanwhile Mrs. Roosevelt is directing work in the shop and inspecting a ladder-back chair that is being shellacked.

In speaking of the manner in which her furniture is built, she said, “by it, your great-great grandchildren will still remember you, whereas much modern furniture will not last a decade.”

If it is built properly, declared Mrs. Roosevelt, a piece of furniture will last indefinitely, perhaps hundreds of years.  While much furniture will loosen at the joints, warp out of shape and even split Val-kill furniture is built to escape the ordinary fates.  Ask a Val-kill craftsman why his furniture will last, and he’ll point a proud finger to the mortise and tenon joint he is fitting in the rungs of a ladder-back chair, or in the cross bars under a table.

Dovetailing is also in high favor among these woodworking artists.  The desk I sat by in listening to Mrs. Roosevelt tell the story of Hyde Park, had concealed dovetail joints.  Wood warps.  Every professional, every amateur knows it, but few can do much t prevent it.  After experiment these craftsmen found a way to keep the drop leaves of a seven foot diameter table from warping.  Underneath the leaf and across the grain a strip of wood acting as a slip-joint batten is fitted and glued only at one end to hold it in place and yet allow for natural expansion and contraction of the wood.

Some of the products of her shop, Mrs. Roosevelt has succeeded in placing on display at museums in New York City.  Recently she has shipped furniture to Czechoslovakia and Hawaii.

Mrs. Roosevelt is not the only woodworking fan in her family.  Her husband, Governor Franklin Delano Roosevelt, follows it as his hobby to give him relaxation from his strenuous days in the state house at Albany, New York.  His hobby, however, takes a different path.  Perhaps because he feels there is enough furniture in the family now, or more likely because of his boyhood fondness for boats, in his leisure hours you may find him with infinite patience whittling and carving out model boats.

Legends are not built in a day.  Mrs. Roosevelt has much work before her in building up the legend of Early America.  I wish every craftsman who reads this story could have sat across that secretary desk where I did and heard this great woman speak of her plans for the future, how she hopes to immortalize the legend of America, not as we see it in the records of Congress, not as it stands in the monuments on our landscapes, not as our historians put it in books, but more vividly, much closer as we see it in the works of the craftsmen of the earlier day, in the things they made with their hands to use in places they lived.  Mrs. Roosevelt is already making replicas of furniture, and in the future we may see her leading groups of craftsmen in the fields of wrought metal, cloth, and basket weaving, and perhaps pottery baking.