Both Herbert and Lou Henry Hoover loved the great outdoors.
The Outdoorsy Hoovers
In the 1880s, when both Herbert and Lou Hoover were children transplanted to Oregon and California respectively, the Wild West was still “wild.”
“Bert,” as he was called by friends, was fully orphaned at ten, and sent to live with relatives. Hard work was always part of his Quaker upbringing, but after schoolwork, household and farm chores, and the extra-cash jobs of childhood, his happiest leisure hours were spent outdoors – fishing. He loved it all his long life.
Lou Henry grew up in a middle class family; her father was a banker. She had one foot in culture, education and town life, the other in the frontier. She rode expertly, could shoot a rifle, build a fire, climb trees, bound over fences and other tomboy activities. Including fishing.
A Presidential Retreat
After World War 1, the presidential plate became more and more complex. Air travel was still in its infancy. Presidential “vacations” for a couple of weeks was becoming difficult.
It was President Calvin Coolidge who suggested that a nearby “retreat” where a President could relax for a few days might be beneficial to his health and well being.
When Herbert Hoover became President in 1928, he had already spent eight years as Secretary of Commerce to both Presidents Harding and Coolidge. He agreed wholeheartedly about the benefits of a nearby getaway – especially since his home was in California. Too far to commute.
Even before his inauguration, he began investigating possible sites within 100 miles of Washington – only a few hours away.
The First Couple…
…found exactly what they were seeking: a rustic area in the Blue Ridge Mountains of western Virginia, at the confluence where two fine streams met to form the Rapidan River. Hoover, a poor boy who had made an enormous fortune as a mining engineer, personally purchased 200 acres at $5/acre. They named it Rapidan Camp – or Camp Rapidan (depending on which source you espouse).
The Marines were assigned to work with Mrs. Hoover to plan, design and erect a dozen cabins to house the Hoovers, their guests, and those staff members who came along for the working-vacations.
Most of the expenses and materials were personally paid by the Hoovers.
The Rustic Compound
The POTUS and Mrs. Hoover had lived in remote mining camps several years earlier, and were not only used to the harsh rugged lifestyle, but enjoyed it. Prior to becoming First Lady, Lou Hoover became active in the Girl Scouts; now she was the national President of the organization. It was not an honorary title; she was its working President. Outdoor living, nature studies and frontier survival skills were dear to her heart – especially for girls!
She knew exactly what was required for the new Presidential compound. The streams were stocked prior to their visits, since fishing in the cool mountain air was mandatory for both Hoovers.
The guest and staff cabins were plain, equipped with little more than a rustic bedroom, bathroom-of-sorts and a porch. No electricity.
A large cabin centered around a cozy lounge and broad fireplace, featured tables and comfortable seating for reading, conversation, and games of all kinds for staff and guests. The basic furniture came from the presidential yacht Mayflower, which had been sold. Some furniture was donated. Some was personally purchased by the Hoovers.
A large central mess hall fed everyone, and employed a chef, kitchen help and waiters. (Domestic and kitchen staff were housed dormitory style in nearby cabins). Fresh catch-of-the-day was likely on every menu!
The Guest List
Herbert and Lou Hoover were both blessed with good health and enormous energy. In their mid-50s, they both put in 12- and sometimes 15-hour days, especially once the economy devolved into The Great Depression.
Thus by 1931, Camp Rapidan became more than just a weekend getaway: it was deemed essential to the President’s health. But while he usually slipped away for a few hours of quiet fishing, most of the trips to Camp were working sessions.
Cabinet members came frequently. Sometimes wives were included. Congressmen and senators, senior officials, presidential secretaries and related staff also came regularly. Girl Scout leaders and executive personnel were invited by Mrs. Hoover for planning sessions. Most of the invitees considered the “invitation” as a fringe benefit of their jobs.
The Marines maintained a small nearby camp of its own to accommodate those assigned to the Presidential staff for security and property maintenance. Telegrams, mail and newspapers were flown in every morning.
While most of the guests were governmental-ish, well known non-government guests were periodically invited, mainly for good companionship.
And if they like to fish, all the better.
The Future of Rapidan Camp
President Hoover donated Rapidan Camp to the state of Virginia at the end of his term. The intention was that it become a permanent Presidential getaway. By then, its beneficial restorative qualities were well established.
Hoover’s successor, Franklin D. Roosevelt visited the Camp early in 1933, but the extremely rugged terrain was not conducive to the special needs of the wheel-chair bound President. A more accessible site was found in the Catoctin Mountains of Maryland, even closer to DC. FDR called in Shangri-La after the peaceful place in James Hilton’s fictional Lost Horizon.
President Truman seldom used it, preferring deep sea fishing in Key West, Florida.
President Eisenhower reactivated Shangri-La for his personal use, but renamed it Camp David, and it has been used by every successive President.
Rapidan Camp lives on as part of the Shenandoah National Park, maintained by the National Park Service. Three of its original buildings are still standing after nearly 90 years.
It is open to the public – and well worth the trip!!
Smith, Richard Norton – An Uncommon Man: The Triumph of Herbert Hoover – Simon and Schuster, 1984