Rapidan Camp: President Hoover’s Rustic Retreat

By Donna K. Keesling

Beginning with George Washington, presidents of the United States have sought a place to temporarily retreat from many of the pressures of the position. Our earliest presidents left the capital during the heat of summer and retreated to their homes – Washington to Mount Vernon, Adams to Peacefield in Quincy, Massachusetts, and Madison to Montpelier. Theodore Roosevelt took his staff to Sagamore Hill, his home on the north shore of Long Island, New York, during the summers he was in office. It was during Franklin D. Roosevelt’s administration that Camp David, originally called Shangri-La, was built in the Catoctin Mountains of western Maryland to serve as a presidential retreat. But before Shangri-La, there was Rapidan Camp – the first complex specifically designed as a presidential retreat.

Reportedly, it was Calvin Coolidge – President Herbert Hoover’s predecessor – who recommended that the U.S. government provide a “Summer White House” where the president could spend weekends in a “relaxed and informal atmosphere.”[1] According to author Peter Hannaford, in November 1928 President-elect Hoover asked Lawrence Richey, his secretary, to find “a site for a country retreat within one hundred miles of Washington, at an elevation of at least 2,500 feet (to avoid mosquitoes and heat), and with a good trout stream.”[2]

In the spring of 1929, President Hoover purchased a 164-acre property on the eastern slope of Chapmans Mountain in Virginia’s Blue Ridge Mountains. The location was approximately a three and a half hour drive from Washington, D.C. and provided relief from the heat and humidity of the city in the summer. The site, located where two tributaries (Mill Prong and Laurel Prong) merged to form the Rapidan River, provided President Hoover with an opportunity to partake in one of his favorite pastimes – trout fishing. When the Hoovers purchased the property, their understanding was that it would eventually be incorporated into a national park that was being planned for the Shenandoah Valley.

Rapidan Camp was built between 1929 and 1932 by members of the U.S. Marine Corps as part of their training regimen. In addition to building the thirteen structures that made up the camp, the Marines constructed utilities (water supply and sewage disposal), the entrance road, and roads, trails, and paths within the camp.

The Marines had their own camp a short distance from Rapidan Camp on land leased from a man named R.S. Graves. Secret Service and chauffeurs also stayed at the Marine camp when they needed sleeping quarters. Horses used by the Hoovers and their guests were stabled at the Marine camp and brought to Rapidan Camp when requested.

James Yardley Rippin, architect and friend of the Hoovers, designed the Rapidan Camp buildings. Rapidan Camp included sleeping cabins for guests and servants, public spaces, and spaces for work. The one-story, gabled-roof buildings were all stained brown. The Hoovers resided in what is known as “The Brown House.” Members of the Secret Service worked in the “Duty Station” cabin. There was a building called “Town Hall” that was used for meetings and other activities, including ping-pong and knitting, according to signs posted in the cabins.[3]

Breakfast and dinner were served in the “Mess Hall.” Meals were prepared by Marine chefs using food that was sent from the White House. President Hoover decommissioned the presidential yacht, USS Mayflower, and her stewards came to Rapidan Camp to serve the Hoovers and their guests.

Camp residents and visitors were not cut off completely from the outside world. The Chesapeake and Potomac Telephone Company of Virginia completed the installation of telephone service at the camp in early June 1929. Mail and newspapers were dropped by airplane at the Marine camp and then brought to Rapidan Camp. Outgoing mail was picked up in Syria, Virginia.

President Hoover and his wife, Lou Henry Hoover, entertained family members, friends, and government officials at Rapidan Camp. Outdoor activities included hiking, horseback riding, and fishing. Staff and guests enjoyed table tennis (ping-pong), puzzles, and board games inside “Town Hall” and on its porch. A bookshelf in “Town Hall” provided a selection of novels and mysteries.

President Hoover conducted planning sessions with his Cabinet and held private meetings with foreign officials at the camp. When British Prime Minister Ramsay MacDonald stayed at the camp for a week in October 1929, one of the main topics of discussion was naval disarmament.

The Hoovers also entertained public figures at Rapidan Camp, including Charles and Anne Morrow Lindbergh, Mina Miller Edison – the wife of Thomas Edison, Edsel and Eleanor Clay Ford, American magazine publisher Henry Luce, and Eleanor Butler and Theodore Roosevelt III.

Reportedly, Hoover spent $114,000 of his own funds on developing Rapidan Camp, including $50,000 on the camp buildings.[4] In 1932, the Hoovers donated Rapidan Camp to the Commonwealth of Virginia to be used as a summer retreat for future presidents or by Shenandoah National Park. The camp became part of Shenandoah National Park in 1935. Although President Franklin D. Roosevelt visited Rapidan Camp, he found it difficult to navigate so he did not use it as his summer retreat. No other president used it on a regular basis due to personal preference and the eventual “diminished state of the camp buildings.”[5]

The camp was leased by the Boy Scouts of American from 1948 through 1958. Boy scouts used it for short-term camping trips in the spring, winter, and fall. They employed a year-round caretaker to live onsite and maintain the camp.[6]

In 1959, the National Park Service (NPS) tore down all the buildings in the camp except “The Brown House,” “The Prime Minister” (the cabin where Ramsay MacDonald stayed), and one of the small guest cabins called “The Creel.” The three cabins were repaired and refurnished so that they could serve as VIP lodging for the president, Cabinet members, and members of Congress. In October 1963, Attorney General Robert F. Kennedy and family members spent time at Rapidan Camp. In the late 1970s, President Jimmy Carter and his family stayed at Rapidan Camp a few times.

In 1988, Camp Hoover – as it became known when the Boy Scouts leased it – was named a National Historic Landmark, significant for its use by President Herbert Hoover as a summer retreat during his term of office from 1929 to 1933.[7]

In 1996, after determining that Rapidan Camp would no longer serve as VIP lodging because of a failing septic system, the NPS began restoring and refurnishing the camp to serve as an interpreted destination for Shenandoah National Park visitors. From 1996 – 2004, the exterior and interior of “The Brown House” was restored to the way it looked in the early 1930s. The exterior of “The Prime Minister” and “The Creel” were also restored during this time.

Today, Rapidan Camp encompasses approximately 106 acres. Although the road to Rapidan Camp is closed to private vehicles, you can visit the camp on a NPS ranger-led tour, hike to the camp, or ride a horse down Rapidan Road. On a ranger-led tour, you depart Byrd Visitor Center on an NPS van for a 30-minute ride to the camp. Once at the camp, you can explore “The Brown House” – furnished to reflect the Hoover era, “The Prime Minister” which contains exhibits, and the grounds. “The Creel” is not open to visitors. In addition to the three camp buildings, trails, paths, stone footbridges, a stone fountain, a massive outdoor stone fireplace, and man-made water channel and trout pool are still visible on the grounds. See the Ranger Programs page of the Shenandoah National Park website for detailed information.

On the NPS’s Rapidan Camp page, President Hoover is quoted as having said “I have discovered that even the work of government can be improved by leisurely discussions of its problems out under the trees where no bells or callers jar one’s thoughts.”[8] His words aptly define a “Presidential retreat.”

[1] “President Herbert and Lou Henry Hoover’s Rapidan Camp,” National Park Service, accessed August 7, 2023, https://www.nps.gov/nr/travel/presidents/hoover_camp_rapidan.html.

[2] Peter Hannaford, Presidential Retreats: Where the Presidents Went and Why They Went There (New York: Threshold Editions, 2012), 155.

[3] “President Herbert and Lou Henry Hoover’s Rapidan Camp,” National Park Service, accessed August 7, 2023, https://www.nps.gov/nr/travel/presidents/hoover_camp_rapidan.html.

[4] Darwin Lambert and Reed L. Engle, Herbert Hoover’s Hideaway: The Story of President Hoover’s Summer Retreat(Bridgewater, Virginia: Good Printers, 2011), 73.

[5] Laurel A. Racine, Historic Furnishings Report – Rapidan Camp: “The Brown House”, Northeast Museum Services – National Park Service, 2001, accessed August 10, 2023, http://npshistory.com/publications/shen/hfr-rapidan-camp.pdf, 3.

[6] Racine, 92.

[7] Cultural Landscapes Inventory 2009 – Rapidan Camp Shenandoah National Park, National Park Service, accessed August 10, 2023. http://npshistory.com/publications/shen/cli-rapidan-camp.pdf, 7.

[8] “Rapidan Camp,” National Park Service, last updated November 7, 2021, https://www.nps.gov/places/000/rapidan-camp.htm.