Herbert Hoover once complained that Americans allow their president privacy only to fish or pray. This weekend the public can inspect the Blue Ridge Mountians retreat where Hoover did plenty of the former and probably some of the latter during his troubled administration. History has it that Hoover stayed the weekend here before the cataclysmic 1929 stock market crash, spending most of his time on the telephone.
Camp Hoover, originally Camp Rapidan, is a rustic collection of cabins on a forested mountianside near the headquarters of the Rapidan River in Shenandoah National Park. Hikers can visit the campsite, about a hundred miles from Washington, anytime. But the cabins are reserved for government VIP's except during the park service's yearly "Hoover Days," commemorating the 31st president's August 10 birthday.
This weekend, the National Park Service will run buses every half-hour to the lodge from Byrd Visitor Center at Big Meadows (Milepost 51 on Skyline Drive) from 9:30 to 4:30 Saturday and from 9:30 to 2:30 Sunday. Hardier visitors can take one of three guided hikes beginning at 9 and 1 on Saturday and at 1 on Sunday, returning by bus if the five-mile round-trip trek proves too strenuous. Visitors can wade in streams where this first engineer-president practiced a favorite pastime -- building rockpile dams to make trout fishing pools -- or walk the trails where Herbert and his wife Lou strolled hand-in-hand.
For serious Hoover students there are photo displays of the camp in its original state, with its rough log cabins, plain wood furniture, Indian rugs, and huge fireplaces that were the only source of heat. f
Hoover paid for the 12 original cabins, built by Marine Corps labor in 1929.For nearly 40 years, it was virtually unused, except in the '50s when it was a camp where Boy Scouts learned to ride burros. Partly restored in the '70s, it became a favorite hideaway of Nixon White House aides. Jimmy and Rosalynn Carter spent a weekend at the camp last year, at the suggestion of the Mondales, who had used it.
On leaving the White House, Hoover donated the camp for his successor's use, but FDR found it inaccessible for his wheelchair and ordered another built in the Catoctin Mountains of Maryland. His Shangri-La became Camp David.
Park service "interperters" will liven up the tours with ancedotes and history of the camp where Hoover sometimes conducted and at other times escaped the affiars of state.
A favorite story is that of the "possum boy," who belonged to one of the poor mountain families. One day the boy brought Hoover some of his game and they got to talking about schools, which were poor in the backwoods. The outcome was that the president had one built there, with the communitie's help. A Miss Christine Vest became its first and only teacher. She later married a Marine from the tent camp which guarded the president, and was known to dine with the first family.
The austere lodge has no playgrounds or picnic tables, but nature-lovers may get to see some of the four types of squirrels, two kinds of skunks, foxes, bear, deer and wild turkey that were hunted out or chased away in Hoover's time but now are extremely plentiful, according to a park spokesman.
For a closer look at Hoover, there's an autographed copy of fishing for Fun (and to Wash Your Soul ) on display at the camp. Published after his presidency, it offers Hoover homilies on fishing: "Lots of people committed crimes during the year who would not have done so if they had been fishing," or "Fishing reduces the ego of Presidents and Former Presidents, for at fishing most men are not equal to boys."
More detail on the historic hideaways can be found in Herbert Hoover's Hideaway , by Dawn Lambert; it's a paperback that can be purchased at Byrd Visitors Center.