Saturday, October 12, 2019

Franklin Delano Roosevelt - No. 32 - Hyde Park, NY - August 10, 2019

Franklin Delano Roosevelt - No. 32 - Hyde Park, NY - August 10, 2019

Franklin D. Roosevelt pulled off one of the most audacious political hoaxes in American history: He convinced the American people that he could walk. Struck with polio at age 39, he lost the use of his legs. But he gave the appearance that he could walk. 

He would arrive at most public events in a car wearing leg braces. He would be assisted from the car in a private area and helped to a standing position. He would lock his leg braces into place so that his legs were rigid. Then, with a cane in one hand and the support of a hefty person on his other side, he would advance slowly, swinging his legs from his hips. He would appear to be slowly walking. He mastered doing this with a smile and a ready quip for the people he met along the way. 

During the Democratic Convention of 1936, he was driven to the Franklin Field stadium in Philadelphia. He got out of car in curtained-off area and snapped on his leg braces. But as he ascended the steps assisted by his son James, he slipped and fell into the mud. He angrily demanded that his entourage clean him up. On his second try, he made it to the top. The crowd never saw the fall and loved seeing him walk to the podium to give his speech.

And the press cooperated — something that would never happen today.  For the rare press photographer who tried to sneak a photo, the camera was confiscated and the film exposed.  Cameras were huge at the time and not easy to conceal.
FDR's leg braces

Even in his home library in Hyde Park, NY, where he used to meet guests, the wheelchair ramp would be stowed so nobody could see it. He would greet his guests sitting down. Sometimes his aides would even fold one of his legs over the other.

When we visited the Franklin D. Roosevelt Historic Site in Hyde Park, we learned that of the 130,000 photos in the library, only four showed FDR in a wheelchair.

* * *
Visitors to the FDR National Historic Site should plan to spend at least a half day here, if not more. As the house was his birthplace, lifelong home and burial place, there is plenty to explore — from the house to the visitor center to the museum and library to trails and three gardens.  We visited in late summer, driving from the airport in Albany through rolling forested hills and arriving at the historic site in about two hours.

The estate is huge and the rolling landscape expansive. We drove over a historic bridge spanning a small pond, and then past tree-lined hills as we made our way to the visitor center. It’s no wonder that neighbors walk, with or without dogs, around the grounds (the site even has a port-a-potty for them).

For hungry visitors, the visitor center offers a small cafe. We enjoyed the outdoor patio, while waiting for our tour to begin. The patio is surrounded by a garden as well as a sculpture of FDR and Eleanor sitting on a bench.

The FDR estate was the first presidential home to become a government-owned presidential library. FDR began working on the library during his second term and gave his property to the U.S. in 1943, even though he was still alive.

Our tour started at the visitor center, a modern building with a lot of open space as well as a cafe and movie theater. Tour guide Eric was quite knowledgeable. However, he talked really, really fast — which, coming from Cathy, is saying something.

* * *

FDR arrived in the world big — he was a 10 lb. baby — to James Roosevelt and his second wife Sara on Jan. 30, 1882. He was fortunate to be born into wealth. His grandfather made his fortune as a molasses trader during the Revolutionary War and established the Bank of New York with founding father Alexander Hamilton.  And with that money, the family bought land in the bucolic Hudson River Valley. 

Franklin wanted to go to college at the Naval Academy — he had a lifelong fascination with ships — but his mother, Sara, did not want her son going to war. So, he went to Harvard instead.  While at Harvard, Franklin began seeing Eleanor Roosevelt, who was his fifth cousin Theodore’s niece. So, when they married in 1905, she didn’t have to change her last name!

And it was Theodore who gave her away. But FDR’s mother, Sara, did not approve of the marriage and Eleanor got the brunt of the dissatisfaction. Eleanor found her mother-in-law to be domineering. Unfortunately for Eleanor, Franklin was kind of a mama’s boy and liked living close to her. 

It wasn’t long, though, before FDR began having affairs. He had an acknowledged affair with Lucy Mercer, his wife’s social secretary. He was also linked to his own secretary, Marguerite LeLand, whom he called Missy. He had yet another possible romance with Margarete Suckley. Eleanor, for her part, did not sit still. She was romantically linked to Earl Miller, a state trooper who was her bodyguard.  She was also linked to a female journalist, Lorena Hickok.

Because of his family’s wealth, FDR was never financially independent. He hoped to enter politics, a desire that Eleanor attributed to Theodore, who was a New York state legislator, assistant secretary of the Navy, governor of New York and finally president. FDR even wore the same Pince-Nez glasses as Theodore. 

In 1913, Woodrow Wilson appointed FDR the assistant secretary of the Navy. He was following in Teddy’s footsteps.

* * *

Tour guide Eric continued to talk as we walked the quarter-mile walk to Springwood, FDR's house.  The house from the outside looks like one of the Gilded Age mansions, though it needs work. It is scheduled to close in summer 2020 for major renovations. They’ve already begun preparing. Pictures have been taken off the walls and books have been taken out of the library, among other moves.

Once inside, our group wandered around the first floor on our own, looking into each room from behind the rope barriers — the library, snuggery, dining room (FDR stayed at the dining room table every election night waiting for the results), and sitting room. Eric followed up with more information and answered questions afterward. Ditto on the second floor. 

We didn’t love this setup, but a group of 30 people can’t all jam into the door frames of the roped-off rooms for a room-by-room tour.

Worth noting is FDR’s library. It spans one side of the house, and as we noted, he had a removable ramp built from the hallway into the library, which is a couple steps below the rest of the first floor. Like his cousin Theodore’s, his library is dark paneled with plenty of built-in bookcases. It also has three seating areas for guests. He didn’t actually work in here, however. He had a small office on the other side of the house (not part of the tour) that holds a desk with two phones, and some furniture. Another office/library is in the museum.
FDR's library (note the wheelchair)

Because FDR was scared of fire — he had seen his aunt burned in front of him — he had fire doors installed on the library that could be sealed shut. There were also “fire extinguishers” throughout the house — glass bulbs filled with a fire-retardant chemical.  These could be thrown on the fire to extinguish it. Eric pointed out, however, that FDR used to smoke in bed, a major fire hazard.
Fire estinguisher

Next to the library is the snuggery, a term we had never heard before. It was his mother’s private sitting area and where she ate her breakfast. It also houses an old RCA TV console, which FDR was given at the 1939 New York World’s Fair. FDR thought TV was a flash in the pan, and he never used it.

Upstairs are the bedrooms, which housed the Roosevelts and their children as well as honored guests. Those guests included Winston Churchill, the Queen Mother and Queen Elizabeth II. Imagine Queen Elizabeth sleeping in one of the small twin beds in the appropriately named Chintz Room.
The Chintz Room

The house also has a modified luggage elevator with ropes and pulleys, which is how Roosevelt moved up and down the house. Because FDR didn’t trust electricity, he would actually pull himself up the elevator with his beefy upper body.
Photo of FDR pulling himself
up the elevator.

* * *

FDR contracted polio in 1921 at a family “jamboree.” At first, he thought it was just leg soreness from all of his activities. But within days he was paralyzed from the neck down. He eventually regained the use of his upper body.

Because his family had plenty of money, he was able to go to the best doctors, try different treatments, and travel to those doctors and treatments — including the spa at Warm Springs, Georgia. He could buy braces and crutches, and have custom wheelchairs and cars built for him.

FDR took three years trying regain the use of his legs. He developed a solid torso, but his legs were still paralyzed. When he first visited the Warm Springs spa, it was in bad shape.  So, he bought it. It was there that he met other polio victims from all walks of life and developed his empathy for the plight of the common man. 

Eventually FDR founded the National Foundation for Infantile Paralysis, which eventually became the March of Dimes. That is why FDR’s profile is on the dime.

By 1924 he was ready to reenter politics.  After being out of view for three years, he was asked by the Democrats to nominate Al Smith at the Democratic convention. In 1928, he did it again in exchange for Smith’s offer to help him win the New York governorship.

Which he did in 1928.  And then it was straight to the White House.

* * *

After the house tour we visited the library-museum. Exploring this building can take hours. It is extensive, with one side devoted to the Great Depression and the other to World War II. It also houses the library he started using in June 1941. The library is where he did government business, met visitors, and worked on books and papers. He also did several Fireside Chats from there.

Downstairs, there is an exhibit about his polio, including his incredibly heavy braces/crutches and his custom car outfitted with hand brakes. Also, downstairs is a glassed-in room full of some of the thousands of his files, and a room full of model ships — a lifelong fascination.
* * *

In the 1932 election, FDR wiped out incumbent Herbert Hoover 472-59. Further, the Democrats picked up 90 seats in the House and 12 in the Senate. The Democrats now had a solid majority. At the library museum we saw a draft and final copy of his first inauguration speech, which includes the line: “The only thing we have to fear is fear itself.” 

Once in office, FDR pounced on a 100-day legislative agenda, with he and Congress pushing through 16 major initiatives in his first 100 days in office. He wanted to experiment with different initiatives and see which ones worked. The government created the Public Works Administration (PWA) and the Securities and Exchange Commission (the first commissioner was Joseph Kennedy), introduced bank deposit insurance, and passed the National Industrial Recovery Act. 

And, the “New Deal” was born. Stuart Chase, one of FDR’s advisers, came up with the term New Deal, which played off cousin Theodore’s Square Deal. The New Deal would eventually cost $5 billion and provide 6 million new jobs.

In 1933, the government began an enormous water project in the Southeast under another new agency called the Tennessee Valley Authority (TVA). The scale of the project was vast (153,000 acres) and the social costs were not insignificant — and it displaced 3,000 families. But the project provided cheap power and new jobs for 9,000 people. It also put the government in competition with the private sector. In fact, the Tennessee Electric Power Company was forced to sell its holdings to the TVA.

In 1935, FDR created the Works Progress Administration (WPA) by executive order. The WPA built infrastructure, created public art works (500,000 total), and produced public theater. At its peak it employed 3.3 million people.
Olin Down's 1941 mural of FDR working out
of his car was part of the WPA.

FDR signed the Social Security Act into law on Aug. 14, 1935. Its goal was to protect older Americans from falling into poverty. It was radical. It was socialist. And it is still exists today.

In the West, poor land use practices and drought were causing large swaths of land to become uncultivatable. It eventually became known as the Dust Bowl. The newly created Farm Security Administration operated clean residential camps for workers. And the Shelterbelt Program was created to plant 200 million trees to break the wind.

In May 1933, Congress passed and FDR signed the Agricultural Adjustment Act, which created the Agricultural Adjustment Administration, to help farmers, who were suffering from overproduction and cheap prices. The new agency curtailed production — hence, raising prices — by paying farmers not to plant. This was the beginning of our farm subsidy program that still exists today. 

The National Recovery Administration (NRA), another new agency, had the authority to dictate minimum wages, maximum work hours and production quotas. There were eventually more than 500 codes that the public had to understand. The actual law was 2,735 pages. According to Shlaes (2007), the law “generated more paper than the entire legislative output of the federal government since 1789.” Some of the public and many business owners found the regulations onerous and found ways to skirt it.  To make a point, the federal government went after one of the businesses, a small chicken farm in New York.  Two chicken farming brothers named Schechter were accused of under-charging mandated NRA prices for chickens. They were sentenced to jail and fined $7,425, which was many years of salary, and were effectively put out of business. The Supreme Court accepted the case in 1935 and rejected the government’s argument. Justice Louis Brandeis said, “This is the end of this business of centralization ... we’re not going to let this government centralize everything.” (Shlaes, 2007) And that was the end of the NRA and 500 cases against businesses were dropped.

By 1935-1936, FDR was seeing Supreme Court decisions going against many of his initiatives. The high court invalidated the Agricultural Adjustment Act as well as the National Recovery Administration. In response, FDR advocated adding six new justices to the Supreme Court — who he would nominate. The Senate, even though it was controlled by his party, did not support this. So, FDR went after some of the more conservative senators in his party, trying to “primary” them, but that didn’t work either. 

By 1936, the unemployment rate was down to 13.9 percent. FDR remained hugely popular and his 1936 Republican opponent never had a chance.  FDR won 46 of 48 states. It was the greatest win in electoral history — 523 to 8. Roosevelt won all states except Maine and Vermont and received 60.8 percent of the vote. The Democrats picked up six more seats in the Senate for a total of 75.  And they added 11 more in the House for a total of 331. FDR got the traditional support of Southerners, Catholics and Jews but also added trade unions, ethnic groups, blacks, and professionals.

But the economy took another dip. In 1937 the Dow Jones Industrial Average dropped again from 190 to 114.

Meanwhile, trouble was brewing in Europe. Adolph Hitler became chancellor of Germany in 1932. In 1935, Congress passed the Neutrality Act to stay out of any war. The United States also officially recognized the Soviet Union to balance Germany. But by late 1939, FDR loosened the Neutrality Act to allow the U.S. to provide arms to Great Britain and in September 1940, the U.S. leased 50 badly needed destroyers to Great Britain.

Because of the possibility of war, FDR decided to seek a third term in 1940. Wendell Willkie, the Republican candidate, supported free trade although his party didn’t agree. He also supported intervention in Europe, again against GOP wishes. Willkie won 22 million votes, more than any other Republican ever. But he still lost.

At his 1941 inauguration, FDR gave what became known as the Four Freedoms speech. He cited the freedom of speech and expression, the freedom of every person to worship God in his own way, the freedom from want and the freedom from fear.

The war came to the United States in the Pacific, where the Japanese — already an Axis power linked to Germany and Italy — launched a surprise attack on the Navy base at Pearl Harbor, Hawaii, on Dec. 7, 1941.  One day later, FDR gave a speech to Congress and called December 7 “a date which will live in infamy.” The original text was “A date that will live in world history.” He excoriated the Japanese for launching a “dastardly attack” and asked Congress to declare a “state of war” with Japan. 

After Hitler declared war on the U.S. on Dec. 11, Congress declared war on Germany as well. FDR sold the strategy of focusing on defeating Germany first so as not to lose Europe, which was rapidly being occupied by Germany.

The war gave a tremendous boost to the economy as factories rolled out 299,000 planes, 88,000 tanks and 7,000 ships. As the government’s spending grew, unemployment fell. It didn’t hurt that the Armed forces grew from 334,000 men in 1939 to 12.1 million by the last year of the war. Between 1939 and 1942, the unemployment rate fell from 17.2% to 4.7% as annual spending rose from $9 billion to $34 billion.  
Massive wartime spending helped
push down the unemployment rate.

FDR created two important agencies during the war, the Office of Strategic Services which later became the CIA; and the Office of Scientific Research & Development, which included the Manhattan project to develop the atomic bomb.

One of FDR’s infamous wartime acts was to sign Executive Order 9066, which authorized the government to throw120,000 Japanese Americans living on the West Coast into internment camps. Many of these American citizens lost all their possessions and their businesses. Eleanor opposed this action and told FDR privately that “these people are not convicted of any crime.”

Another problem was the sanctioned racism in the Armed Forces.  Black troops were segregated from white troops. Eleanor questioned this as well.  She said, “Why curse Hitler and support Jim Crow?”
FDR became the first president to travel by plane when he attended the Casablanca conference in January 1943. The conference included Britain’s leader, Winston Churchill, and Free French leader, Charles de Gaulle. During the conference, FDR sketched out his idea for a United Nations.  It was at the Yalta Conference held in February 1945 that FDR and Churchill conceded Eastern Europe to Russian dictator Joseph Stalin. Stalin’s promise of free elections was never honored. 

But FDR didn’t see the end of the war, nor the beginning of the Cold War. 

In April 1945, he traveled to Warm Springs to rest. While sitting for a portrait, he complained of a powerful headache and lost consciousness. He never awoke from what was a cerebral hemorrhage. At his side was not Eleanor, but Lucy Mercer Rutherford, his old lover.  

FDR was buried in his mother’s rose garden at Hyde Park. Eleanor and their two dogs, Chief and Fala, are also buried there.
FDR gravesite

In 1951, the 22nd amendment was ratified, limiting all future president to two terms.


The Franklin D. Roosevelt Historic Site Is located 80 miles south of the Albany International Airport.  Admission is $20 and is valid for two consecutive days.  Children under 15 are free.

Current, R., Williams, T.H., Freidel, F.  1975.  American History:  A Survey, Fourth Edition, Volume II:  Since 1865.  Alfred A. Knopf, New York.

Ernsberger, Jr., Richard.  2016.  The ‘Man of Force’ Who Saved Belgium.  American History.  August 2016.  Pp. 24-30.

McElvanie, Rober S.  1984.  The Great Depression: America 1929-1941.  Times Books.  New York, New York.

Moore, Kathryn.  2007.  The American President.  Fall River Press.  New York, New York.

Riccards, Michael, P.  1995.  The Ferocious Engine of Democracy:  A History of the American Presidency.  Volume Two.  Madison Books.  New York, New York.  1995

Shlaes, Amity.  2007.  The Forgotten Man:  A New History of the Great Depression.  Harper Perennial.  New York, NY.

Smith, C.  2005.  Presidents:  Every Question Answered.  Metro Books.  New York, NY.

Sunday, July 14, 2019

Herbert Hoover – (No. 31) – Rapidan Camp, Shenandoah Mountains, VA – June 1, 2019

Herbert Hoover – (No. 31) – Rapidan Camp, Shenandoah Mountains, VA – June 1, 2019

President Herbert Hoover
(Source:  Smith, 2005)
Herbert Hoover shared many traits of our current president, Donald Trump.  Hoover made a load of money before he went into politics.   He had also never run for a political office before he won the presidency.  (His only previous race was for Stanford student body president which he won.)  Also, he took no salary while president.  And, he liked tariffs.

Herbert Hoover was born in 1874 into a Quaker family but his parents died young.  His father died of a heart attack when Herbert was only six.  His mother died two years later from pneumonia.  So, he was raised by aunts and uncles.  He was raised as a Quaker but said that he “didn’t work very hard at it.” (Moore, 2007).

He graduated from Stanford with a geology degree and went on to become a mining engineer.   He found a job working for a gold miner who sent him to Australia to search for gold.   His next assignment was China.  But first, Hoover returned to the states to marry his college sweetheart, Lou Henry, who had studied geology with him at Stanford. 

Then the Hoovers left for China.  While on their boat, they studied Mandarin and eventually became quite fluent.  They used it throughout their lives as a “secret” language.  The Hoovers were in China during the Boxer Rebellion in 1899 and were under bombardment for a month until American troops showed up.  While they were awaiting rescue, Hoover set up a food rationing system for the trapped Americans.  This was the start of his life of public service.

When they returned to the United States, in 1908, Hoover started his own engineering company.  He was known as the “doctor of sick mines.”  He was enterprising and thrifty—undoubtedly due to his Quaker upbringing.  And he was a great businessman.  By 1914 he was worth $4M, a hefty sum at the time (about $100M in today’s dollars).

As war clouds were forming in Europe, Hoover helped 150,000 American tourists and expats trapped in Europe, make their way home.  He used some of his own money to help them. 

Then Germany cut off the population of Belgium, a neutral country.  The Germans stole Belgium food and cut off their supply lines.  Hoover, who was living in London, agreed to coordinate food relief efforts.  He created an organization called the Commission for Relief of Belgium (CRB). He shuttled back and forth from London to Europe to coordinate the relief and even traveled to Germany to obtain their cooperation.  CRB ships were marked so that German submarines would not attack them.  Even so, a few ships were torpedoed and sunk.  When it was going at full steam, the CRB was feeding 10 million people an average of 1,800 calories a day every day for four years.  And Hoover raised money to run the organization.  Thrifty Hoover kept the overhead low and to “Hooverize” came to mean to economize.

Hoover took no salary for his work.

Once America entered the war in 1917, President Wilson asked Hoover to lead the U.S. Food Administration.  The purpose was to increase food production and decrease food demand.  Hoover instituted “Meatless Mondays” and “Wheatless Wednesdays” to cut consumption.  He also encouraged citizens to grow their own food in “victory gardens.”  He did all this coincident with his leadership of the CRB. 

Upon taking office in 1921, President Harding named Hoover Secretary of Commerce.  When Harding died in 1923, President Coolidge kept Hoover in the post. 

As Secretary, Hoover helped standardize parts for various industries (automobile, electric lights, etc.) which helped with the mass production that firms were using.  For example, it was Hoover who came up with a standard paper size of 8-1/2” x 11”. 

During the disastrous Mississippi River flood of 1927, he coordinated the flood relief across six states. He also promoted the development of inland waterways such as the Columbia River, the St. Lawrence Seaway and the Colorado River. 

But Coolidge grew to dislike Hoover; he called him “Wonder Boy.”  Coolidge said of Hoover:  “That man has offered me unsolicited advice for six years.  All of it bad” (Moore, 2007).

When Coolidge declined to run in 1928, Hoover became the Republican candidate.  Given the Roaring 20s economy, Hoover had a huge advantage.  Alfred E. Smith, the Democratic candidate was also handicapped because he was a Catholic; he was thought by some to be more loyal to the Pope than to the United States.  On election day, Hoover buried Smith with 440 electoral votes to 87 for Smith.  The popular vote total was 21.5 million versus 15 million.  Hoover became the first president born west of the Mississippi River.

In his inauguration speech on March 4, 1929, Hoover declared that “I have no fear for the future of this country.  It is bright with hope”  (Moore, 2007) 

That didn’t last long.

At first the stock market continued to rise due to unregulated speculation.  It hit 380 in August 1929.  That would be the highest the market would reach until 1955.

But the economy was slowing.   Purchasing was slowing down and unsold inventories were piling up—tripling in one year.  With demand cooling, industrial production slowed.  Producers cut prices to encourage buyers.  But that just encouraged people to delay purchases in hopes of lower prices.  (Ironically, Hoover had gone into his presidency wanting to fight inflation.)

Businesses began to lay off workers, slowly at first, then in buckets.  Between 1929 and 1933 unemployment would rise from 3.2 to a jaw dropping 24.9 percent.

In the countryside, unsold agricultural inventories were piling up.  In June 1929, Hoover signed the Agricultural Marketing Act of 1929 to give limited aid (i.e., loans) to farmers.  The Federal government also funded a Wheat Stabilization Corporation and a Cotton Stabilization Corporation to help prop up prices.  But this only led to over production and the corporations’ funds were rapidly spent. 

On October 29, the stock market crashed—16 million shares were sold.  By the end of October, $16B in market value had evaporated. 

Hoover took the bully pulpit and attempted to browbeat industry into continued economic prosperity.  He brought rail executives together in November 1929 and asked them to continue their construction activities.  He also met with other big industrial leaders and asked them to avoid layoffs and keep wages up.  He also asked businesses not to cut payrolls or reduce production.  He asked governors and mayors to keep up public works and created a bureau to coordinate this.  He met with labor leaders and asked them to avoid pushing for wage increases. 

He asked Congress to fund large public spending projects which by November 1929 had risen to the highest level in five years ($423M).  By 1930, Congress had spent $100M but that had only provided jobs to 4.5 million workers.

The Federal Reserve did the opposite of what was needed.  They tightened monetary policy which added pressure on the banking industry which was disincentivized from making loans.  Banks began to fail.  For example, in Utah 32 of 105 banks failed.  In 1931, the Bank of the United States closed.

During the 1920s, the Republicans had favored high tariffs.  But that was now straining the fragile economy.  But the President and Congress kept pushing them.  In June 1930, Congress passed a tariff bill known as the Hawley-Smoot Bill.  It was the wrong move at the wrong time.  Other countries retaliated and put their own tariffs in place.  More than one thousand members of the American Economic Association signed a letter opposing tariffs.  Within two years, imports had dropped 40 percent. 

And unemployment kept rising.  It reached 16 percent in 1931 and reached 30 percent in 1921.  Blacks, in particular, were especially hard hit.  In Pittsburgh: 38 percent of the unemployed were African American even thought they were only 8 percent of the population.  And in Chicago, blacks made up 16% of the unemployed even though they were only 4% of population.

But Treasury Secretary Paul Mellon wasn’t concerned because he wanted to wring the excesses out of the economy. The Federal government unwisely tried to balance the budget and continued to maintain the gold standard, both of which removed liquidity from the stagnant economy.

But when the mid-term elections of 1930 came around, the voters remained hopeful that the Republicans could pull the country out of its tailspin.  Voters gave more seats to Republicans in the House and maintained the status quo of Republican control in the Senate.

Europe was sharing America’s economic woes with a steep economic downturn of their own.  Some countries went off the gold standard and devalued their currencies.  But the currency devaluation reduced their ability to buy U.S. goods adding to the economic pressure on the U.S.  To help Europe, Hoover pushed for a moratorium on German WWI debt.  But France did not support this, and German banks began to collapse in July 1931.

In 1932, Congress passed, and Hoover signed, a tax increase bill (Revenue Act of 1932) which raised the top rate from about mid-20 percent to 63 percent.  It was yet another wrong move.

But Hoover did create the Reconstruction Finance Corps in 1932 to loan money to banks and industry.

Overall, Hoover was taking an increasing share of the blame for the economic depression.   (It was actually Hoover who came up with term “depression”; previously they had been called “panics” (McElvanie, 1984)).  The shacks built by the homeless became known as “Hoover Hotels.”  Groups of shacks were a “Hooverville.”  A “Hoover Flag” was empty pants pockets turned inside out. 

In the summer of 1932, things got worse.

Between ten and twenty thousand jobless veterans gathered in Washington, DC to demand an immediate bonus for their service rather than have to wait until the date that Congress authorized the payment: 1945.   The so called “Bonus Army” set up a makeshift camp in Anacostia Flats, within sight of the U.S. Capitol.  President Hoover was opposed to paying the bonuses and called on the Army to remove the vets.  The Army assigned future WWII generals, Douglas MacArthur, Dwight Eisenhower and George Patton to the task. They used tanks, gas masks and fixed bayonets to rout the vets.  Then they burned the camp.  Hoover said,  “Thank God we still have a government…that knows how to deal with a mob” (Smith, 2005).  When Franklin Roosevelt, the Democratic presidential nominee, heard about the debacle, he crowed, “This elects me” (Moore, 2007).

* * *

It took us a while to visit President Herbert Hoover. It wasn’t that we didn’t want to, it’s that we couldn’t.

We didn’t want to travel to his birthplace in Iowa — a great decision because he moved to Oregon by age 10. Instead, we found his Summer White House, Rapidan Camp, in nearby Shenandoah Valley, VA. Rapidan, named for the nearby Rapidan River, was Hoover’s Summer White House.

But Rapidan is closed in the winter and doesn’t open until “late spring.” This year, late spring meant the beginning of meteorological summer, or June. That’s because ice storms pounded Shenandoah National Park last winter and kept Skyline Drive — the only public road in the park — closed for four months. The National Park Service got part of the road open only at the end of March. That delayed things.

However, it was worth the wait.

We drove a little more than two hours from our home in Kensington, MD through farmlands and forests to Shenandoah for our 2 p.m. tour. We had a quick stop for lunch at scenic Skyland, eating outside on the patio with beautiful views of the mountains and trees. 

We met “Ranger Ginny” (Browne), a retired schoolteacher, and our 12-person tour group 10 miles down the road at the Harry F. Byrd Visitors Center at Big Meadows.

Ginny started talking to our 12-person group about five minutes before we were to set off on our journey …. And didn’t stop talking.   She warned, “Now I tend to talk a lot.  So, if you have a question, there won’t be a natural place to jump in.  You’ll just need to cut me off.”

She was full of information about Hoover’s life and his presidency. This is not a “here’s the president’s dining room table” tour.  She told us, “He is not the J. Edgar Hoover, nor is he related to him.  He’s also not the vacuum cleaner guy—although he would have appreciated that technology.”

We drove about 20 minutes in a small shuttle over a super-bumpy gravel road, through the wide-open Big Meadow and down into the shady forest.

She cautioned, “We pass bears all the time.  You’ll only see their butts since they’re bent over foraging for food.  They look like tree stumps.  I’m convinced we pass bears all the time.”

While Cathy looked out for bears and listened to Ranger Ginny discuss the founding of Rapidan, Tom somehow took a nap.

When Hoover was elected president, he wanted a place he could escape to since he loved the outdoors and was an avid fisherman. He wanted his escape to be in the mountains, close to Washington, with good trout fishing. So, his aides drew a 100-mile radius around Washington on a map and found the Blue Ridge Mountains, part of which park activists were trying to turn into a national park.   

Hoover sent his secretary to scout locations. With his own money, the new president bought 164 acres at $5 per acre and said he would donate it to the U.S. for the future use of presidents, as part of the national park.
At first, the camp, built by the Marines, was just five tents on platforms and was called — un-imaginatively — “Five Tents.” The site is near the confluence of the Laurel and Mill creeks, which create the Rapidan River.

Hoover, the fisherman.
Hoover went fishing that first summer of 1929 and had lots of guests. But Hoover and Lou quickly realized that they needed to upgrade since they were spending so much time at the camp and their guests were too important to house in tents. So, the Marines built cabins that included electricity, hot and cold running water, flush toilets, and phones.

The camp, which grew to 13 buildings, a Marine camp and a Cabinet camp — used by Cabinet members who spent their weekends working at Rapidan during the Great Depression —  is now down to three, with one used to house seasonal workers. The other two are open to visitors.

The two cabins are nestled in the woods along a stream that was created by the Marines so that Hoover could enjoy the sound of the water from his cabin. 

The first cabin we visited was the Prime Minister’s Cottage, named for British Prime Minister Ramsey McDonald, who was the camp’s first real guest in 1929. Prime Minister McDonald traveled to the U.S. to meet with Hoover because he was concerned that European countries were rebuilding their Navies in defiance of the post-World War I agreement.

Hoover met McDonald and his daughter Isabel (another building at the camp had been named after her) at the White House portico and told them he was taking them to Rapidan. McDonald had to borrow Hoover’s clothes for the outdoorsy weekend.

Cathy enjoying the porch off
the Prime Minister's cabin.
The cabin is small with several rooms housing exhibits about Hoover’s presidency, the camp and the park.

Next up was the Brown House, home of Hoover and his wife, Lou.

But first, a note. The Shenandoah is a national park. In this case, that means lots of trees and rocks and …. animals.  As we approached the Hoovers’ house, Ranger Ginny stopped and said, “I have to let you know that we have snakes that hang out here.” 

“They look like copperheads,” but they’re northern water snakes. They’re “aggressive” but not venomous, she continued.

While Tom was thrilled with this news, Cathy was not.

A big, fat northern water snake.
And lo and behold, 10 seconds later someone pointed out what looked like a thick tree branch, was rather a big, fat snake. 

After that, we followed Ginny’s advice and stayed in the middle of the path and did not stray.

The Brown House is a traditional cabin with dark wood floors and walls and a lovely, wide deck wrapping around three-fourths of the house and big, open rooms. The deck is perfect for sitting and reading, contemplating nature, or (our favorite) taking a nap.  

Lou enclosed the screened-in porch in the front and made it her office area — it has a beautiful view of the trees and stream and is the best room in the cabin (in our opinion).

The Brown House
There are big open areas to the left and in front, with stone fireplaces and comfortable chairs, rocking chairs and sofas for sitting and chatting or reading. 

To the right are the bedrooms. They are spare but do have built-in bookshelves. Originally it was one bedroom with twin beds. The Hoovers added another bedroom for Lou in case Hoover was working. He didn’t think it was fair to disturb her sleep if he had to stay up late.

Ranger Ginny showing us the porch of
the Brown House.
In the bedroom is a photo of men tossing a big ball over what looks like a volleyball net.  This is “Hooverball,” invented by Hoover and his White House physician, Joel Boone.  It consisted of tossing a 7-8 pound medicine ball over a net spanning a tennis court.  Hoover was a big believer in physical fitness and believed your mind needed exercise before you could work.  Hoover played the game with his cabinet members before work. (The game is still played during Hoover’s Hometown Days every August in his hometown of West Branch, IW.)

In 1932, FDR beat Hoover by 7 million votes.  During the transition, the country continued to suffer but FDR didn’t offer to help the outgoing administration.  He wanted the country to continue to go downhill so Hoover would get more blame (Shlaes, 2007). 

When Franklin D. Roosevelt took office, he visited Rapidan. But since he was in a wheelchair, and Rapidan is not very accessible, he couldn’t use it. But he liked the concept, so he created another version in Western Maryland, which was called Shangri-La until the 1950s, when Dwight D. Eisenhower renamed it for his grandson, David. Since then, it has been known as Camp David.


Rapidan Camp is located in Shenandoah National Park in Virginia, about 70 miles from Washington, DC.  Reservations must be made in advance to visit the camp.  Tickets for the 2.5 hour tour can be purchased on this website: or by phone:  540-999-3500 x3283.   Tickets are $10.  Children 12 and under are free.


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