Stewart D. McLaurin
As students head back to school and are asked the classic “what did you do on your summer vacation” query, consider how those with one of the most stressful jobs in the world – America’s presidents – may have answered that question.
While former first lady Nancy Reagan once observed that “presidents don’t get vacations, they just get a change of scenery,” here’s how some tried to escape the pressures of 24/7 work and summer heat.
Though the responsibilities of the office of the president never cease regardless of location, visiting these places today reminds us that in our democracy, history is made anywhere.
A presidential staycation
Washington, D.C.: The Soldiers’ Home
- Presidents James Buchanan, Abraham Lincoln and Rutherford B. Hayes
The first “official” presidential summer retreat was just 4 miles from the White House, at the Soldiers’ Home. Buchanan, besieged by political storms in the lead-up to the Civil War, came to dread official dinners at the White House, where Northern and Southern guests were likely to square off across the table.
Though Buchanan loved taking longer breaks at Pennsylvania spas, he traveled for short retreats from 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue to the Soldiers’ Home on 500 acres of green countryside just north of the Capitol. Wagonloads of White House furniture were hauled there and lace curtains hung while presidents were in residence.
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Lincoln sought respite from wartime pressures so often that the house he used there became known as “The Lincoln Cottage.” It’s believed Lincoln drafted the Emancipation Proclamation there. And it’s where Lincoln heard the news about the Battle of Gettysburg, a key turning point in the war. Hayes also stayed frequently, though as modes of transportation improved, presidents and their families increasingly eyed vacation sites farther away.
►Touring tip: The restored Lincoln Cottage, on the grounds of what is still the Armed Forces Retirement Home, is now a public museum.
The Jersey Shore: Grant Cottage
- President Ulysses S. Grant – others nearby
Grant put the presidential stamp on the Jersey Shore for three months every year, calling Long Branch “the summer capital,” where he would hold Cabinet meetings and then drive his horse-drawn carriage along the beach. The cottage, which he received as a gift, in Elberon was also where theater stars and other performers of the day summered. Grant continued vacationing there until 1885, long after he left office.
►Touring tip: The cottage was demolished in 1963, but you can visit the nearby Seven Presidents Oceanfront Park in New Jersey, named in honor of U.S. presidents who spent summers in the area: Grant, Hayes, James A. Garfield, Chester A. Arthur, Benjamin Harrison, William McKinley and Woodrow Wilson.
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Bedford, Pennsylvania: The Bedford Springs Spa
- Presidents James A. Polk and James Buchanan
Like other well-off Americans, several presidents journeyed in the mid-19th century to Pennsylvania to soak in and drink up to 20 glasses a day of the reputedly healthful Allegheny Mountains’ waters. At the fashionable resort, presidents and guests alike walked trails, swam in a man-made lake, gathered for afternoon conversation in rocking chairs and danced in the ballroom at night.
►Touring tip: Bedford Springs, a National Historic Landmark, is open to the public as a privately run hotel and resort.
New England homesteads
Hyannis Port, Massachusetts: The Kennedy Compound
- President John F. Kennedy
The Kennedy family home on Cape Cod was where John F. Kennedy unwound before and throughout his presidency. The 6-acre estate on Nantucket Sound also was a home base for launching his presidential campaign.
Family patriarch Joseph P. Kennedy purchased a single cottage there in 1928, enlarging it and remodeling it for his growing family of nine children.
JFK was said to be never happier than when he was in Hyannis Port at the tiller of a sailboat, steering the course, chomping on a small cigar, lunching on fish chowder, and bantering with family and friends.
►Touring tip: While the family compound is not open to the public and the homes are not visible from the street, the John F. Kennedy Hyannis Museum is nearby, and the John F. Kennedy Presidential Library and Museum is an hour and a half north in Boston.
Kennebunkport, Maine: Walker’s Point
- President George H.W. Bush
On the rocky shores of Kennebunkport, Maine, the longtime “Walker’s Point” home of President George Herbert Walker Bush was a frequent “Summer White House” retreat for his entire family. “This is a place where we really enjoy ourselves” he said, “but more than that, kind of refurbish our souls, get our batteries all charged up and enjoy life really to the fullest.”
Work would inevitably follow him there: British Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher and Soviet President Mikhail Gorbachev were among a number of world leaders who visited. The president would invite VIPs and even members of the press corps to challenge him in horseshoes or take a ride on his speedboat (sometimes giving them the wheel to the consternation of the Secret Service).
►Touring tip: The Walker’s Point home is easily viewed from the shoreline Ocean Avenue.
Ranching & relaxing
Stonewall, Texas: The LBJ Ranch
- President Lyndon B. Johnson
“All my life I have drawn strength and something more from those Texas Hills,” Johnson said of the hill country 60 miles west of Austin where heads of state and other visitors saw him in his element. LBJ was born, lived, died, and was buried at the ranch. During his time as president, Johnson made the ranch a virtual extension of the White House.
►Touring tip: The Lyndon B. Johnson National Historical Park is open to visitors, including a self-guided driving tour with a smartphone-app audio guide
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Yosemite, California: the tranquility of the high Sierra
- Presidents Theodore Roosevelt, Franklin D. Roosevelt and others
Just like any tourists, presidents sometimes go to beautiful places for just a few days of R&R. But if a president is captivated by a location, he can take steps to help preserve it for centuries and visitors to come.
When President Theodore Roosevelt visited Yosemite in 1903, he was guided by naturalist John Muir for three nights of camping, as the National Park Service describes it, “first under the outstretched arms of the Grizzly Giant in the Mariposa Grove of Giant Sequoias, then in a snowstorm atop five feet of snow near Sentinel Dome, and finally in a meadow near the base of Bridalveil Fall.”
The experience led the president to expand federal protection for Yosemite – and sign into existence five national parks, 18 national monuments, 55 national bird sanctuaries and wildlife refuges, and 150 national forests.
Other presidents, including Franklin D. Roosevelt and JFK, would be part of the more than 200 million people who have visited Yosemite since Theodore Roosevelt’s fateful turn-of-the-century vacation getaway.
►Touring tip: Yosemite National Park is one of the most popular tourist destinations in the United States. Reservations may be required to drive into the park during peak hours; check the National Park Service website for advisories on wildfire and other weather-related temporary restrictions.
Santa Barbara, California, area: The Reagan Ranch (Rancho del Cielo)
- President Ronald Reagan
As Reagan’s second term as the governor of California drew to a close, he and Nancy purchased a 688-acre vacation home, “Rancho del Cielo” (Ranch of the Sky), northwest of Santa Barbara. During his presidency, the Reagans would spend summers and other break times at the ranch, clearing brush and riding horses to escape, as the president put it, a “bird-in-a-gilded cage feeling” from everyday life in the White House.
But it wasn’t a complete getaway. Cabinet members would stay nearby, situation briefings were held and world leaders would come for dinner and talks.
►Touring tip: While Rancho del Cielo, since sold by the family, was never open to the public, the official Ronald Reagan Presidential Library and Museum is open to visitors about an hour and a half south of the ranch site, in Simi Valley, California.
Stewart D. McLaurin is president of the White House Historical Association, a private nonprofit, nonpartisan organization founded by first lady Jacqueline Kennedy in 1961 to privately fund maintaining the museum standard of the White House and to provide publications and programs on White House history.