The stress of being president has driven our nation’s leaders to places of privacy and renewal since the earliest days of the nation — and in many cases, these places have been in the woods, or by fields and streams, where the land and vistas nourish and revive.
Camp David in the Catoctin Mountains, a retreat for presidents since Franklin D. Roosevelt, is close enough to Washington, DC, but far from its day-to-day pressures. Without a presidential invitation, though, private citizens can’t visit.
But other presidential retreats — no longer in use and open to the public — are within a few hours’ drive of DC. Visiting these once-private places offers glimpses into the private lives of the presidents who frequented them.
FDR’s “summer White House” might have been on the eastern flank of the Shenandoah Mountains 90 miles southwest of DC, had the terrain not been too rugged to accommodate his physical disability.
FDR’s predecessor, Herbert Hoover, had built Rapidan Camp there with his own money — a small, rustic compound at an altitude of 2,000 feet that offered a welcome getaway from DC’s summer heat and humidity and an informal setting for meetings with his cabinet and foreign statesmen.
Rapidan Camp, now part of Shenandoah National Park, is accessible from trails leading off Skyline Drive. During the warmer months, the Park Service offers guided tours.
During my visit on a fall afternoon, interpreter Cynthia Selig drove a van full of visitors down a road that descended through groves of tall poplars and maples, still bright with late fall colors.
Where Mill Prong and Laurel Prong join to create the Rapidan River, which flows through Madison County, VA, the camp’s 13 structures were once arrayed among trees and boulders and connected by rock-lined paths and stone bridges over gathering streams. Lou Henry Hoover, a geologist like her husband, had insisted that no large tree be unnecessarily cut, and Selig pointed to a round opening in the eve of Creel House, one of the three remaining buildings, where a large tree — no longer living — once grew.
The President’s Cabin, built from locally harvested trees and stained brown in national park fashion, was often referred to as “the Brown House,” in contrast with the official presidential residence in Washington, DC.
With wide-open porches overlooking Fork Mountain, it is perched atop boulders that form the watercourse of Laurel Prong as it empties into the Rapidan. The sound of water is everywhere.
“The joyous rush of the brook, the contemplation of the eternal flow of the stream, the stretch of forest and mountain,” Hoover wrote, “all reduce our egotism, soothe our troubles and shame our wickedness.”
At Rapidan Camp, the joyous rush also provided pretty good trout fishing, which Hoover used as a diversion from the weighty issues of the growing Great Depression and the changing political climate in Europe.
Upon his first visit to the camp, he said that fishing was “an excuse to return to the woods and streams with their retouch of the simpler life of the frontier from which every American springs.”
Two decades earlier and 65 miles to the south in Albemarle County, Theodore Roosevelt found his own return to the simpler life in an unassuming country house on 80 acres called Pine Knot. Over the almost eight years of his presidency, Roosevelt stayed in the small, two-story home only seven times, but each visit is chronicled in letters that speak of the rest and quiet he and his family found there.
Paula Beazley is president of The Edith and Theodore Roosevelt Pine Knot Foundation, which manages the site. Crossing Miller Creek on the gravel track leading through the woods to the house, Beazley explained that the Roosevelts enjoyed the quiet and relative anonymity Pine Knot provided, as well as the simplicity of living in the modest, rustic home.
In an era when anyone who could afford to was adding indoor plumbing and electricity, the Roosevelts hauled water from a spring 300 yards away and used a privy. They moved the stairway to the three small bedrooms on the second floor to accommodate a second, large fireplace downstairs for heat.
“They could care less about the building,” Beazley explained. “For them, it was just an extension of the outside.” Indeed, the whole front of the house boasts a wide-covered porch they called the “piazza,” where Roosevelt engaged in one of his favorite pastimes — bird watching.
Pine Knot was a retreat for his family and there were few visitors. But one noteworthy and welcome guest was the legendary naturalist John Burroughs, who tromped the forests and fields with Roosevelt, helping him to identify and assemble a list of 75 species counted in the area. It was here, too, that the 25th president had one of the last documented sightings of passenger pigeons. Several species of rare wildflowers can be seen along trails that lead through the woods.
Most of the land around Pine Knot is held in conservation easement, and because the foundation is small and led by volunteers, visitation is by appointment or at one of several open houses hosted in the warmer months.
The house itself is sparsely furnished, leaving to the visitor’s imagination what it was like when Theodore and Edith and their six children gathered for a Thanksgiving weekend after the four-hour journey from DC by train and horseback.
Farther yet down along the eastern flank of the Blue Ridge Mountains is Thomas Jefferson’s retreat, Poplar Forest. It is as different from Pine Knot as it is from Jefferson’s well-known and highly visited Monticello.
Poplar Forest, eight miles west of Lynchburg, was once a 4,800-acre plantation given to Jefferson by his wife’s father in 1773. The site is now a restoration in progress, where discoveries about life at Jefferson’s retreat continue to reveal new information about plantation life in the early 1800s.
Jefferson first “retreated” to Poplar Forest in 1781, when the British stormed through Charlottesville and forced him and his family from Monticello. He managed the plantation from afar, but during his many years of public life, he dreamed of building “the best dwelling house in the State, except that of Monticello; perhaps preferable to that, as [it is] more proportioned to the faculties of a private citizen.”
Jefferson designed the 1,000-square-foot brick building inspired by Renaissance architect Andrea Palladio’s five-part villa. Tall, triple-hung windows on each of the home’s eight sides capture cooling breezes from any direction and sunlight throughout the course of the day for reading and writing. The living spaces are compact, light-filled and airy. Jefferson’s frequent stays at Poplar Forest were a welcome retreat from the constant flow of visitors to Monticello.
Each of the outer rooms opens into a square dining room in the center, illuminated by a 16-foot skylight in the roof above. The dining room is trimmed with woodwork fashioned after classical styles.
The Corporation for Jefferson’s Poplar Forest, which owns the site, has been restoring the house and grounds since 1986. Because Jefferson was a meticulous record-keeper — he devised a machine to make copies of all of his letters — there are more than 13,000 documents that are guiding the restoration.
But the land, the trees, the soil, even the wood used in the buildings, also provide clues to the past. The archeological and historic staff uses dendrochronology (historical dating of wood) and pollen analysis to chart the history of the land from as early as 1760 when it was first transformed from forest to field.
Archeology has revealed erosional gullies in fields near the house and the household and garden waste Jefferson used to fill them. In 2017, the foundation will build a 1.3-mile scenic drive and walkway to highlight the landscapes of Jefferson’s era and help tell the story of the enslaved people whom Jefferson owned. They were integral to all aspects of plantation living.
Beyond a row of tall poplars that date to Jefferson’s time, the Blue Ridge Mountains shimmer in the distance to the west.
When Jefferson was president, the Louisiana Purchase added territory that ultimately doubled the size of the United States. By the time Teddy Roosevelt became president a century later, the movement to protect land had gained momentum. During his presidency, Roosevelt protected approximately 230 million acres. Hoover added another 2 million acres of forestland and increased by 40 percent the area protected as national parks.
Conservationists believe that one must cherish the land in order to be motivated to protect it. Visitors to each of these very different presidential retreats might well imagine how the respite these presidents found in their country retreats influenced their views of land protection during their presidencies.
Retreat to the outdoors in presidential style
Thomas Jefferson’s Poplar Forest is open
10 a.m. – 5 p.m. daily, March 14 through Dec. 30. It is closed on Easter, Thanksgiving, Christmas Eve and Christmas and is also closed between Dec. 31 and Jan. 15. Winter hours are 10 a.m. – 4 p.m. on Saturdays and Sundays only from Jan. 16 through March 13. Fees apply.
Visit http://www.poplarforest.org or call 434-525-1806.
Theodore Roosevelt’s Pine Knot in Keene, VA, is open by appointment. Call 434-286-6106 or e-mail email@example.com.
Rapidan Camp is accessible to hikers and horseback riders on trails that descend from Skyline Drive. Transportation and guided tours that include two of the three remaining dwellings are available in the warm months; fees apply. Those who arrive on their own can take a self-guided tour of the grounds. For details, call 540-999-3500 or visit nps.gov/shen/learn/historyculture/rapidancamp.htm.