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Rapidan Camp

Rapidan Camp (also known at times as Camp Hoover) in the Shenandoah National Park in Madison County, Virginia was built by U.S. President Herbert Hoover and his wife Lou Henry Hoover, and served as their rustic presidential retreat throughout Hoover's administration from 1929 to 1933. The residential cabin used by the first family was known as the "Brown House" to highlight its contrast to their more famous residence, the White House.

1929-1933: Founding and use as Hoover's retreat

In November 1928, Herbert Hoover was overwhelmingly elected as 31st President of the United States. While all preceding Presidents came from the Eastern United States, Hoover was born in Iowa and before moving to Washington, DC lived in California. Returning home on a regular basis was more difficult. Contemplating the pressure and spotlight of the presidency, he instructed his secretary to find a site for a retreat that was within 100 miles of Washington, D.C., at least 2,500 feet above sea level to avoid mosquitoes, and�most importantly�close to an excellent trout stream for fishing. He and his wife had lived together at mining camps for over 10 years, and appreciated the isolation of remote accommodations.

Virginia Governor Harry F. Byrd was a strong supporter of plans to establish Shenandoah National Park, and persuaded Will Carson to lead the effort. Two months before Hoover's March inauguration Carson recommended the President-elect and his wife, Lou Henry Hoover, consider establishing their camp at the headwaters of the Rapidan River. 

The remote, undeveloped site lay on Doubletop Mountain, on the eastern slope of the Blue Ridge Mountains in Madison County. The Mill Prong and the Laurel Prong streams join within the camp to form the Rapidan River, and all three are excellent for fishing.

Less than three weeks after his inauguration on March 4, the Madison Eagle announced the Hoovers had selected the upper Rapidan site. The Hoovers personally bought the land, building materials, and furnishings. The Marine Corps provided construction labor as a "military exercise." The Hoovers initially envisioned a village of tents, but soon decided on a more permanent settlement. 

The Marines built thirteen assorted buildings including a lodge, two mess halls, cabins and a "Town Hall." They also created several miles of hiking trails, a stone fountain, and concrete-lined trout pools. Mrs. Hoover oversaw the project.

To reduce the presidential budget, Hoover decommissioned the Presidential Yacht Mayflower shortly after becoming President. The Filipino mess crew from the Mayflower were transferred to Rapidan Camp, along with the kitchen supplies and china.

At the 164 acre site, President Hoover enjoyed fishing in the streams, which were stocked with trout by the Interior Department. While Mrs. Hoover enjoyed riding horses at camp, Mr. Hoover did not enjoy horseback riding to reach Camp Rapidan, and a five-mile dirt road was built. Mrs. Hoover described the drive and camp:

This camp, at the end of nowhere, with a road that in wet weather lets you sink to your hubs in slushy mush and while there bump over the most amazing boulders�� has electric lights and a telephone and its morning papers. The mail is dropped from an airplane!

In a public speech at the celebration of "Hoover Day" in the county seat of Madison, on August 17, 1929, President Hoover stated:

I fear that the summer camp we have established on the Rapidan has the reputation of being devoted solely to fishing. That is not the case, for the fishing season lasts but a short time in the spring. It is a place for weekend rest�but fishing is an excuse and a valid reason of the widest range of usefulness for temporary retreat from our busy world.

In this case it is the excuse for return to the woods and streams with their retouch of the simpler life of the frontier from which every American springs�. Fishing seems to be the sole avenue left to Presidents through which they may escape to their own thoughts and may live in their own imaginings and find relief from the pneumatic hammer of constant personal contacts, and refreshment of mind in the babble of rippling brooks.

Moreover, it is a constant reminder of the democracy of life, of humility, and of human frailty�for all men are equal before fishes. And it is desirable that the President of the United States should be periodically reminded of this fundamental fact�that the forces of nature discriminate for no man.

The Rapidan Camp "Brown House" in Hoover's TimeU.S. and foreign leaders came to the isolated and secure location of Rapidan Camp for strategy sessions with the President. His distinguished guests included inventor Thomas A. Edison, aviator Charles Lindbergh and his wife Anne Morrow Lindbergh, Supreme Court Justice H. F. Stone, former President Theodore Roosevelt, Psychologist Lillian Moller Gilbreth, and English Prime Ministers Ramsay MacDonald and Winston Churchill.

Camp Rapidan featured a large outdoor stone fireplace which was the backdrop for many photographs of the Hoovers and their guests.

At Rapidan Camp, President Hoover offered to buy Bermuda, Trinidad, and British Honduras from Prime Minister MacDonald in exchange for most of Britain's war debt (from World War I) to the United States. But days later came the Wall Street Crash that marked the beginning of the Great Depression. 

In addition, Hoover and MacDonald came to an agreement that formed the basis of the 1930 London Naval Treaty while meeting at Rapidan Camp, talking for hours sitting on an "historic log�. Rapidan Camp also gave name to the "Rapidan Plan" for deploying the Girl Scouts to help alleviate the economic collapse.

Hoover's Birthday Opossum and the Mountain School

A well-publicized story arose in August 1929, when a boy who lived in the nearby mountains presented President Hoover with a live opossum on his 55th birthday. Six months later, the President arranged for a new schoolhouse in the area, which had been so rural and difficult to traverse that no school existed previously. The incident resulted in a variety of legends and a great deal of apocryphal media publicity, including tales that the boy had sneaked past the Marine guard to present the President the opossum as a gift.

However, the best understanding of historians is that the story originated weeks earlier when Admiral Joel T. Boone, Hoover's physician, was horse-riding on a mountain trail above camp and came upon a house. He asked the boy residing in the house if he attended school, and learned there was no school nearby. When the President heard the story, he said "Tell that boy if he will bring me an opossum down here I'll give him five dollars." 

Boone delivered the message, but nothing happened until August 10, the President's birthday, when Boone visited again on horseback. The boy said he had caught an opossum for the President. With the inducement of riding to camp, the shy boy was persuaded to present his opossum directly to the President and his guest, Charles Lindbergh. The President raised money to build a small schoolhouse that included an apartment for the teacher they hired. Pupils ranged from 6 to 20 years of age.

The story of the backwoods mountain schoolhouse was publicized nationally, resulting in donations including schoolbooks, furniture, and a piano. The President took a personal interest in the school, and welcomed its students to the White House on numerous occasions. After Hoover left office, the student body dwindled as the surrounding population was forced via a blanket condemnation law to leave the area for the establishment of Shenandoah National Park in 1935. The building was transported to Big Meadows on Skyline Drive and used as a ranger station and residence.

Cabinet Members' Camp

In 1930, Secretary of the Interior Ray Lyman Wilbur, Attorney General William D. Mitchell, and Secretary of Agriculture Arthur M. Hyde arranged for the Marines to construct a separate camp for members of Hoover's cabinet, two miles downriver from the President's camp. The Cabinet Camp was built on land planned for pending incorporation into Shenandoah National Park, but still privately owned by the Madison Timber Corporation. 

A dispute arose about whether an oral contract had been arranged. Marines escorted timbermen off the property "by the seat of the pants," and Madison Timber was assessed property taxes for road and building improvements they could not access. A conflict arose, covered in Time magazine, the Associated Press and Madison Eagle newspaper.  Under the resulting settlement, cabinet members were allowed to use the camp throughout the Hoover administration, and Madison Timber could resume custody once Hoover left office. 

Potentially because the road and cabins increased the land value, the National Park Service ran out of park expansion funds before purchasing the Cabinet Camp. Madison Timber later deeded the property to Ward-Rue Lumber Company.

In 1953, a cooperative of 14 families called Rapidan Camps purchased the dilapidated Cabinet Camp from Ward-Rue. Rapidan Camps rehabilitated the cabins and has since grown in membership to approximately 100 families. The camp now has five cabins�three Hoover-era cabins and two constructed since in a similar architectural style. It is designated on local hiking maps as "Rapidan Family Camp" to distinguish it from the name restored to the President's main camp in 2004, "Rapidan Camp".

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