by Spencer Howard
When Hoover became President in 1929, he decided to build a weekend retreat – a fishing camp – some place where he could escape from Washington and unwind. He chose a site on the eastern slope of the Blue Ridge Mountains in Virginia about 100 miles from Washington, where two small streams merge to form the Rapidan River. The Hoovers purchased the land and materials, and a detachment of U.S. Marines were assigned to construct roads, utilities and buildings, and to guard the President when he visited. Eventually, Camp Rapidan would consist of 13 rustic cabins and a separate camp for the Marines, but for the first summer, guests stayed in brown army tents pitched on temporary wooden platforms. Almost every weekend through the summer and fall, the President would leave Washington as early as he could get away on Friday afternoon and stay at the camp until after breakfast on Monday morning, hurrying back to Washington to arrive in the Oval Office by mid-morning.
Each weekend the Hoovers invited family members, friends, Cabinet officers, members of Congress, and other guests out to the camp with them, along with a few White House staff members. The White House doctor, Cdr. Joel Boone, accompanied the President most weekends and enjoyed horseback rides along the rough trails near the camp. One day he met a boy who lived with his family in a nearby cabin, and struck up a conversation. The boy’s name was Ray Buraker (pronounced BURR-uh-ker). Upon learning of his neighbor, the President instructed Dr. Boone to encourage the boy to visit the camp by promising to pay $5.00 for a live possum, if Ray would deliver it in person.
On Hoover’s birthday, the young man visited the camp and brought a small possum along with him. The President paid Ray the promised $5.00 (an extravagant sum for a boy who had little experience with money), and introduced Ray to some of the weekend guests, including Charles Lindbergh. Both the President and the famous aviator were astounded to discover that Ray had never heard of Lindbergh’s record-setting flight. Hoover also learned that the local children had no school nearby, so he and Mrs. Hoover decided to build one for them.
In consultation with local and state officials, the schoolhouse was built to serve as not just a school, but also a community center and residence for the teacher. It had a large classroom, a living room, bedroom, kitchen and bath for the teacher, and two spare bedrooms in the attic for guests, or if children couldn’t get home because of bad weather. Mrs. Hoover personally hired the teacher; she chose a recent graduate of Berea College in Kentucky named Christine Vest, who had experience teaching in a similar setting. The school received donations of books and supplies from all over the country, but the principal financial support came from the Hoovers. Their contributions the first year totaled approximately $10,000, and by the time they left the White House in 1933, they had spent over $24,000 on the school.
The President’s Mountain School opened on February 24, 1930 with 17 children in attendance, including Ray Buraker and 5 of his siblings. For many of the children, it was their first chance at a formal education. In addition to reading, writing and arithmetic, Miss Vest introduced them to the modern world beyond their remote mountain homes. She taught them about cities, and the commerce and industry found there. They learned about units of measurement, time and money, and how to order goods from the Sears catalog. Some of the girls learned to make or repair clothing with an electric sewing machine. Miss Vest took the students on field trips to the county fair, and even to Washington DC where they had lunch at the White House. For most of the children, it was the first time they had traveled more than a few miles from home, or ridden in an automobile.
Many of the mountaineers – adults and children alike – encountered electric lights, running water and the radio for the first time inside the school house. In the evenings, the parents also studied reading, writing, arithmetic and geography with Miss Vest, and learned about people and places in the outside world by listening to the news on the radio. On Sundays, Miss Vest taught Sunday School in the large classroom, and worship services were led by “Pa” Buraker.
By 1935, the State of Virginia had condemned over 3000 parcels of land that were slated to become part of the new Shenandoah National Park, and the Buraker family and all their neighbors were relocated. Most settled nearby, in or near established towns where the children had access to local public schools. With no students, the President’s Mountain School was closed.
The school had operated for just five years, but the effect it had on the lives of the people it served was immeasurable. Part of the purpose of the school, from the very beginning, was to prepare the mountain families for life in the outside world. The children who attended the President’s Mountain School went on to lead fairly ordinary lives, and their stories can be found in public records and news clippings. Ray Buraker, the “possum boy,” enlisted in the Army during World War II at age 22; on his enlistment form, he stated his pre-war occupation as cook. During the war he served in the Army Ordnance Department and the Army Air Forces and rose to the rank of Sergeant. He was married in 1961 at the age of 43; on the marriage license he listed his occupation as electronics technician. He lived near Lynchburg, Virginia for many years, and passed away there at the age of 85.
By the late 1930s, all of the mountain cabins were demolished, and the schoolhouse was moved to Big Meadows on Skyline Drive, where it was converted into a ranger station. Three of the thirteen buildings at Camp Rapidan have been preserved, and the site is open to visitors, just a short hike from the scenic Skyline Drive which now whisks thousands of visitors each year through the rugged terrain.