The Pasttimes of Presidents
The Pasttimes of Presidents

The Pasttimes of Presidents

Larry Holzwarth - October 25, 2019

The Pasttimes of Presidents
President and Mrs. Hoover at Camp Rapidan in Virginia, which they had built. Library of Congress

18. Herbert Hoover built the first presidential retreat in Virginia

Herbert Hoover was a successful and wealthy mining engineer and entrepreneur before he entered public service, and in that role, he learned to love camping and fishing. As president, he wanted a site not too far from Washington where he could relax and take his ease. Virginia’s Shenandoah region beckoned, and Hoover purchased a tract on the eastern side of the Blue Ridge Mountains. Hoover paid for the land with his own money and intended to pay for the construction of the 13 buildings it would grow to, but in the end, he allowed the US Marine Corps to erect the facility as part of their training.

Camp Rapidan it was called, and Hoover used it for extended breaks from the heat and humidity of a Washington summer, while remaining in contact with the government. The president relaxed by fishing, riding, and simply enjoying the views at the rustic site. Hoover donated the camp to the Commonwealth of Virginia before leaving office in 1933, with the expressed hope that it would continue to be used as a summer retreat for the president. His successor, FDR, found the site too rugged to be navigated by his wheelchair.

The Pasttimes of Presidents
The Oval Office as it appeared during the long presidency of Franklin Roosevelt. Library of Congress

19. Franklin Roosevelt built a formidable stamp collection

Before polio took away his use of his legs, Franklin Delano Roosevelt was a dedicated athlete, swimming, playing golf and tennis, and other sports. He continued to swim after recovering from the first attack of polio, in the belief that it would help strengthen his legs. But his favorite hobby, one on which he worked nearly every day, was his stamp collection. He relaxed with it in the Oval Office, in his private study, while traveling on Navy ships and the Presidential yacht, and whenever he had a bit of spare time to give it his attention. He began collecting stamps at the age of eight. He continued to the day he died.

Roosevelt wasn’t concerned with the financial value of the stamps he collected. He treasured his hobby because the stamps reflected both history and geography, subjects of lifelong interest. Roosevelt cheerfully admitted that nearly 80% of his collection had no particular value at all, calling the stamps “scrap”. By the time of his death in April, 1945, his collection included 1.2 million stamps, all categorized and collated with meticulous care. After his death, the collection was sold at auction, with the stamps given to him officially by foreign governments retained. They are now in the Roosevelt Library.

The Pasttimes of Presidents
Harry Truman relaxed by playing poker, the piano, and by leading the press on long walks. White House

20. Truman enjoyed walking and playing poker and the piano

Harry Truman, like other presidents before him, was a dedicated poker player, which he enjoyed as relaxation at the White House, aboard his yacht USS Williamsburg, and at his preferred presidential retreat, the Little White House at Key West. His famous sign reading The Buck Stops Here referred not to the dollar, but to the buck passed between dealers in a poker game. Truman also enjoyed bourbon during his playing (and at other times throughout the day), and was reportedly a good, but not a great player. Truman and his playing cronies once had Winston Churchill as a guest in their game.

Churchill lost steadily, to the point where the president directed the other players during break to give the Englishman a break and let him win a few hands. Besides playing poker, Truman also played the piano, and enjoyed performing before an audience from time to time. His most famous means of recreation was his fondness for brisk walks, often with a train of reporters struggling to record the president’s thoughts and keep up with his pace. Truman enjoyed deep sea fishing while at Key West, but more for the camaraderie involved than the taking of game fish.

The Pasttimes of Presidents
In this 1954 letter the president boasted about his golf game and mentioned looking forward to playing bridge. National Archives

21. Eisenhower was the president most associated with golf for many years

Dwight Eisenhower enjoyed golf before his presidency, and it became his favorite form of recreation while he occupied the White House. He played as frequently as he could, and it was he who built a putting green on the White House Lawn. But golf was far from the president’s only form of relaxation. He too enjoyed playing cards, but it was the game of bridge, rather than poker, to which he took a fancy. Eisenhower made it a requirement of his staff officers during the Second World War that they are able to play bridge, and play it well. One bridge expert played at the White House and reported that Ike played bridge better than he did golf.

Eisenhower also enjoyed painting, creating over 250 oil paintings beginning with his association with Columbia University in 1948. He painted a few portraits, but the majority of his paintings were landscapes. Eisenhower also enjoyed grilling while visiting Camp David and while at the White House, usually grilling thick steaks for family and guests, using his own special seasonings. When he read for relaxation he preferred western novels, with those of Zane Grey a particular favorite. After retiring to his Gettysburg farm Ike raised prize-winning cattle.

The Pasttimes of Presidents
JFK and family at their summer home in Hyannisport in the summer of 1962. JFK Library

22. Jack Kennedy preferred swimming, sailing, and smoking cigars

President Kennedy loved the water his entire life and spent as much of his time as he could either on or in it. He came from an athletic family, but problems with his back limited his ability to participate too strenuously in the famous touch football games at the Kennedy compound. He did play golf as president, not as often as his predecessor, but according to some, he was a better player than Eisenhower. But it was to the water he turned for relaxation, sometimes sailing himself in family-owned boats and yachts, and often aboard the official Presidential Yacht, USS Sequoia. He also used the Honey Fitz.

Kennedy valued the time aboard Sequoia because it was free from the press and photographers. He spent his last birthday aboard the yacht in May 1963, and he was scheduled to host a cruise accompanied with Jackie and close friends on November 24 of that year. Instead, his body lay in State in Washington on that day. Kennedy also was fond of Camp David, and he purchased an estate to use as a retreat near Middleburg, in Virginia’s horse country. After Kennedy’s assassination, the logs and records of his use of the Presidential Yacht were destroyed for reasons officially never disclosed.

The Pasttimes of Presidents
Johnson’s Amphicar is in the center of this photo of three of his many vehicles kept at his Texas ranch. Library of Congress

23. Lyndon Johnson liked to frighten guests at his Texas ranch with his Amphicar

Like most 20th century presidents, Lyndon Johnson loved to drive his own car, an impossibility in Washington. For relaxation, Johnson preferred to visit his ranch, where there were several vehicles available for him to drive, accompanied by his guests. They were his toys, and he loved playing with them, particularly his white Lincoln convertible, which he would drive about the property, happily swigging scotch and soda. Johnson also had a 1934 Ford with a bar in the back seat, which he used for hunting on his property, and a 1915 fire truck on which he liked to ring the bell.

His favorite vehicle for terrorizing his guests was his Amphicar. Amphicars were built in Germany during the 1960s, and fewer than 4,000 were built, but Johnson managed to get his hands on one. The car was designed to operate on roads and on water, with screw propellers engaged it could cross water, though it could not achieve much in the way of speed. Johnson enjoyed approaching the lake on his ranch down a steep grade, before shouting that the brakes weren’t working, crashing into the water while his passengers panicked, before serenely continuing on with the sound of the president’s laughter in their ears.

The Pasttimes of Presidents
Richard Nixon preferred bowling, though he dutifully took up golf as Eisenhower’s vice president. Nixon Library

24. Richard Nixon brought bowling back to the White House

A bowling alley was installed in the White House during the Truman Administration, though Truman did not care for the sport. It was used by staff with his approval, but in 1955 during the Eisenhower Administration, it was moved across the street to the Executive Office Building. When Richard Nixon entered the White House in 1969 he ordered another bowling alley installed, underground near the North Portico. The alley built for Nixon was a single lane and was paid for by friends of the president and Mrs. Nixon, both of whom were avid bowlers. They used the bowling alley often.

Bowling was not Nixon’s only means of relaxing during his presidential terms. He took up golf as Eisenhower’s vice president and played during his presidency, but the socializing which is a large part of golf made him uncomfortable. He enjoyed watching professional football and even designed plays which he gave to Miami Dolphins head coach Don Shula before Super Bowl VI. Nixon allegedly called Redskins head coach George Allen with play suggestions as well, though confirmation by any of the parties involved was never forthcoming.

The Pasttimes of Presidents
Gerald Ford with Liberty, his Golden Retriever when he took office. Ford Presidential Library

25. Gerald Ford relaxed with exercise, sports, and parlor games

Ford was the first man to enter the Oval Office as President without having been elected as either president or vice president. His presidency followed one of the nation’s greatest political scandals, and was controversial from the start. After he pardoned Richard Nixon cries of a corrupt deal were loud and long. Ford found solace in participating in sports. He made frequent use of the White House swimming pool, as well as the pool installed by Nixon at Camp David. He also played tennis and golf and made several skiing trips during his short tenure in office. Ford was also an avid reader.

For relaxation, while in the White House residence, Ford was another stamp collector, though his collection was never as extensive as FDR’s, and he did not dedicate as much time to the hobby as his predecessor had. He played bridge, as well as other card games, and collected pipes, which he smoked throughout his presidency. To date, he was the last pipe smoker to occupy the White House. Ford was a gifted athlete, though some poorly timed falls during his presidency left many with the impression that he was clumsy. He enjoyed ballroom dancing, which is a clear indication that he was anything but.

 

Where do we find this stuff? Here are our sources:

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“Violins”. Article, Thomas Jefferson Encyclopedia, Thomas Jefferson’s Monticello. Online

“Tiny clues let Montpelier identify Madison’s chess set”. Joshua Barney, Chess Daily News. February 4, 2011

“John Quincy Adams: Family Life”. Margaret A. Hogan, Miller Center, University of Virginia. Online

“Presidents at the Races”. Article, The White House Historical Association. Online

“History & Culture”. Article, Martin Van Buren National Historic Site. National Park Service. Online

“John Tyler: Family Life”. William Freehling, Miller Center, University of Virginia. Online

“Abraham Lincoln Is the Only President Ever to Have a Patent”. Owen Edwards, Smithsonian Magazine. October 2006

“Places to Go”. Article, Andrew Johnson National Historic Site. National Park Service. Online

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“Who Really Won the Election of 1876”. Mike Orgill and David Drazin. Croquet World Online Magazine. November 2, 2008

“TR: The Last Romantic”. H. W. Brands. 1997

“Golfers in Chief: The presidents who played golf, from Taft to Trump”. Bill Speros and Brentley Romine, Golf Week. February 18, 2019. Online

“The Floating White House”. Lawrence L. Knutson, The White House Historical Association. Online

“Warren G. Harding: Campaigns and Elections”. Eugene P. Trani, Miller Center, University of Virginia. Online

“President Herbert and Lou Henry Hoover’s Rapidan Camp, Virginia”. Article, National Park Service. Online

“FDR’s Stamp Collection: A Childhood Hobby He Took to the Oval Office”. Jordan Steffen, Smithsonian.com. August 4, 2009

“Truman”. David McCullough. 1992

“President Eisenhower: The Painter”. Sister Wendy Beckett, The White House Historical Association. Online

“Whatever happened to the Presidential Yacht?” Oliver Sharpe, Town and Country Magazine. July 17, 2017

“Presidential Vehicles”. Article, Lyndon B. Johnson National Historical Park. National Park Service. Online

“The White House Bowling Alley”. Article, The White House Museum. Online

“Gerald R. Ford”. Article, The White House Historical Association. Online

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