by Ann Marie Bezayiff
After spending the day in Thurmont during the Colorfest Celebration, I was driving home along 550 and noticed a “Do Not Enter, Local Traffic Only” sign, where the Foxville-Deerfield Road meets Rte. 550. Later, I heard a rumor that Vice President Biden was at Camp David. Therefore, Foxville-Deerfield Road was off limits.
For us novices to the area, Camp David is a mysterious and curious place, so I did a little research on whitehouse.gov, nps.gov, and frederick.com. Located 62-64 miles from Washington D.C., it is situated on 200 acres in the Catoctin Mountains, near Thurmont. The Camp David Accords and the 38th G8 Summit brought world leaders together in this place. Strange to think that some of the most powerful people in the world gather together to talk, negotiate, or relax in our backyard. In reality, they’ve been part of the neighborhood since the middle 1800s.
Located 1,800 feet above sea level, the area became a respite from the humid summers of Washington D.C. Dignitaries, ambassadors, and federal personnel spent summers in near-by Cascade and enjoyed visiting Pen Mar and the surrounding area. President Herbert Hoover first visited what is now known as Camp David when his secretary, Larry Ritchie, bought acreage in the Catoctin Mountains near Thurmont.
In 1935, the Works Projects Administration (WPA) began building the Catoctin Recreational Demonstration Area Project near Thurmont, the same area that Hoover had visited. It was built as a demonstration site, an example of how to create parks from over-worked farmland. Completed in 1938, it was named Hi-Catoctin and became a summer camp for federal agents and their families. The property housed several small cabins, a dining hall and a swimming pool.
In 1942, Franklin D. Roosevelt, during a three-day visit, decided to convert the camp into a presidential retreat. He named it Shangri-La for the fictional Himalayan paradise in James Hilton’s novel Lost Horizon. He sent instructions for remodeling the lodges and asked for the construction of a main lodge, which resembled the Roosevelt home in Warm Springs, Georgia. Once constructed, the lodge was named “The Bear’s Den.”
In 1953, President Dwight D. Eisenhower renamed Shangri-La Camp David in honor of his father and grandson. Today, it is officially known as Naval Support Facility Thurmont, and considered a military instillation. It is staffed by the U.S. Navy and the U.S. Marine Corps.
As in the past, Presidents and their staffs are still a part of the scenery. Local residents share family stories of a waving Churchill, as his car made its way to Camp David. There are numerous stories of lunches and teas at the Cozy Inn in downtown Thurmont, where presidents and their first ladies often visited. Dignitaries from around the world, White House staff members, news commentators, and officials have been common visitors to the Thurmont area. Eisenhower’s grandson, David, and his wife, Tricia Nixon, spent their honeymoon at Camp David. Gerald Ford rode his snowmobile in the area. President Carter could be found fishing in the local streams. George W. Bush’s daughter was married at Camp David in 1992. Clinton played golf at the nearby Maple Run Golf Club. Each president has his own story to tell of his experiences at Camp David.
Through the ‘50s and ‘80s, the local young girls often dated the guards and military personnel stationed at Camp David. At that time, visitors and residents could drive to the entrance and even visit the camp with an escort. From those in the know, I’ve heard the best view for July 4th Fireworks is near High Rock on the Camp David grounds. Helicopters carry the dignitaries today. You can see and hear them overhead, and you probably think, “That must be the president going to Camp David.”
Now, when I stop where the Foxville-Deerfield meets Rte. 550, I look past the railroad tracks and toward the mountains, looking for signs of visitors from Washington. Perhaps I’ll have my own Camp David Story to share someday.