BY DENNIS BRACK
In a general way we don’t know a lot about President Hoover, and what we know is really pretty negative. So visitors to modern to the Shenandoah National Park are told on a small bus steering towards Rapidan Camp, a rustic retreat built by Hoover and his wife, Lou Henry, beginning in 1929. With President Hoover’s cabin in the backdrop, a park visitor from Georgia surveys Mill Prong, one of two primary streams where the president fished for mountain trout.
“He loved to fish, absolutely,” stresses Browne, “and that’s one of the reasons he ended up here in [what is today] Shenandoah National Park. However, beyond that, he’s the ‘Great Depression Guy.’ He was president for four years. He lived to be 90. And so when we look at this in terms of his overall life, his presidency was really a very small part of that. So hopefully today we’ll see a broader picture of Hoover.”
While space is strictly limited, Shenandoah Park visitors with advance reservations can be treated to this one-of-a-kind guided park tour of Hoover’s isolated camp, where three of the 13 original buildings remain standing: The Brown House (where the Hoovers’ bunked), the Prime Minister Cabin, and The Creel. The presidential cabin, restored to its 1929 charm with original and period furniture, is a splendid reflection of the often misunderstood commander-in-chief.
The president’s cabin, known as “The Brown House,” which Mrs. Hoover (below), an outdoors enthusiast, enjoyed visiting as much as her husband. The Hoovers were well liked by local residents and gave back to the community in many ways.
Shortly after his election in 1928, Hoover and his nature-loving wife (Lou Henry ran the Girl Scouts of America, among other great-outdoors interests) sought a weekend escape from the formality of Washington — away from the “pneumatic hammer of constant personal contacts,” as he referred to it — someplace close, but not too close.
They would pay for the property themselves and agreed that at the end of his presidency — either in four or eight years — the couple would donate everything they built at the camp to the U.S. government, with the hope that it would become a retreat for future U.S. presidents. As for choosing the property, Hoover had only three requirements: that it be within 100 or so miles of the White House, above the mosquito line, and have a trout stream.
` The cabin would be built beneath a beautiful canopy of old-growth Eastern Hemlocks on a small bluff overlooking the confluence of Mill Prong and Laurel Prong that form the headwaters of the Rapidan, one of the most renowned trout streams in Virginia. The enthused president even pictured a basin-shaped slab of rock immediately adjacent to the cabin as a holding pond for his captured trout until they could be fried up for supper. The secluded Rapidan Camp quickly took shape. As for the local residents, who with the economic downturn were suffering right along with the rest of America, the creation of the unique presidential retreat served as a welcome diversion if not an intriguing sideshow.
For weekends on end, one famous visitor after another would be calling on the Hoovers, among them Charles A. Lindbergh, who in 1927 became the first aviator to fly non-stop from New York to Paris. In fact, Lindbergh carried a gift that remained at Rapidan — a parchment lampshade displaying a map of his flight routes.
Among the camp’s 13 structures were “The Brown House,” “The Prime Minister” (British Prime Minister Ramsey McDonald was a frequent occupant, and it joked that Hoover and McDonald disarmed the powerful navies of the world while sitting on a log). “Trail’s End” (guest cabin), “Five Tents” (the first structure built), “The Creel” (guest cabin), “The Owl” (guest cabin), “The Slums” (usually occupied by Mrs. Hoover’s secretaries), “Mess Hall,” “Town Hall,” “Duty Office” (used by Secret Service and Marines), “Mess Servants’ Quarters,” and finally the quarters occupied by the Chief Commissary Officer.
Even with all the company, it was trout fishing that lured Hoover to Rapidan and it became the president’s chief pastime. As for the other guests there was horseback riding, horseshoe pitching, working jigsaw puzzles, and hiking in what would later become Shenandoah National Park.
His impressive skills as a businessman and Secretary of Commerce notwithstanding, Hoover, who had been elected president in a landslide of popularity in 1928, was unable to inspire the confidence of a nation suddenly confronting financial ruin. He lost his bid for reelection and would spend the waning weekends of his presidency at Rapidan — now more than ever a retreat from the scrutiny of a country that had labeled him aloof if not uncaring for those Americans standing in soup lines.
As for Rapidan Camp, the Boy Scouts leased the property through the 1950s, at which time it fell into disrepair and 10 of the 13 structures were eventually torn down. That said, through the early 1990s, the camp’s three surviving buildings were still a destination for Supreme Court justices and Cabinet secretaries alike.