Home Improvements at Camp Rapidan

by Matthew Schaefer

First Lady Lou Hoover riding at Camp Rapidan, ca. 1931.
First Lady Lou Hoover riding at Camp Rapidan, ca. 1931.

Even before entering the White House, the Hoovers determined that they would need to escape Washington DC’s notorious summer heat and humidity.  Given their love of the outdoors, the Hoovers’ purchase and development of a summer camp on the Rapidan River in Virginia came as no surprise.  The camp was in the foothills of the Blue Ridge Mountains, so it afforded respite from the summer heat.  It also offered trout fishing for President Hoover, an avid fly-fisherman. Finally, the 164-acre property had many trails for Lou Henry Hoover to ride.

Lou Hoover’s involvement with site selection and planning of the Rapidan Camp began in late January 1929, six weeks before the inauguration of Herbert Hoover.  She wrote a lengthy letter to her friend Jane Rippin, seeking advice on how best to build a suitable getaway.  Rippin, drawing on her experience in building Girl Scout camps from the ground up, offered sound counsel on creating a rustic weekend camp.  Lou Hoover outlined these needs: three guest tents/cabins, a mess hall large enough to serve twenty, servants quarters, and separate housing for the Hoovers ‘close enough to the streams to hear the running waters.’

President Hoover's guest tents at Camp Rapidan, summer 1929.
President Hoover’s guest tents at Camp Rapidan, summer 1929.

The Rapidan Camp slowly took shape over the summer of 1929.  When the Hoovers first spent the night in mid-May, they did so in tents set up by the Army.  By the time of their mid-June visit, the Hoovers’ cabin was near enough to completion to spend the night, but guests still slept in tents. The Hoovers spent over $13,000 that summer filling the site with buildings ‘harmonious with the rustic environment, consisting of plain pine-board structures of tasteful simplicity.’  With the camp built, Lou Hoover turned her attention to filling the cabins with apt furnishings, including books on local fish, wildlife and flora.

President and Mrs. Hoover visiting Camp Rapidan, the fishing lodge on the Rapidan River in Virginia. 08/02/1939
President and Mrs. Hoover visiting Camp Rapidan, the fishing lodge on the Rapidan River in Virginia. 08/02/1939

Lou Hoover’s eye for detail extended to the outdoors as she typed up a ten-page plan for the camp’s flowers and shrubs.  She identified more than thirty species of perennials, shrubs and trees native to the area [growing within twenty miles of the site] that she wanted around the cabins.  She was attuned to the indigenous plant’s sensitivity to sun and shade, planning which flowers to place in specific areas.  She also instructed the gardener not to create formal beds, preferring that the flora blend into the existing environs.

The Rapidan Camp served the Hoovers well as a summer getaway.  Their plan to donate the land to the United States for use of future Presidents came to naught as the terrain proved too rugged for the wheel-chair bound Franklin Roosevelt, who visited only once.  The camp saw sporadic use over the next two decades falling under the dominion of the Virginia State Conservation and Development Commission and the National Park Service.  Ultimately, the camp was restored by the Shenandoah National Park Service site.

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