Lyndon Baines Johnson had his ranch in the Texas Hill Country. John F. Kennedy spent many weekends in coastal Massachusetts at the family property in Hyannis Port. George W. Bush famously decamped to his Crawford, Texas, property to cut brush. From before there was even a habitable White House (circa 1800), U.S. presidents have been escaping from the pressures of the office and, seasonally, the stifling summer humidity of the nation’s capital.
Their getaways—some now open to the public, others just important-by-association spots on a map—are pilgrimage points for history buffs and political junkies alike. “Americans really feel close to the president, and yet they don’t have access to the places where the president does the most important work,” says Claire Jerry, curator of political history at the Smithsonian’s National Museum of American History in Washington, D.C. “You can’t really understand someone if you don’t understand the things that mattered to them,” says Jerry.
Visiting these presidential retreats means you can walk in their footsteps, idle beside their fishing streams, and better comprehend these men and their legacies.
The evolution of presidential vacations
Presidential getaways have always been shaped by their times. “The whole idea of taking a vacation is a modern idea,” says Matthew Costello, senior historian for the White House Historical Association and vice president of the David M. Rubenstein National Center for White House History.
In the country’s earliest days, U.S. chief executives primarily traveled home when Congress was out of session to visit family and take care of the business of their estates. For plantation owners, including George Washington (northern Virginia’s Mount Vernon) and Thomas Jefferson (central Virginia’s Monticello), this could mean time “off” overseeing slave labor.
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It wasn’t until the wake of the Civil War that the presidents began to escape farther afield, thanks both to the advent of quicker-than-horseback railroads and the newly invented telephone, which allowed them to stay connected with staffers and members of Congress.
“It’s a vacation, but really the president is always on call,” Costello says. “It doesn’t matter where they go, because the job basically goes with them.”
Presidents have frequently been criticized for taking time off—with politicos arguing perennially over which modern presidents have spent the most time golfing or fishing. Costello points out that people in such high-stress jobs need breaks from work as much as anyone else. “The presidency is a job where you cannot afford to be burned out,” he says.
Lincoln’s hilltop summer retreat
Abraham Lincoln made some of the most critical decisions of the Civil War while staying in a Gothic Revival house just three miles north of the White House. From 1862 to 1864, he spent summers at the 34-room escape now known as President Lincoln’s Cottage. Originally part of the Old Soldiers’ Home, a sanctuary for elderly or wounded veterans, it provided the president and his family a respite from the humidity of downtown Washington, D.C. Lincoln himself continued to commute to the White House by horseback for meetings.
The cottage was a workplace, too, where Lincoln met with his cabinet and began writing the Emancipation Proclamation, which would free enslaved people in the U.S. But the site wasn’t free from danger: In July 1864, the Lincolns were evacuated when Confederate troops attacked nearby Fort Stevens. The following month, a sniper attempted to assassinate the president during his commute, leading the War Department to step up its security protocols—though perhaps not stringently enough: Lincoln was killed by John Wilkes Booth at D.C.’s Ford’s Theatre less than a year later.
Today, Lincoln’s Cottage hosts exhibits exploring Lincoln’s decision-making during the war and his family’s daily life among the veterans at the Soldiers’ Home. “It really brings that part of the Lincoln presidency to light in a very powerful way,” Jerry says.
Coolidge boosts South Dakota tourism
In 1927, President Calvin Coolidge announced that he wanted to spend the summer in the rapidly expanding American West. South Dakota legislators leaped at the chance to lure a sitting president to their state, which at the time was betting on tourism dollars driven by the rise of automobiles. The state had just commissioned an artist to sculpt four former U.S. presidents onto the side of a mountain, a tourist attraction that would become known as Mount Rushmore.
Coolidge and his family stayed at the State Game Lodge, a resort that had opened earlier in the decade. There, he spent his free time fishing in what has since been renamed the Grace Coolidge Creek, after his wife. Throughout the three-month working vacation, Coolidge did his job from offices at a high school in nearby Rapid City—where he famously announced that he wouldn’t seek another term as president. He also spoke at the dedication ceremony for Mount Rushmore. The visit had its intended effect. As South Dakota magazine writes, the Coolidge summer White House “perhaps cemented the region’s status as the popular tourist attraction that it is today.”
It’s possible to recreate some of Coolidge’s South Dakota vacation today—from visiting Mount Rushmore to bunking at the wood-paneled State Game Lodge, still in operation and now listed on the National Register of Historic Places.
Hoover’s cabin in the mountains
Anticipating that he’d need a place to unwind from the stresses of his new job, Herbert Hoover bought 164 acres of land in the Blue Ridge Mountains of Virginia within a month of assuming the presidency in March 1929. Located three-and-a-half hours from the White House, the Rapidan Camp was a compound made up of 13 cabins, plus rock gardens and waterfalls along the Rapidan River.
While previous presidents had vacationed at existing resorts and cottages, the National Park Service notes that Hoover’s Summer White House “was the first complex specifically designed as a presidential retreat.” Hoover held meetings and conducted other official business from the camp, particularly during difficult years of the Great Depression. He also did a lot of fishing—a sport that Hoover loved. (Jerry says Hoover’s fishing reel is among the most popular artifacts at the National Museum of American History.)
In January 1933, just before leaving office, Hoover gave the camp to the state of Virginia with the intention that it would become part of soon-to-be-established Shenandoah National Park. He suggested, too, that his successors could use it as a retreat.
Although future presidents didn’t take Hoover up on the offer, the National Park Service now conducts reservation-only ranger tours of the compound from late spring through fall; hikers can view the cabin’s exterior all year round. An online exhibit offers additional information about the camp.
FDR’s therapeutic retreat in Georgia
Coolidge’s immediate successor, Franklin Delano Roosevelt, decided not to vacation at Rapidan Camp since it would be too difficult to navigate in his wheelchair. Instead, Roosevelt created his own presidential country residence in Maryland’s Catoctin Mountain Park, dubbing it Shangri-La. Now known as Camp David, the retreat has been used by presidents ever since for getaways and meetings with foreign dignitaries.
Roosevelt had an even more healing place where he could escape the demands of the presidency: Warm Springs, Georgia. In 1924—nine years before becoming the president and just a few years after polio paralyzed him from the waist down—Roosevelt traveled to this resort town in hopes of finding a cure in its therapeutic mineral waters.
Although soaking in the pools didn’t cure the future president, it significantly improved his health. Roosevelt returned to Warm Springs nearly every year thereafter and even established a rehabilitation center in 1926 to help other polio patients. Roosevelt stayed in a six-room cottage dubbed the Little White House, where he would later die of a stroke during his fourth term in office in 1945.
Although visitors can no longer swim in the springs, the Little White House and the nearby pools are now a museum complex. Tours take in Roosevelt’s home, including the unfinished portrait that he was posing for when he suffered his fatal cerebral hemorrhage.
Truman’s Little White House in Key West
Harry Truman was not fond of the White House. As Costello recounts, the 33rd president sometimes referred to the executive mansion as the “Great White Prison” and was quick to agree when U.S. Navy Admiral Chester W. Nimitz recommended that he spend some of his downtime at a naval officer residence in Key West, Florida.
Truman would go on to spend 11 working vacations at the Key West residence—his own Little White House—where he developed the Marshall Plan to rebuild Europe in the wake of World War II and discussed the future of Palestine and Israel. In 1948, the Joint Chiefs of Staff met at the Little White House to negotiate merging the Departments of War and Navy to create the Department of Defense.
Several of Truman’s successors visited the south Florida residence, including Dwight Eisenhower, John F. Kennedy, Bill Clinton, and Jimmy Carter. Now owned by the Florida government, it’s the state’s only presidential museum and holds exhibits on Truman’s presidency.
Ford’s ski trips put Vail on the map
Vail was still a growing ski resort when future president Gerald Ford, then a member of the U.S. Congress, first visited in 1968. An avid skier, Ford was immediately taken with the Colorado town and bought a condo where he and his wife Betty vacationed regularly. Once Ford ascended to the White House in 1974, his visits to what some called the “Western White House” ultimately propelled Vail to international prominence.
According to the Vail Daily, the Fords not only served as informal ambassadors for Vail but they also formed close relationships with residents, hosting golf tournaments and dining at restaurants such as Gramshammer. Now, the ski town remembers the couple through its Gerald R. Ford Amphitheater and the Betty Ford Alpine Gardens, where high-altitude plants, including a showy purple lily named for the former first lady, thrive.