Shenandoah National Park’s history is fundamentally linked to two of the most significant political actors of their day, Herbert Hoover and Franklin Delano Roosevelt. Both presidents had a connection to the land in their own particular way. I have been privileged to visit the park twice in the past six months, and both times I have noticed perplexing representations of both individuals.
What was Herbert Hoover’s relationship to Shenandoah National Park? Well, in reality he did not have one while he was in office. The park opened during FDR’s first term. However, along Rapidan Creek within the present park boundaries, Hoover built Rapidan Camp, a log cabin retreat and a forerunner to presidential escapes like Camp David and Hyannis Port. For Franklin Roosevelt, the Skyline Drive was one of the ways he could enjoy his country’s parks, due to the fact he could enjoy the Shenandoah’s great nature from the backseat of an automobile. Roosevelt also presided over the park’s dedication, and there encouraged Americans to find “recreation and re-creation” in the Blue Ridge Mountains.
Hoover’s representation in the park’s public venues is noticeably favorable. When you enter the museum section of the Harry F. Byrd Visitor Center, you are first greeted to Hoover’s campaign song, “If He’s Good Enough For Lindy.” The song is centered on Charles Lindbergh’s endorsement of Hoover, and continuously reminds its listeners that “Hoover is the only man who can keep our country free!” One of the first images you see is Hoover fishing along the Rapidan as well. This past June we hiked down to Rapidan Camp, and got a long tour of the small cabin from a Park Service Volunteer, who repeatedly reminded our group that Hoover had warned Wall Street investors about the dangers of over-speculation. It might be true, but I was more interested in the history of the space, not exonerating Hoover from the disaster of the Great Depression.
On the other hand, Franklin’s Roosevelt’s relationship with the park can be viewed as intrusive, and in some cases, nefarious. In the Byrd Center, which repeatedly plays the Lindbergh song and not so much as a note of “Happy Days Are Here Again,” there are extensive depictions of the men, women and children who were evicted from their local homes when the park was created. The Roosevelt administration comes across as a villain in these displays, and even the park introductory video presented regularly in the theater makes a similar claim. Our parks service volunteer at Rapidan Camp was also keen to point out the political attractiveness Roosevelt saw in opening a national park close to eastern urban centers. If Hoover was the Depression’s Nostradamus who merely got caught in the White House at the wrong time, then Franklin Roosevelt was a villain, who exploited the park lands and forced diaspora on the peoples of the Blue Ridge.
My issues with these depictions are numerous. First, Hoover’s relative inactivity at the beginning of the Depression was one of the presidency’s great sins. Hoover’s meetings at Rapidan Camp might have set out to discuss the depression’s most pressing questions, but no answers were found. Second, blaming the Roosevelt administration for local evictions neglects similar practices in national park history. Loggers in the Great Smokies, Shoshone Indians in Yellowstone, tradesmen at Mammoth Cave, among others, were all dispossessed of their lands as parks were created. And finally, Roosevelt’s depiction does not adequately celebrate the triumph of New Deal programs in the park, particularly the Civilian Conservation Corps. Do not be mistaken, the Shenandoah experience loves to show off their CCC history. You can even watch a twenty minute public television video in the theater, which contains interviews from past CCC boys. However, the CCC was particularly close to Roosevelt, and he was the agency’s chief architect, a role that the displays and videos fail to mention.
If you want to learn more about Shenandoah and its history, I encourage you to visit their website, or visit in person. The north entrance is three and a half hours away from Villanova! Get out there, explore the history, and find your park!