Anyone who has been exposed to the celebrated discomforts of a Washington summer can appreciate the desire of our Presidents to escape its pernicious grip. Once they begin to notice the softening effects of the August sun on asphalt pavements, they come to the conclusion that similar changes may be taking place inside the brain. They do what any prudent person would do in such circumstances. They flee.
Calvin Coolidge, attended by a cadre of grateful White House correspondents, used to sit out the summer months in some cool, agreeable resort area. To lighten their professional burdens, the reporters took turns keeping an eye on the President while their colleagues were left free to fish or play poker and, like their successors in San Clemente, dine out handsomely on capital gossip.
Herbert Hoover in a way formalized presidential leisure. Early in his star-crossed administration, he dispatched two scouts into the wilds of Virginia's Blue Ridge Mountains to search out a secluded spot where he could get away on weekends and do a little fishing. He wanted something cool (it would have to be at least 2,500 feet above sea level) and convenient (not more than 100 miles from Washington). And, for this lifelong angler, there would have to be plenty of good fishing.
The two emissaries found just what the President seemed to have in mind when they made their way up a muddy corkscrew trail to a mountain fastness where two creeks converged to form the headwaters of the Rapidan River. The following June, when the Hoovers set out to have a look at the proposed campsite, they had to abandon their limousine and cover the last eight miles of rugged, pine-covered mountainside on horseback.
June 6, 1971
To the President's delight, the reporters tagging along behind him were sealed off from the mountaintop by the forbidding terrain, with an assist from the Secret Service. For Hoover, one of the chief enticements of having an isolated summer sanctuary was freedom from the press. It pained him to be constantly shadowed by what he regarded as professional peeping toms. Every man, even a President, he liked to point out, had the right to be left alone at certain times.
"Next to prayer," he once said, "fishing is the most personal relationship of man."
Leaving the White House reporters to explore the worldly pleasures of Criglersville, where local moonshiners colored their $2-a-gallon corn liquor with burnt sugar and palmed it off on the press as $5 bourbon, the Hoovers spent the night under a tent near the splashing waters of the Rapidan. Next morning, while her husband went looking for brook trout, Mrs. Hoover gathered wild-flowers, and by the time they headed back for Washington they were drawing up plans for their summer place.
It was ready by August 1929, two months before the stock market crash and in time for the President's 55th birthday. He received an unexpected present from an 11-year-old neighbor, Ray Burraker, who showed up at the camp with a baby possum in a soapbox. The youngster favored the weekend visitors with a song (I Will Meet You Up There in the Morning) and, to their amusement, he said of the 1928 campaign, "My paw was such a bum guesser he had to climb a tall hickory tree after the election." Hoover took a liking to the lad and saw to it that he got a hefty wedge of the birthday cake. The President also managed to slip a $5 bill into the youngster's hand.
A few days later, when Madison County was getting ready to stage a whopping official welcome for the Hoovers (Governor Harry Byrd was coming up from Richmond in an Army blimp), an Associated Press reporter ran into Ray, who said he'd trapped two more possums, for which he hoped to get $5 apiece. Five dollars was quite a windfall in a time and place where the head of a family might go all year without handling as much as $100 in cash. The Hoovers were shocked to find that, like his illiterate parents, Ray had never been to school (and never heard of Colonel Lindbergh), and the President later spent $1,200 of his own money to build a schoolhouse for the community.
"I have discovered why Presidents take to fishing, the silent sport," Hoover told his new neighbors when they crowded into the Madison County Fair Grounds to greet him a week after his birthday party on the Rapidan. "Apparently the only opportunity for refreshment of one's soul and clarification of one's thoughts by solitude to Presidents lies through fishing."
Courtesy is instinctive among Virginia's mountain people. In public they said nothing about the President's fishing. But among themselves, the mountaineers were somewhat taken aback to find that the country's most highly publicized angler, who also happened to be its most influential opponent of federal handouts, fished in rocky pools stocked for his enjoyment by the U.S. Government.
Once word got around Big Stone Mountain that the Bureau of Fisheries was dumping brook trout into the Rapidan on the eve of the President's arrival at his summer camp, his neighbors began grabbing their fishing poles and scurrying downriver to try their luck on the fish that got away from Mr. Hoover and his guests.
Two days before the 1932 trout season was to open in Virginia, more than 500 trout, all about eight inches long, were removed from a New Hampshire fish hatchery and sent south for their rendezvous with destiny. But due to a distressing bureaucratic blunder the fish ended up in the Rose River, near the town of Orange, Va. For days afterward the townspeople gorged on trout intended for the presidential table.
A detachment of marines was stationed at the Rapidan camp to protect the President, especially from members of the press. Desperate for something to send their editors in addition to their expense accounts (how much could anybody be expected to spend in Criglersville?), the White House correspondents fastened on the most trivial bits of news. On one occasion, as the Hoovers were on their way back to the White House after a rainy weekend of tariff talks, a brown cow lumbered out onto the highway in front of the President's car. His chauffeur braked, gave the horn a couple of toots, and the cow meandered off into a clump of trees. Next morning The New York Times used a two-column headline to proclaim:
BROWSING COW DELAYS
HE STARTS SOUTH TONIGHT
FOR FLEET REVIEW.
The Rapidan River camp soon became a household word not just in that provincial corner of the Blue Ridge, but throughout the world. On a fall weekend in 1929 President Hoover and Prime Minister Ramsay MacDonald sat on a log near the river and discussed a proposed reduction in naval armaments. But ordinarily life at the fishing lodge was more humdrum than historic.
"Weekends at the camp on the Rapidan are a dull duty," declared an anonymous gossip of the day, and corroboration appeared in the friendly pages of The New York Times Magazine when a feature writer described a typical weekend at the fishing lodge. After dinner, Mary Hornaday reported, women in semiformal dresses and men in white flannels assembled in front of two separate but equal stone fireplaces in a pine cabin known as "Town Hall."
"Intricate jigsaw puzzles are brought out. One has 1,000 pieces. It takes practically a whole weekend for guests to fit the curlicues into place."
On winter nights when the lodge was closed and its owners a safe three-hour drive away, some Madison County sports used to get together in front of the same two fireplaces. Their leader was a minor local functionary who, having access to the camp, recognized its potentialities as a private club. He and his cronies reveled in the luxury of drinking prescription whiskey, eating barbecued steaks and dealing five-card stud for days at a time, secure in the knowledge that between them and their wives stood a contingent of United States Marines.
"I desire that the camp shall ultimately become the property of the Shenandoah National Park so that at the expiration of my term of office they may hold it for my successors for a weekend camp," President Hoover wrote the head of Virginia's Conservation and Development Commission as he was preparing to leave the White House. The land (164 acres) was appraised at $30,000 and the improvements at about $14,000.
Franklin D. Roosevelt, the first beneficiary of the legacy, was a sailor and a saltwater fisherman rather than a river rapids angler. Having little use for either Herbert Hoover or his trout stream, F.D.R. set up his own weekend retreat in the Maryland hills in the summer of 1942 when it was often difficult for him to get back to Hyde Park. Taking note of the wartime secrecy cloaking his movements, he dubbed the place Shangri-La after the mythical war-free land of Lost Horizon.
President Eisenhower rechristened the Maryland hideaway Camp David in honor of his grandson. Now, three Presidents later, David Eisenhower and his in-laws make good use of the place. According to "informed sources," it was at Camp David that Edward Finch Cox proposed to Tricia Nixon.
Mr. Hoover's gift, meanwhile, gathered dust in the national attic. It was so long neglected that even many White House correspondents had never heard of the place until recently, when high-ranking members of President Nixon's official family stumbled onto it. For a token fee ($2 a day, which includes linen, blankets and towels) they could pack their families off to cool, sequestered pine cabins high in the Blue Ridge Mountains.
On summer weekends, when they hike the winding trails, pitch horseshoes or gather around the stone fireplaces for martinis (the Hoovers served an orange drink), they may be haunted by the shade of the Depression President who, toward the end of his ordeal, was heard to groan, "All the money in the world could not induce me to live over the last nine months." Only in the Virginia hills, when the fish were biting and the heat of summer filtered through the leaves of oaks and maples, had he managed to snatch a few hours of peace and privacy.