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Anyone who has been exposed to the celebrated discomforts of a Washington summer can appreciate the desire of our Presidents to escape its pernicious grip. Once they begin to notice the softening effects of the August sun on asphalt pavements, they come to the conclusion that similar changes may be taking place inside the brain. They do what any prudent person would do in such circumstances. They flee.
Calvin Coolidge, attended by a cadre of grateful White House correspondents, used to sit out the summer months in some cool, agreeable resort area. To lighten their professional burdens, the reporters took turns keeping an eye on the President while their colleagues were left free to fish or play poker and, like their successors in San Clemente, dine out handsomely on capital gossip.
Herbert Hoover in a way formalized presidential leisure. Early in his star-crossed administration, he dispatched two scouts into the wilds of Virginia's Blue Ridge Mountains to search out a secluded spot where he could get away on weekends and do a little fishing. He wanted something cool (it would have to be at least 2,500 feet above sea level) and convenient (not more than 100 miles from Washington). And, for this lifelong angler, there would have to be plenty of good fishing.
The two emissaries found just what the President seemed to have in mind when they made their way up a muddy corkscrew trail to a mountain fastness where two creeks converged to form the headwaters of the Rapidan River. The following June, when the Hoovers set out to have a look at the proposed campsite, they had to abandon their limousine and cover the last eight miles of rugged, pine-covered mountainside on horseback.
To the President's delight, the reporters tagging along behind him were sealed off from the mountaintop by the forbidding terrain, with an assist from the Secret Service. For Hoover, one of the chief enticements of having an isolated summer sanctuary was freedom from the press. It pained him to be constantly shadowed by what he regarded as professional peeping toms. Every man, even a President, he liked to point out, had the right to be left alone at certain times.
"Next to prayer," he once said, "fishing is the most personal relationship of man."
Leaving the White House reporters to explore the worldly pleasures of Criglersville, where local moonshiners colored their $2-a-gallon corn liquor with burnt sugar and palmed it off on the press as $5 bourbon, the Hoovers spent the night under a tent near the splashing waters of the Rapidan. Next morning, while her husband went looking for brook trout, Mrs. Hoover gathered wild-flowers, and by the time they headed back for Washington they were drawing up plans for their summer place.
It was ready by August 1929, two months before the stock market crash and in time for the President's 55th birthday. He received an unexpected present from an 11-year-old neighbor, Ray Burraker, who showed up at the camp with a baby possum in a soapbox. The youngster favored the weekend visitors with a song (I Will Meet You Up There in the Morning) and, to their amusement, he said of the 1928 campaign, "My paw was such a bum guesser he had to climb a tall hickory tree after the election." Hoover took a liking to the lad and saw to it that he got a hefty wedge of the birthday cake. The President also managed to slip a $5 bill into the youngster's hand.
A few days later, when Madison County was getting ready to stage a whopping official welcome for the Hoovers (Governor Harry Byrd was coming up from Richmond in an Army blimp), an Associated Press reporter ran into Ray, who said he'd trapped two more possums, for which he hoped to get $5 apiece. Five dollars was quite a windfall in a time and place where the head of a family might go all year without handling as much as $100 in cash. The Hoovers were shocked to find that, like his illiterate parents, Ray had never been to school (and never heard of Colonel Lindbergh), and the President later spent $1,200 of his own money to build a schoolhouse for the community.
"I have discovered why Presidents take to fishing, the silent sport," Hoover told his new neighbors when they crowded into the Madison County Fair Grounds to greet him a week after his birthday party on the Rapidan. "Apparently the only opportunity for refreshment of one's soul and clarification of one's thoughts by solitude to Presidents lies through fishing."