The first summer White House Restoration: Herbert Hoover's hideaway in what is now Shenandoah National Park is undergoing repairs and will become more accessible to the public.

Sun Journal

November 12, 1998|By Ernest F. Imhoff | Ernest F. Imhoff,SUN STAFF

BIG MEADOWS, Va. -- Old-timers may remember such Depression-era terms as "Hoover blankets," "Hoover flags" and "Hoovervilles" or "Hoover camps."

They were named for President Herbert C. Hoover, who was blamed for the unemployment and poverty caused by the Depression. "Hoover blankets" were old newspapers the homeless used to keep warm. The flags were empty pockets turned inside out. The 'villes and camps were shantytowns built by the unemployed.

The Hoover camp hidden in the Blue Ridge Mountain woods here, however, was no village of tar-paper shacks. Then called Camp Rapidan and set on land that would be included in the future Shenandoah National Park, it was from 1929 to 1933 the first summer White House, the Camp David of its day.

Seven decades later, the rustic settlement, now called Camp Hoover, is a National Historic Landmark undergoing a six-year $240,000 restoration.

The core of the site is an 8-acre complex of 13 cabins and buildings, gardens and walkways that satisfied President Hoover's three requirements for a weekend retreat: It had trout fishing; it was above 2,500 feet to avoid mosquitoes, if not heat; it was within 100 miles of Washington.

Reached in part by horseback or muleback, the camp on the Rapidan River became so busy that two more camps were built within a mile downstream -- one with seven cabins for Cabinet officers and one with 15 barracks for a Marine guard. (The former is now a private cooperative, the latter is long gone).

Charles and Ann Morrow Lindbergh were frequent guests. British Prime Minister J. Ramsay MacDonald and Hoover talked around the campfire about reducing world armaments. The Sun recorded the comings and goings of famous personages to "the fishing camp on the Rapidan." Hoover ordered the building of the nearby 105-mile Skyline Drive running atop the park's ridge.

After Hoover left office in 1933, Cabinet secretaries and other Washington officials sometimes used the camp. President Roosevelt visited once but didn't stay overnight. From 1949 to 1959, Washington-area Boy Scouts camped there. Washington VIPs, including Vice President Al Gore and President Jimmy Carter, have dropped in for brief visits.

Over the years, hikers, many unaware of "Hoovervilles" or the irony of the name Camp Hoover, have been the most frequent visitors to the always-open grounds. From Big Meadows on the Skyline Drive, they descend 1,165 feet in altitude down Rapidan Fire Road and Mill Prong Trail to the camp. There are 7- and 13-mile round trips from the Appalachian Trail.

Once a year, on a Sunday in August nearest Hoover's Aug. 10 birthday, buses carry visitors from the Skyline Drive's Big Meadows down the usually closed Rapidan Road to tour the remaining three buildings. The next Hoover Day is tentatively set for Aug. 8, 1999.

Reed Engle, the park's cultural-resource specialist, says the current renovation project will make Camp Hoover more accessible to the public. And, he says, it will cost taxpayers nothing extra. It is supported by increased park-user entrance fees. Since last year, drivers on the Skyline Drive pay $10, rather than $5, for a week's pass.

The original camp was a bargain for the taxpayers, too, Engle says. Hoover and his wife, Lou Henry Hoover, bought the 164 acres and paid for the lumber, food and some other expenses. Marines put up the buildings. When he left the presidency, the Hoovers gave the property outright to Virginia for future presidents or for a future park -- Shenandoah, which opened in 1935.

"Hoover kept every receipt," Engle says, " -- $22,000 for lumber and so on. The receipts are preserved."

Three of Camp Hoover's original cabins remain -- "the President's" (then called the Brown House), "the Prime Minister's" and a log cabin known as "the Creel." They sit on a wooded wedge-shaped area bordered by two modest streams, Mill Prong and Laurel Prong, that merge to form the Rapidan River, which flows into the Rappahannock River.

Ice storms in January and February felled 10,000 trees along the Skyline Drive and cost the camp 163 trees. Most are being replaced. Many were hemlocks, weakened by an insect, the hemlock woolly adelgid, that kills the tree by attacking its needles.

Engle, a landscape architect and historian, hopes the restoration will include bringing back the old Camp Rapidan name. Changes completed or planned include:

Removal of all post-1930s additions from the three cabins and reintroduction of about 100 original, preserved pieces of furniture and historical exhibits. Already gone is the 1962 kitchen addition to the President's, built after the mess hall and its kitchen were demolished along with nine other rotting buildings in 1961.

Restoration of an ornamental fountain and its seven pools in a centerpiece rock garden, as well as waterfalls, a trout pond, the original dirt walkways and identification of all original buildings.

Burial of power lines and replanting of such wild flowers as pink orchids and yellow day lilies.

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