President Bush, who headed to Shenandoah National Park today to tout his national park budget for fiscal 2008, isn't the first president to head to the mountain park southwest of Washington, D.C. In fact, it was President Hoover who put the location on the political map with his frequent retreats to a small, woodsy compound first known as Camp Rapidan and later referred to simply as Camp Hoover.
Although he led a high-profile life before being elected president in 1928, Herbert Hoover still felt the heavy "pneumatic hammer of public life" as president. The innate pressures of the office led Hoover in the summer of 1929 to establish his retreat in a shady dell of Virginia's Blue Ridge Mountains that proved to be the forerunner to today's Camp David.
Hoover had three main requisites for what became the first official summer White House: it must be within 100 miles of Washington, stand at least 2,500 feet above sea level, and be on the banks of a trout stream. After all, Hoover told Americans on August 17, 1929, when he announced the decision to head to the Appalachian highlands, fishing is "an excuse for return to the woods and streams with their retouch of the simpler life of the frontier from which every American springs."
But fishing proved only an
occasional pastime at Camp Rapidan, as the retreat came to be known
for its location at the headwaters of the Rapidan
River. The president, who often wore white flannels and a Panama hat
while at the camp, held an arms-control summit there with British Prime Minister Ramsay MacDonald, met with senators and
congressmen, convened Cabinet meetings (separate cabins
for Cabinet members where built down the road from Camp Rapidan),
and held sessions with the day's leading industrialists as he sought
a solution to the Great Depression. But he also found
time to pitch horseshoes with aviator Charles Lindbergh and relax with Thomas Edison.
The 164-acre setting beneath shady hemlocks, oaks and tulip poplars certainly allowed for privacy and solitude. Mrs. Lou Henry Hoover referred to Camp Rapidan, which Hoover built with $120,000 of his own money, as being "at the end of nowhere, with a road that in wet weather lets you sink to your hubs in slushy mush and while there bump over the most amazing bounders."
In addition to erecting 13 buildings, including a dining hall and recreation hall, the Hoovers saw that Camp Rapidan had an artificial stream called Hemlock Run flowing through the property as well as a trout pond, where they would feed bits of beef heart to the fish.
Though Hoover turned the camp over to the federal government when he left office, it never became a permanent summer White House, as President Franklin Delano Roosevelt couldn't negotiate the rough grounds in his wheelchair.
Later, as part of Shenandoah National Park, Camp Rapidan did host some Washington politicians. President Jimmy Carter, First Lady Roselyn Carter, and their daughter Amy stayed there in May 1979 so the president could get in some fishing, and Vice President Al Gore also made at least one visit.
More recently, the National Park Service wrapped up seven years of restoration work intended to show visitors how the camp looked during Hoover's administration. While not all of the original buildings remain, those that do include the Brown House, as President Hoover's cabin was called; the Prime Minister's Cabin, where Ramsay MacDonald stayed, and; the Creel Cabin, where presidential aides stayed.
Along with removing additions later tacked onto the Brown House and the Prime Minister's Cabin, the work involved replacing porches, patching floors, uncovering windows that had been concealed by later additions, replacing gutters, and reconstructing pathways that wound through the property.
Park crews also did a lot of work inside the buildings, and refurbished some of Hoover's original furnishings.