Hooked on Hoover's Shenandoah Retreat

By Tim Warren
Washington Post Staff Writer
Wednesday, July 16, 2008

To capture the essence of Rapidan Camp, the summer home of President Herbert Hoover in what is now Virginia's Shenandoah National Park, stand on the back deck of his cabin and just listen.

Hear the breezes rustle through the thick forest, the gentle sounds of mountain streams. Hoover and his wife chose the site, at the confluence of the Mill Prong and Laurel Prong, partly because it afforded excellent trout fishing, which the president loved, but also because of its ambiance.

As Lou Henry Hoover wrote to a friend in January 1929, shortly before becoming first lady: "My husband's idea was to have a camp down on one of the tree-covered flats beside a stream or at the junction between two streams. He likes to be near enough to hear the water murmuring."

Almost 80 years later, a visitor to Rapidan Camp can do just that. You don't have to be grappling with the onerous demands of the Depression to appreciate the camp's soothing qualities. And you gain a greater appreciation of the man who created his own Shangri-La in the middle of what was then primitive mountain land.

Rapidan Camp was built in 1929 on 164 acres that the Hoovers bought themselves. (Congress allotted money for the buildings.) Hoover hoped it would be the summer White House for years to come, but Franklin D. Roosevelt, who defeated Hoover in the 1932 election, hated the place, and it was Roosevelt's own retreat in Maryland's Catoctin Mountains that became what's now called Camp David. Rapidan Camp fell into disrepair decades after Hoover left office; the Park Service restored three of its buildings a few years ago.

Today, Rapidan Camp is easily accessed via a couple of hiking trails. You can also take advantage of free daily tours, which I did on a recent Friday.

Twelve of us hopped onto a shuttle bus at the Harry C. Byrd Visitor Center, near the Big Meadows lodge in the center of Shenandoah National Park, for the 1:30 p.m. tour. Our driver and guide was Holly, a park ranger with an acerbic sense of humor. She told us the outing would last about three hours, then, deadpan, challenged us: "You're not going to say anything about a three-hour tour, are you? And I don't want to hear about finding a shortwave radio made out of a coconut."

Holly began by asking what we knew about Hoover, other than the common perception that he fiddled while the country was mired in the Depression.

Someone offered, hesitantly, "The vacuum cleaners?" No, Holly corrected gently, not the vacuum cleaners. But did I detect something of a smirk?

On the slow, bumpy ride down to the camp, Holly filled us in on Hoover's history. Before becoming president, he had been a mining engineer, then a humanitarian who gained worldwide appreciation for his efforts after World War I to feed a starving continent. "In Europe, he was loved," she told us. "Just loved."

Hoover, however, hated the media and dictated that they be kept at least seven miles from the camp. Reporters rewarded him with plenty of the-president-had-another-good-day-fishing-while-the-world's-going-to-hell stories.

Holly said the Hoovers had three criteria in choosing their site. It needed to be three hours or less from Washington by car. Second, it had to have great trout fishing. Hoover, after all, had once written: "The blessings of fishing include . . . discipline in the equality of men, meekness and inspiration before the works of nature." (Did the river run through him or what?)

The third criterion was an elevation of at least 2,500 feet, supposedly too cool for mosquitoes to thrive in the summertime. Wishful thinking on that count, Mr. President, but two out of three isn't bad.

After about a 20-minute drive, Holly pulled over near a bridge, and we began the short walk to Rapidan Camp. She pointed out where the Cabinet Camp was built in 1930 to lodge members of Hoover's administration.

Although Rapidan Camp was initially perceived as Hoover's retreat, the president saw it also as a workplace, a place to mend the soul and do the nation's business. Still, you couldn't help wonder how many Secretaries of Whatever had sullenly made the trip from Washington, dreading the bugs and the rusticity and the isolation -- the sheer inconvenience of it all.

Yet Lou Henry Hoover loved it. A Stanford graduate in geology, she had often traveled with her husband to Western mining camps, and she shared his love of the outdoors. She was intimately involved in the camp's planning and building, even the landscaping.

In all, Camp Rapidan encompassed 13 buildings, including a mess hall, a town hall and the three restored structures: the President's Cabin (also known as the Brown House), the Prime Minister's Cabin (where Ramsay MacDonald of Britain had stayed, thus the name) and Creel Cabin, where Hoover's personal secretary and physician stayed.

Hoover stressed informality. At the mess hall, spouses could not sit with each other, in order to encourage a general sociability, and shop talk was forbidden. Visitors such as Charles A. Lindbergh entertained themselves by playing horseshoes or doing puzzles.

A tour of the remaining buildings reveals a rough-hewn effect, thanks to thick beams and huge stones. The camp was built by 500 Marines quartered nearby, so it is high on functionality and low on charm. Of the President's Cabin, Holly told us, "Some people said it looked like it was made in a ninth-grade woodworking class."

But it was just what Hoover wanted: a place to fish, commune with the natural world, even negotiate treaties, as he did with MacDonald. As we walked back to the shuttle bus, an observation from Joel T. Boone, Hoover's physician, came to mind:

"I never saw him happier than when he was on the Rapidan. He could hardly wait to leave the car. He would go put on his rubber boots and hurry out to fish, seldom taking time to change from whatever he had been wearing -- often a suit, high white collar and tie, and Panama hat."

The BlackBerry crowd might never understand Rapidan Camp, and indeed there seems to have been a certain forced bonhomie that bordered on the pushy.

On the other hand, Hoover had a personal trout pool built just outside his bedroom window. So I'm going with the president on this one.

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