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FDR's "beloved island'

The family called it the "cottage," but the 2{-story, 34-room building would strike most people as a mansion. Then again, when Franklin and Eleanor Roosevelt stayed here, it had neither electricity nor running water.

Still, this was Roosevelt's "beloved island." It was where he spent his childhood summers, courted his future wife, vacationed with family _ and where he was first struck down by the polio that shaped the rest of his life.

Compared to other, more dramatic nearby islands, which are edged with towering cliffs or peaked with rugged mountains, Campobello's beauty is modest. But if spirit and history contribute to the appeal of a place, then Campobello has appeal to spare.

Consider: The island was ruled as a private feudal estate from 1770 until the late 19th century by a dynasty of Welsh seamen. And it was the target of a foiled raid.

Just across the international border that separates Canada from Maine, Campobello is 9 miles long and only 3 miles across at its widest. It is the largest and outermost of the cluster of small islands spilling into the Bay of Fundy from Passamaquoddy Bay.

Campobello is separated from the coast of Maine and Lubec, the easternmost community in the United States, by a narrow tidal rip that was bridged in 1962. Not surprisingly, its ownership was in dispute until a boundary treaty in 1840.

Even today, the island's 1,400 residents are more conveniently connected by road to the U.S. mainland than they are by seasonal ferries to the rest of Canada. Many islanders are dual citizens, having been born in Maine hospitals. Most real-estate prices are listed in U.S. dollars, and most summer visitors are Americans.

In July and August, ferry service links Campobello to Deer Island and then to Back Bay south of St. George on New Brunswick's mainland. During the rest of the year, visiting the island means a 60-mile drive from St. Stephen through Maine to Lubec, crossing the Roosevelt Memorial Bridge and hopscotching back into another time zone.

Almost immediately after crossing the bridge, visitors come to the 2,800-acre Roosevelt Campobello International Park, the island's major attraction and the world's first international park. An agreement to establish the park and share equally in its financing was signed in 1964 by Prime Minister Lester Pearson and President Lyndon Johnson.

The Dutch-colonial Roosevelt home, trimmed in green and superbly restored, forms the centerpiece of the park.

"Campobello," as the cottage itself was known, had been the site of Roosevelt family gatherings since 1909. While Franklin and Eleanor may have traveled with an entourage of helpers, there is a homely simplicity to the place, reflecting the unpretentious pleasures the family enjoyed at their refuge.

There was no electricity or telephones; kerosene lamps and candles were used throughout the house. Seven fireplaces and the kitchen stove provided the heat. Running water for bathing, cooking and cleaning was gravity-fed from storage tanks filled with a windmill or a single-cylinder gas engine.

The design of the original house was altered in 1915 when Franklin had a large wing added to provide more space for his growing family. At that point the cottage had 18 bedrooms and six baths.

In August 1921 while at the cottage, the 39-year-old FDR ran a high fever and his legs grew weak. "My left leg lagged," he later recalled. "Presently it refused to work, and then the other."

He had contracted infantile paralysis (what we now call polio), a recurring epidemic throughout the first half of the 20th century. It was an infectious, viral disease. After five weeks of almost total immobility, FDR was carried off the island on a stretcher.

Until that summer, the cottage and the island had become as much a part of the lives of the family he and Eleanor were rearing as it had been for Franklin's own youth. Their son FDR Jr. was born here. After FDR's paralysis, Eleanor and the five children continued to visit the island during the summers, but FDR preferred convalescence elsewhere.

Finally he made a brief return, staying overnight in 1933, then again in 1937 and 1939 for short day visits. But as president, he preferred to stay aboard a Navy ship anchored off shore.

Nowadays, the park's visitor center has displays, photographs and mementos of the Roosevelt years on the island. A 15-minute video, Beloved Island, provides for a better appreciation of the Roosevelt place. One room serves as a small museum that details the structure and life on the island. Guides are on hand to provide interpretation and answer questions.

Within the cottage itself are traces of the family in every room. There are period furnishings _ most items in the living and dining rooms are original Roosevelt _ lace curtains at the 76 windows that brightened the interior, wicker furniture, framed pictures on the mantles, rugs on the hardwood floors, a real workhorse-type kitchen and a laundry room.

Along the back of the house are open and screened porches, along with a deck and covered porch on the second floor. The third floor has guest bedrooms, servants' quarters and a full bath.

Visitors can buy a videotape of the 1960 movie Sunrise at Campobello, filmed on location at the cottage. Ralph Bellamy and Greer Garson play Franklin and Eleanor, and Garson picked up an Oscar nomination for Best Actress.

But the island itself had centuries of history before the Roosevelts arrived. There's no better place to immerse yourself in it than at Owen House. Now owned by painter Joyce Morrell, it is operated as a country inn and art gallery in the summer.

In 1767, Capt. William Owen, a Welshman, acquired title to the island through a royal grant obtained through the efforts of Lord William Campbell, governor of Nova Scotia. When Owen took possession in 1770, he named his small empire Campo Bello, a whimsical nod to his patron. Campobello would remain a feudal estate in the hands of the Owen family until the late 19th century.

Owen House was built in 1835 by Adm. William Fitzwilliam Owen, son of the original "principal proprietary." The Morrell family purchased it and its 10 acres of land in the 1950s.

It is difficult today to imagine the absolute control the Owen family exercised over the island for more than a century. They performed marriages, preached sermons in the church they built and were inclined to regard the island's militiamen as their private army.

In spring 1866, a group of armed Irish-Americans converged on Eastport, Maine _ just across the water from Owen House _ determined to sail over and seize Campobello as a way to harass the British. The supposedly secret invasion fizzled, betrayed by informants so far in advance that the Royal Navy had time to send warships to the scene from as far away as Malta.

After John James Robinson-Owen, the fourth and last principal proprietary died in 1874, his widow sold the family holdings to a group of American investors, who turned Campobello into the Victorian-era summer resort that would attract families such as the Roosevelts.

Until the second decade of the 20th century, the island was the site of great resort hotels (long ago closed) and large elegant cottages built by the wealthy. Today it is heavily populated in the summer by tourists.

Tom and Joanne O'Toole are freelance writers who live in northeast Ohio. Information from the Toronto Globe and Mail was used in this report.

If you go

GETTING THERE: Visitors can reach the island via the FDR International Bridge from Lubec, Maine, or by passenger-ferry services.

SEEING THE SIGHTS: The cottage and the visitors center open the last Saturday every May, and remain open daily for 20 weeks. Hours are 10 a.m. to 6 p.m. There is no admission charge. The grounds and the natural areas are open year round.

Near the cottage are pleasant walkways alongside attractive gardens, wooded paths and an array of flower beds. On a clear day the views from the back of the house are beautiful. Campobello lies on the Atlantic flyway and is a stopover for thousands of shore birds and other migratory birds.

FOR MORE INFORMATION: Contact the Roosevelt Campobello International Park Commission at 459 Route 774, Welshpool, Campobello Island, New Brunswick, Canada E53 1A4. Or write to the commission at P.O. Box 129, Lubec, ME 04652. The Web site is www.fdr.net.

To reach the Campobello Island Tourism Association, call (506) 752-2529 or go to www.campobello.com.

For the Owen House Country Inn, call (506) 752-2977 for reservations; e-mail jjowenhouse.ca; www.owenhouse.ca.

For a map and loads of information on sightseeing in this part of Canada, contact New Brunswick Tourism, P.O. Box 6000, Fredericton, New Brunswick, Canada E3B 5H1. Call (506) 457-4974.

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