Last updated: November 11, 2017
- Madison County, Virginia
- Summer Retreat of President Herbert Hoover
- National Park
- OPEN TO PUBLIC:
Herbert Hoover, the 31st president of the United States, bought the land for his summer weekend retreat in 1929, during the first peaceful days of his administration. The camp provided Hoover and his wife much needed rest and recreation during the later difficult years, after the stock market crash in October 1929 signaled the beginning of the worst depression the nation had ever known. Secluded among the hemlocks on the eastern slope of the Blue Ridge Mountains in Virginia, the 164-acre property was on the site where two small streams merged to form the Rapidan River. The 13 rustic cabins that made up the compound were nestled into a natural mountain setting enhanced by rock gardens, waterfalls, and other stone structures. Here the Hoovers entertained family members, friends, Cabinet officers, and politicians for relaxing weekends of hiking, horseback riding, fishing, and conversation. Hoover also used the camp as an informal setting for planning sessions with his Cabinet and for private meetings with representatives of foreign governments. White House physician, Joel Boone, recalled that the Rapidan Camp was “one of the most relaxing places that I have ever known.”
After World War I, the work of being president expanded dramatically and extended summer vacations away from Washington, DC became impossible. President Calvin Coolidge recommended that the government provide a “Summer White House” not too far away, where chief executives could spend the weekends in a relaxed and informal atmosphere. The Hoovers visited Virginia in mid-January 1929 and settled on the Rapidan site by April. It was a three to three-and-one-half-hour drive from the city; the fresh mountain air was a pleasant relief from Washington’s heat and humidity; and the river offered excellent fishing, one of Hoover’s favorite pastimes. The Hoovers paid for the land and the building supplies for the camp. They originally brought some of the furnishings from the former presidential yacht to the camp and then augmented with their own purchases.
Against Hoover's initial thoughts, he allowed the Marines to build the camp as part of their training regimen. The Hoovers kept meticulous detail of their expenditures because there was negative press about the government paying for his summer retreat. There was constant building and many changes during the four year period that the Hoovers occupied the camp. The Federal Government did not own the camp or anything in it until the final condemnation proceedings were settled to establish Shenandoah National Park. Hoover donated the camp by not taking money for its value. In a letter Herbert Hoover asked that future presidents be allowed to use the camp as a summer White House. They bought the land with the understanding that it would eventually become part of Shenandoah National Park, which was then in the planning stage. The Hoovers owned the land and their own personal furnishings; the buildings, roads, and utilities, which the Marine Corps constructed between 1929 and 1932, belonged to the Federal Government. The Marine engineer in charge later said that building this camp on its rocky, forested site was one of the hardest jobs of his 25-year career.
Rapidan Camp was the first complex specifically designed as a presidential retreat. It eventually consisted of 13 buildings connected by a network of paths and stone or wood bridges designed to blend with the natural landscape. Lou Henry Hoover hired the architect and told him exactly what she wanted. The buildings consisted of sleeping cabins for guests and servants, public spaces, and workspaces. The centerpiece was the “The Brown House” (facetiously compared with Hoover’s other, “White” house) or “President’s” cabin, located where Mill Prong and Laurel Prong joined to form the Rapidan. The buildings were simple one-story, gable-roofed, brown-stained frame cabins with many windows, usually consisting only of bedrooms, bathrooms, and porches. According to signs posted in the cabins, the “Town Hall” was the “the place of general meeting for anything from Executive Committee Meeting to ping pong and knitting.” Guests ate hearty country breakfasts and dinners at the “Mess Hall;” lunches often took place outside. Workspaces included the Secret Service “Duty Station” cabin and “The Slums,” which was, in fact, a perfectly comfortable cabin housing Lou Henry Hoover’s secretaries. Dormitories for the mess servants were across the main access road. Separate compounds for the Marines who operated and maintained the camp and for visiting Cabinet members were within walking distance.
The camp served as a much-needed retreat for the president during the tumultuous first years of the Great Depression. White House Physician Boone felt that Rapidan Camp played an important role in maintaining Hoover’s health. He recalled that, "The president could recuperate from fatigue faster than anybody I have ever known. As he had tremendous powers of concentration, he had tremendous power of relaxation once he surrendered himself to taking periods to relax and rest mentally and physically."
The Hoovers were very social and rarely came to Rapidan Camp alone. The guest-register reads like a "Who's Who" of the era, including such notables as Charles and Anne Morrow Lindbergh, Mrs. Thomas A. Edison, the Edsel Fords, Henry Luce, and Mr. and Mrs. Theodore Roosevelt, Jr. According to humorist Will Rogers, Lindbergh was one of the guests Hoover recruited to build dams along Mill Prong to form pools for trout.
Rapidan Camp also served as a site for meetings where Hoover and his associates could discuss national and international policy with few interruptions. It was never cut off from public business. There were telephones in the Secret Service “Duty Office” and in the president’s cabin. Every day an airplane dropped mail and the daily newspapers at the Marine Compound; Hoover got his papers while he was still in bed. In October 1929, British Prime Minister Ramsay MacDonald and his daughter spent a week at Rapidan Camp. During their stay, Hoover and MacDonald held private discussions in preparation for a conference on limiting naval armaments to take place in London the following year. A persistent, if probably apocryphal story tells that they dismantled the navies of the world while perched at opposite ends of a fallen tree trunk. The tree trunk has never been located. During the summer of 1931, as he worked on a balanced Federal budget, Herbert Hoover summoned four of his department heads, one by one, to a series of weekend meetings at the camp. Members of the press, whose relationship with Hoover was generally hostile, were not welcome.
The Hoovers donated Rapidan Camp to the Commonwealth of Virginia in 1932 for use as a summer retreat for subsequent presidents; in December 1935, it officially became part of Shenandoah National Park. President Franklin D. Roosevelt visited the camp, but did not stay there because its rugged terrain was too difficult for him to navigate. He eventually established his own retreat at what is now Camp David in the Catoctin Mountains in Maryland. The Boy Scouts of America leased Rapidan Camp from 1948 through 1958. The National Park Service tore down all but three of the buildings in 1959. The last president to use the camp was Jimmy Carter in the late 1970s.
Three of Rapidan Camp's original buildings still stand: "The Brown House;" "The Prime Minister," cabin where Ramsey MacDonald stayed; and "The Creel." Many of the trails, man-made bridges, fountains, trout pools, and other landscape features also survive. Markers indicate the locations of buildings that no longer exist. The National Park Service restored the exteriors of "The Brown House" and "The Prime Minister" cabin to their appearance in 1932. The restored interior of "The Brown House" and the museum inside "The Prime Minister" cabin are open during ranger-led tours.