Wednesday, September 11, 2013

Camp Hoover tells a presidential tale -- Sept. 12, 2013 column


Before the ranger started a tour of Camp Hoover in Shenandoah National Park the other day, she asked visitors: What do you think of when you hear the name Hoover? 

For a moment, all you heard was birdsong. Then a woman ventured, “FBI?”

That would be J. Edgar Hoover. Ranger Danielle Yoder gently explained that Camp Hoover was President Herbert Hoover’s summer White House.

Today, many people might find it hard to place the 31st president. Hoover won the 1928 election in a landslide, only to see his popularity and prestige evaporate as the economy collapsed in the Great Depression.  His name became synonymous with misery.

Hoovervilles were the shantytowns that sprang up when the homeless sought refuge in cardboard and scrap metal shacks. Hoover blankets were newspapers stuffed inside coats to keep out the cold; Hoover Pullmans were the rail boxcars that desperate people rode to start life anew.  

Hoover blamed congressional foes for refusing to enact his programs to deal with the crisis, although he arguably worsened the Depression by signing the Smoot-Hawley Tariff bill in 1930. Aimed at protecting American farmers and businesses, the law raised the average import tax to about 40 percent.

In 1932, Franklin D. Roosevelt easily defeated Hoover. Historians mark Hoover as a brilliant, compassionate humanitarian -- and a failure as president.

A visit to the presidential retreat provides a sympathetic, personal portrait of a beleaguered president and his independent wife.  Byrd Visitors Center has a first-rate exhibit about the history of the park and the Hoovers’ getaway. The park service’s free bus tours start from the center. There I met Bill Jones, a newly retired teacher who, in his first summer as a seasonal naturalist park ranger, became intrigued by the Hoovers and started reading everything he could find on them.

Hoover’s life is a classic American success story, says Jones, whose enthusiasm is infectious. Hoover, the son of a Quaker blacksmith in Iowa, was orphaned by age 10 and was sent to live with relatives in Oregon. He was graduated in the first class at Stanford, where he met his future wife, Lou Henry, the university’s first woman geology graduate. She, like Hoover, loved the outdoors. 

Hoover made a fortune as a mining engineer and became known as a humanitarian during and after World War I, leading U.S. food relief efforts in Europe that fed more than 300 million people. 

Hoover’s program cut Americans’ food consumption 15 percent without rationing, through such voluntary efforts as wheatless, meatless and porkless meals and days every week.

Even before his 1929 inauguration, then in March, Hoover realized he’d need to escape the “pneumatic hammer” of the nation’s capital. He wanted a rustic place within 100 miles of Washington, at an elevation above 2,500 feet to be free of disease-carrying mosquitoes and the capital’s sweltering heat and humidity in those pre-air conditioning days, and a good trout stream to satisfy his passion for fishing. He found it at the headwaters of the Rapidan River in the Blue Ridge Mountains. 

Hoover, who refused a salary as president, paid for the 164 acres and the furnishings himself, and the Marines built the 13 buildings as a training assignment. The presidential hideaway had a mess hall to serve 20, horse stables, a trout hatchery, a town hall and guest cabins. Building Camp Rapidan, as the Hoovers called it, meant more roads, electricity and telephone lines into the remote mountains. They entertained frequently, and their guest list was a “who’s who” of American business and government. 

“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,” Hoover said.

After using the camp from 1929 to 1933, the Hoovers gave it to the federal government, with the idea that it would be used by future presidents. FDR visited once and found the terrain too challenging. He built his presidential retreat, Shangri-la, in Maryland’s Catoctin Mountains. President Dwight Eisenhower renamed it Camp David.

Visitors today can go inside two of the three buildings still standing at Camp Hoover, including the Hoovers’ simple cottage, which they had painted brown to contrast with the ornate White House and its political noise, worries and cares. The camp remains as secluded in the mountains as Hoover’s life is in the public memory.

©2013 Marsha Mercer. All rights reserved.

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