Students of American history will argue that few U.S. presidents have been as mischaracterized as Herbert Hoover. With the nation mired in the Great Depression, a familiar refrain was that the 31st president ignored common Americans in their most dire time of need.
Arguably, the opposite is true.
Just ask descendants of the mountain people who lived a century ago above the headwaters of the Rapidan River and in the surrounding communities of Criglersville, Syria, Etlan and Graves Mill.
Or better yet, ask Ginny Browne.
“In a general way we don’t know a lot about Hoover, and what we know is really pretty negative,” says the Shenandoah National Park seasonal ranger who retired last month after 42 years as an educator in Page County, much of it teaching history and government.
Browne’s captivated audience on a recent tour consists of a dozen park visitors from around the country, all passengers on the small bus she is steering towards Rapidan Camp, a rustic retreat built by Hoover and his wife, Lou Henry, beginning in 1929.
“If I were to ask you to name something you know about Hoover, what would that be?” Browne, who clearly remains in her teaching mode, quizzes the group during the 35-minute, 7-mile-long trek on unpaved road that begins in Big Meadows.
“He liked to fish,” a gentleman from Georgia pipes up from the back.
“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.
“He was better prepared than you might think to be president,” insists Browne, as she briefly stops the bus to allow passengers to photograph a mother bear and twin cubs. “He was an excellent mining engineer, ran his own [international] business, lived the American dream, and was a self-made multi-millionaire.
“He had a personal ethic that said with great wealth comes great responsibility,” she continues. “And so he was from the very beginning wanting to give back, to give and to help people in all kinds of ways because he had the opportunity to do so.”
And that he would do, often anonymously or with little fanfare, including in these hills and hollows of Madison and Rappahannock counties.
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.
“They came down in February of ’29, got as far as Criglersville in Madison County, and then there’s no road,” Browne points out. “So they get on horseback and ride in on horses. The Hoovers loved it, and agreed on the spot to purchase 164 acres at the going rate of $5 per acre.”
The cabin would be built beneath a beautiful canopy of old-growth Eastern Hemlocks (decades later consumed by an invasive insect called the hemlock woolly adelgid) 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.
Assisted by numerous able bodies from the U.S. Marines Corps, who were training nearby, 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 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 lamp shade displaying a map of his flight routes.
In addition, members of Hoover’s Cabinet would often be summoned to the retreat, where executive meetings — held in the so-called Town Hall (normally the center of social activities) — would last into the night. Separate quarters were constructed for the administration types and any accompanying family members adventuresome enough to camp, albeit rather comfortably, in the deep woods.
The president’s wife, Lou Henry, hung the “Camp Rules” in each guest quarters:
— Cabins have no bells. If you want anything you will have to tell a Filipino boy beforehand [the Filipino stewards were reassigned from the out-of-service presidential yacht].
— Cabins have side shutters that let down from outside if you want more air.
— Cabins have a two-bath heater (if the first bath isn’t too full!). The third bath must be waited for about 20 minutes.
— The Town Hall in the center of the camp is the place of general meeting for anything from Executive Committee Meeting to ping-pong and knitting.
— First Aid: There is a ‘Chief Pharmacist’s Mate’ at the Marine Camp who can attend to cuts, bruises, poison oak (which we don’t have) and such. He can also supply ordinary drugs. When in doubt about ANYTHING WHATEVER, ask Major Long (or call a conference of your nearest neighbors).
— Meals are served in the Mess Hall — usually! For safety follow your nose’s guidance or the movement of the population.
— Meals are served 15 minutes after the warning bell, to those who arrive. Others eat when they are ready!
— For DIRECTION look at the camp map in your cabin and consult your compass!
— When COLD at night, after all blankets and eiders are exhausted, put on your camel’s hare dressing gown, wrap your head in a sweater, and throw your fur coat over everything!
Among the camp’s 13 structures were “The Brown House,” “The Prime Minister” (British Prime Minister Ramsey McDonald was a frequent occupant, and it was joked that Hoover and McDonald disarmed the powerful navies of the world while sitting on a log), “Ishbel” (guest cabin), “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.
The locals, meanwhile, were happy to give the president his peace and quiet, although Hoover was known to cheerfully engage in conversation any children who happened into the camp, asking them about their homes, families, hobbies and schooling.
It was on August 17, 1929, that residents of Madison County officially welcomed the Hoovers to the neighborhood by hosting a barbecue and celebration in their honor, “Madison County Day.” As was reported in the national newspapers, bands played, people feasted, a blimp circled overhead, and the president returned the gesture by delivering a short speech from the speaker’s platform.
From this point forward, we are told, the Hoovers took an active but discreet interest in their Blue Ridge neighbors. When a local furniture factory burned, for instance, Lou Henry made the family-owned business a loan to rebuild. They also provided a bell for a church in nearby Dark Hollow.
What did leak to the press was when the Hoovers decided to build a new school for the local children, to be situated halfway up the mountain between Rapidan Camp and today’s Skyline Drive. There was only one condition: whereas the Hoovers provide the materials, it would be up to the local men to build the schoolhouse and a small apartment for the teacher. It wasn’t long before evening classes were being offered to the adults, and Lou Henry was a frequent visitor.
(Even after leaving the White House the first lady kept in contact with the school, and it wasn’t until after her death that the nation learned she had been financially assisting Rapidan students who wished to continue their education beyond grade school. According to Browne, the school building was subsequently moved to Big Meadows, where today it’s used as a ranger station. A photograph of the school and its first teacher, Christine Vest, can be seen today at Rapidan Camp).
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.
“At the end of his four years he turned [Rapidan Camp] over to the government,” Browne says. “The national park wasn’t established until ’35, so it was to become part of the future park. And it was set aside as a retreat for future presidents. The next president who came was Franklin Roosevelt — he came early in his first term to look at his presidential retreat — only he is in a wheelchair and the camp is not built handicapped friendly.
“He got down here and said, ‘I love this idea, but this location is not going to work for me.’ So he went back to Washington and convinced Congress to buy land in the mountains of Western Maryland, to build a camp he called Shangri-La to his physical specifications,” the ranger continues, pointing out that the retreat was later renamed Camp David by President Dwight D. Eisenhower to honor his grandson. It remains the presidential retreat to this day.
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.
“Bobby Kennedy came as attorney general. And Mondale used if often,” Browne reveals of Jimmy Carter’s vice president. “Carter actually came once at Mondale’s insistence.”
Now, thanks to the National Park Service, Rapidan Camp is breathing new life. And while not the lasting presidential retreat he had envisioned, Hoover, who passed away in 1964, would be delighted to see his cabin — now a National Historic Landmark — restored to its original splendor and enjoyed by countless Shenandoah Park visitors who take either the guided tour of the camp or hike in several miles from Big Meadows or Madison County.
Perhaps more than anything, though, Hoover would appreciate the history lesson from Ginny Browne.
If you go
Ranger-guided programs to Rapidan Camp are offered Thursdays, Fridays, Saturdays, and Sundays between late-May and late-October by reservation only. Space is limited to 12 people. The guided tour includes tours of the Brown House and the Prime Minister’s Cabin, and allows time for exploring the grounds. First-come, first-served reservations may be booked online up to 6 months in advance and up to one day before the tour, space permitting. The total tour time, including travel, is 2.5 hours.