Landmarks of American Nature Writing

2. The Backyard of Presidents

Although George Washington, Thomas Jefferson, and James Madison were all native Virginians, Herbert Hoover, Theodore Roosevelt, and Franklin Delano Roosevelt also called the Blue Ridge home for a time. Before Camp David, before Martha's Vineyard, before Kennebunkport, there was the Blue Ridge, the Backyard of Presidents.


George Washington. Journal of My Journey over the Mountains. Ed. Joseph M. Toner. Albany: Munsell's Sons, 1892. McGregor Library.

Our first president took his first trip west of the Blue Ridge in 1748 when he was 16, travelling from Mount Vernon with a survey party to map the lands of Lord Fairfax in northern Virginia. His month-long Journal of My Journey over the Mountains describes, among other things, Washington's encounters with "thirty odd Indians coming from War," his admiration of some "most beautiful Groves of Sugar Trees," his disdain for "the Worst Road that ever was trod by Man or Beast," and his preference for "a good Feather Bed with clean Sheets."

James Madison. Letters and Other Writings of James Madison. Vol. 3 of 4 vols. Philadelphia: J. B. Lippincott and Co., 1865. Shown: "Address to the Agricultural Society of Albemarle, Virginia" (1818).

Delivered not long after he retired to "Montpelier," his Orange county estate, James Madison's "Address to the Agricultural Society of Albemarle" is an early argument for an "ecological" method of agriculture in Virginia. In his address, Madison diagnoses seven "errors in our husbandry" deserving of correction, including the cultivation of originally poor or recently impoverished land, bad ploughing techniques, the destruction of woodlands, the neglect of proper manure, the lack of irrigation, the overuse of horses, and the keeping of too many cattle.

John Burroughs. Under the Maples. New York: Houghton Mifflin, 1921. Barrett Library.

Naturalist John Burroughs joined Theodore Roosevelt at "Pine Knot"--the president's hunting cabin near Keene, Virginia--for three days in May 1908, a visit that provided the material for "With Roosevelt at Pine Knot," chapter seven of Under the Maples. On a previous visit, Roosevelt had sighted what he believed to be a flock of passenger pigeons, then near extinction. Although Burroughs declared Roosevelt's sighting to be reliable in a 1907 essay, in Under the Maples he expressed his doubts and said that Roosevelt had claimed in a letter to have been mistaken. Because existing correspondence between the two men contains no evidence of Roosevelt's reversal, the sighting remains controversial.

Thomas Lomax Hunter. The President's Camp on the Rapidan. Richmond: Virginia State Commission on Conservation and Development, 1931. Shown: "A Map of Camp Rapidan."

When Herbert Hoover was looking for a summer retreat from Washington, D.C., potential sites needed to have three characteristics: they had to be within 100 miles of the capital, be situated on a trout stream, and be at least 2,500 feet above sea level. In 1929, Hoover selected "Camp Hoover" (now a part of Shenandoah National Park) along the upper Rapidan River as his summer White House. In his widely quoted "Address at Madison Courthouse," delivered on 17 August 1929, Hoover declared fishing to be an "excuse for return to the woods and streams with their retouch of the simpler life of the frontier from which every American springs."

Franklin D. Roosevelt. The Public Papers and Addresses of Franklin D. Roosevelt. Vol. 5 of 13 vols. New York: Random House, 1938-50. Shown: "Address at the Dedication of Shenandoah National Park" (1936).

F.D.R. first visited the Blue Ridge during a stay at Camp Hoover in 1933. Although the campsite proved too rustic for his taste, he loved the mountains, whose proximity to Washington influenced his decision to establish the first Civilian Conservation Corps (CCC) camps in the Blue Ridge, where the Skyline Drive and Shenandoah National Park were being constructed. He delivered this "Address at the Dedication of Shenandoah National Park" on 3 July 1936, at the Big Meadows (Milepost 51) section of the park.


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