Crickets are chirping in Washington during August's annual summer exodus. Supreme Court justices have scattered, offices are empty on Capitol Hill, and President Trump has vacated to both his New Jersey luxury golf resort and his Trump Tower penthouse. It was never expected he'd spend this month at Camp David, a place he once called interesting for "about 30 minutes."
Every president since Franklin Delano Roosevelt has visited the presidential retreat tucked away on Maryland's Catoctin Mountain. Yet 13 years before Camp David was created, another presidential property was built in Virginia's Shenandoah Valley.
This is the story of Camp Hoover.
President Herbert Hoover is remembered for the extraordinarily bad luck of having the Great Depression start on his watch, the kind of thing that looks terrible on a presidential resume. But when he entered office in 1929 he was quite popular. The first president born and raised west of the Mississippi, Hoover had spent years living in mining camps as an engineer. The outdoors appealed to this most buttoned-down of presidents.
Shortly after Hoover moved into the White House, he found the perfect location for escaping it: an ideal getaway at the Rapidan River's headwaters atop Doubletop Mountain. Nearby Mill Prong and Laurel Prong streams offered ideal fishing. (Hoover was an avid angler, though also the kind of guy who fished while wearing a coat and tie.)
Virginians offered the land for free. But Hoover wouldn't hear of it. He insisted on personally paying the prevailing $5 an acre for 164 pristine acres, plus another $22,719 for materials. Marines provided free labor by labeling the construction project a "military exercise." They built 13 buildings including cabins, two mess halls, a lodge, a meeting place and Hoover's residence called the Brown House (to distinguish it from the White House). There were hiking trails, there was a miniature golf course, and there were trout pools where it was said the fish were so tame "they drift slowly out into the open to look you over."
Hoover decommissioned the presidential yacht Mayflower and reassigned its mess crew and china to the camp to save money. Its official name was Rapidan Camp. But everybody called it Camp Hoover.
It was so rustic, mail was delivered by dropping it from an airplane!
That didn't stop the era's Who's Who from trekking there, including Thomas Edison, Edsel Ford, Gov. Theodore Roosevelt, Jr., Winston Churchill and even then-British Prime Minister Ramsay MacDonald. In a move foreshadowing Camp David's later role as a place for delicate diplomatic negotiations, Hoover offered to cancel Britain's World War I debt in exchange for the United States buying Bermuda, Trinidad, and British Honduras. (MacDonald's reply: "Thanks, but no thanks.")
In August 1929, Hoover's doctor met a mountain boy while hiking through nearby woods. They struck up a conversation. The doctor was horrified to discover that neither the child nor his eight brothers and sisters had ever attended school, because there wasn't one nearby. The boy and some friends rode horses into Camp Hoover a few days later and gave the president a live possum as a birthday gift. (Anne Morrow Lindbergh, visiting with husband Charles, was amused to learn the kids had never heard of the world-famous aviator.) Hoover was touched and personally funded a small school for local poor children.
Camp Hoover's glory days didn't last long. Defeated for re-election in 1932, Hoover gave the camp to the government. Franklin Roosevelt visited in 1933 but didn't like it — the trails couldn't handle his wheelchair, and the water was too cold for swimming.
The Boy Scouts used the place from 1946 until the early 1960s. By then, many of its cabins had rotted.
Still, VIPs kept coming. Jimmy Carter was the first president since Roosevelt to visit; when Vice President Walter Mondale was trapped there in a snowstorm, the Secret Service needed chainsaws to get him out. Vice President Al Gore also dropped by during his tenure.
The National Park Service restored the three remaining cabins (including the Brown House) in 2004 and renamed them Rapidan Camp. You can visit it today, either by hiking on foot or riding by van from a nearby visitor center.
Those who do relive a forgotten piece of presidential history in the same surroundings Herbert and Lou Hoover enjoyed nearly 90 years earlier.
J. Mark Powell (@JMarkPowell) is a contributor to the Washington Examiner's Beltway Confidential blog. He is a former broadcast journalist and government communicator. His weekly offbeat look at our forgotten past, "Holy Cow! History," can be read at jmarkpowell.com.
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