"Presidents have only two moments of personal seclusion. One is prayer; the other is fishing -- and they cannot pray all the time!" -- Herbert Hoover
ROOSEVELT ESCAPED to Shangri-La, as did Eisenhower, who renamed it Camp David after his grandson. Kennedy retreated to Hyannisport, LBJ returned home to his ranch on the Pedernales and Bush has his Kennebunkport. But Herbert Hoover was the first president to conceive of a permanent retreat, establishing in 1929 a fishing camp on the Rapidan River in the Virginia Blue Ridge Mountains.
When he left office four years later, Hoover turned over his 164-acre "summer White House" in Madison County to the newly created Shenandoah National Park with the stipulation that the camp be held available for "my successors." FDR visited the Rapidan camp, but established his retreat in Maryland, where the river was warmer and the terrain less rough. President Carter was the only other president to visit there, spending three days with his family in 1979. Once a year, on the weekend closest to Hoover's Aug. 10th birthday, the Park Service opens the camp and two of the three remaining original buildings to the public.
Set amid the shade of ancient hemlocks and the soothing ripple of two mountain streams, rustic Camp Hoover is now available to Cabinet members, U.S. Supreme Court justices, members of Congress and top White House aides. Justice Sandra Day O'Connor was a guest in June, and the Hoover family held a reunion there in May.
As recounted in Darwin Lambert's book, "Herbert Hoover's Hideaway," shortly after Hoover's election in November 1928, the president asked trusted aide Lawrence Richey to locate a weekend getaway. Hoover stipulated three requirements: The summer camp had to be on a trout stream, within 100 miles of Washington and at an elevation of 2,500 feet or more to minimize mosquitoes. Of course, it had to offer relief from the capital's summer swelter.
William E. Carson, chairman of the Virginia State Conservation and Development Commission, suggested the Madison County site. Carson secured fishing rights along the Rapidan, persuaded Virginia and Madison County to build a 6.7-mile road to the camp and made arrangements for the installation of power and telephone lines. Hoover approved of the site in March 1929, declining both an offer from Virginia to fund a luxurious presidential lodge and a congressional appropriation of $48,000 for a summer retreat.
Total cost for the land and building materials -- all purchased by Hoover -- was about $100,000. That included 13 rustic buildings built by U.S. Marines using pine boards and featuring exposed rafters and massive stone fireplaces. The Marines, who stayed at the site for the president's protection and the camp's maintenance, also made much of the furniture
One of the more legendary stories about Hoover's "summer White House" had nothing to do with any of the visiting dignitaries, such as Charles Lindbergh and British Prime Minister Ramsay MacDonald. In spite of security provided by Marines and Secret Service, on Aug. 10, 1929 -- Hoover's 55th birthday -- a young mountain boy slipped into the camp with an opossum, which he said was a birthday present for the president. Learning that the boy did not go to school because there wasn't one in the area, Hoover set up a fund to build a local school. Opening day of Hoover Mountain School on Feb. 28, 1930, was a media event covered by 35 reporters and photographers.
Hoover usually fished in solitude. "I never saw him happier than when he was on the Rapidan," said Hoover's physician, Joel T. Boone. "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."
Guests frequently joined Mrs. Hoover on her horseback excursions around the camp. First Lady Lou, as she was known, provided guests with a list of camp rules, offering such advice as: "When cold at night, after all blankets and eiders are exhausted, put on your camel's-hair dressing gown, wrap your head in a sweater, and throw your fur coat over everything."
The first Hoover Day, conceived by the local Chamber of Commerce as a way to thank the Hoovers for locating their retreat nearby, was in the town of Madison on Aug. 17, 1929. Local residents prepared 50 washpots of Brunswick stew, and 5,000 tin cups were ordered to serve it in. Virginia Gov. Harry F. Byrd arrived in an Army blimp, the Marine Band played and the president was greeted with a 21-gun salute. Hoover briefly addressed a crowd of "somewhere around 10,000 people" -- about the size of the county's total population then and now. After lunch, the Hoovers opened their camp for the first time to the public.
The National Park Service revived that event in 1974; in 1988, Camp Hoover received National Landmark status, the only site in the park so designated.
Linda Leslie and William J. Choyke live in Madison County within sight of Shenandoah National Park.