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How Thurmont Coexists With Presidents and Camp David

For nearly 80 years, a small town in Maryland has played host to presidents, world leaders and the media, taking the glamour and attention in stride.

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Thirteen-year-old Anne Prendergast was playing Monopoly with her cousin on the family’s front porch, a regular pastime back in the spring of 1943. The Prendergast family home was right up against the main street, in the center of Thurmont, Md., and a short distance from the small town’s only traffic light. The girls looked up from their game to see an open limousine approaching slowly, because the light had just turned red.

To their astonishment, they could clearly see President Franklin Roosevelt and British Prime Minister Winston Churchill sitting side-by-side in the rear of the car, waiting for the light to change. “Roosevelt had a hat on,” says Anne. “And he had a dog in his lap.” With arms outstretched, Churchill flashed a “V” sign to the few surprised onlookers. Soon enough, the light turned green, and the limousine made a left, heading six miles west to Shangri-La, the presidents retreat in the heavily wooded mountains of Maryland.

From the Water to the Woods


Known now as Camp David, Roosevelt’s remote enclave was created as an alternative getaway for a president accustomed to relaxing on the Potomac, aboard the presidential yacht. With German U-boats operating off the Atlantic Coast, it became necessary to find a more secure location for him to escape the stress of wartime Washington.

Sixty-five miles north of the White House, Roosevelt’s Civilian Conservation Corps (CCC) had constructed in 1938 a recreation area at the top of Catoctin Mountain above Thurmont. Intended for use by employees of the federal government and their families, the facility consisted of six oak cabins connected by dirt paths, a dining hall and swimming pool. Roosevelt visited the site in the spring of 1942 and loved it. Plumbing was installed, fences erected, and communications equipment brought in before he returned to the property on July 5.

The camp’s accommodations were comfortable but rustic (it was unused in the winter months, as there was no heat). Roosevelt named his hideaway Shangri-La, after the mystical place described in Lost Horizon, a favorite novel of the president.
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FDR and Churchill, fishing at Shangri-La in 1943. Churchill wrote about the outing in his memoirs: "No fish were caught, but he seemed to enjoy it very much, and was in great spirits for the rest of the day."
(FDR Presidential Library and Museum)
Ensconced at Shangri-La, Roosevelt could escape the city, but not the pressing concerns of the day. Cabinet officials, military leaders and at least one head of state made the trip to Thurmont to discuss war strategy with the president.

Home Improvements


Every president since Roosevelt has taken advantage of the Catoctin Mountain retreat. Some more than others. Harry Truman made only a few visits to Shangri-La, preferring to spend time at the “Little White House” in Key West, Fla. Dwight Eisenhower intended to close the facility, lumping it in with other “needless luxuries” maintained by the federal government.

But he was ultimately persuaded to keep it. Thinking Shangri-La “just a little fancy for a Kansas farm boy,” he changed the name to Camp David, in honor of his grandson. Ike oversaw extensive improvements to the facility, remodeling and redecorating cabins, building a bomb shelter and a par-three, one-hole golf course. When President Kennedy took office, he was encouraged to change the name back to Shangri-La, but he declined to do so.
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President Eisenhower with his son and grandson, on a putting green by the main lodge in 1954.
(Eisenhower Presidential Library)
Subsequent presidents have continued to make changes to the mountaintop compound, adding a pool, helipad, bridle paths and chapel, paving the pathways and generally bringing the property up to modern standards. Maintaining strict security of the area has been a priority from the beginning. As a result, Camp David and its neighbors have managed a cooperative coexistence, but always within strict boundaries.

The President’s Nearest Neighbor


Situated 10 miles south of Pennsylvania’s southern border, there are 7,000 citizens in the town of Thurmont, five times more than when Roosevelt was in residence at his mountain retreat. One weekend a year, the population swells to 125,000 when the annual arts and crafts festival takes place. Billing itself as “Gateway to the Mountains,” tourism drives a big part of the local economy. “We have branded ourselves as the place to come for outdoor activities,” says Vickie Grinder, the town’s economic development manager. “The parks bring people that buy gas; they eat at our restaurants. They keep a lot of our businesses in business.”

Mayor John Kinnaird is sure that proximity to the president is a plus for Thurmont. “Camp David brings a lot of attention to our community,” he says. “I think it’s a feather in our cap that the president thinks enough of this area that they have their getaway up here.”

As enthusiastic as he is about it, Kinnaird has never been inside the gates of the presidential retreat. His predecessor however, spent more than three years at the top of the mountain, stationed there as a Marine during the Reagan and Bush administrations.

Three-term former mayor Marty Burns is quick to recount his experience in service to two presidents. “When the Reagans were up there, they kind of kept to themselves,” he says. “The Bushes were completely different. You would never know that they were president and first lady. Barbara Bush would walk up and say, ‘Hey Marine, where are you from?’”
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Jimmy Carter, Rosalynn Carter and Anwar Sadat at Camp David in September, 1978.
(Jimmy Carter Library)
Originally from Ohio, Burns decided to settle in Thurmont after he left the Marines, something many service personnel do. “Thurmont has benefited from Camp David because a lot of the soldiers, when they leave or retire, they buy houses and stay here,” says the former mayor. “At least 20 or 30 that I can think of.”

Touching Down in Town


More often than not, when the president travels to Camp David today, it’s aboard a helicopter, landing within the compound. In 1957, Eisenhower was the first president to arrive by air, reducing the two-hour trip to just 30 minutes. In those early years, landing would take place on a local little league field or in front of the high school. More than one president has set down on a local golf course for a quick round of play. Landings today are made within the compound.

Jerry Brown has lived most of his 80 years in Thurmont. “A lot of times in the early days, the president would come up and the helicopter would land out on the other end of town,” he says. “There were people lining the streets. They wanted to see him going by. I know I went out and watched him get off the helicopter once or twice. I don’t remember which one. That’s been a good while ago.” But not every trip to Camp David is made by helicopter.

Presidential Road Trips


Back when he was a teenager, Paul Fedak was fishing one day at his family’s pond, not far from the road. A long line of black limousines, SUVs and police cars appeared through the trees, heading toward him as the procession wound its way down the hill. The motorcade slowed to a stop alongside the young man, and a heavily-tinted back window slowly lowered. “Hey,” came the voice of George H.W. Bush. “Are you catching anything?”

Truman and Kennedy would sometimes do their own driving at Camp David. On one occasion, JFK got behind the wheel of a new blue convertible and drove his family and some friends to nearby Gettysburg where they toured the battlefield. A helicopter took them back to the presidential compound.
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Nixon presents Soviet Premier Leonid Brezhnev with a brand new Lincoln Continental in 1973.
(Nixon Presidential Library)
Richard Nixon didn’t drive while he was president, but he once took a hair-raising ride around the perimeter of Camp David, with Leonid Brezhnev behind the wheel. The president had just presented the Soviet leader with the keys to a brand-new Lincoln Continental.

Local Sightings


Over the years, presidents and members of their families would make occasional trips into town. Many remember Laura Bush shopping at a local fabric store. Members of the president’s entourage and members of the military are routinely spotted around town. “We do see some soldiers in uniform in the stores,” says longtime resident Marian Harper. “You just start ignoring it.”

Mayor Kinnaird remembers an encounter at a sweet shop in the early 60s. “We were in there one afternoon and a babysitter came in with the two Kennedy kids,” he says. “They got ice cream and sat in the booth next to us. There was Secret Service with them. That was the impressive part. We didn’t give a crap who the kids were.”
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A plaque marks the pew where Eisenhower and Prime Minister Harold Macmillan sat during a local church service in 1959.
(David Kidd/Governing)
A few years later, the future mayor was outside the Lutheran church when Lyndon Johnson came down to attend a Sunday service. “We threw snowballs at Johnson,” says Kinnaird. “We were across the street throwing snowballs, and our town policeman came over and recommended that we don’t do that anymore. I didn’t hit anything. We were just goofing off."

The Unofficial Center of Town


It was a Sunday afternoon when Anne Prendergast caught sight of Winston Churchill and Franklin Roosevelt as they stopped for the traffic light in Thurmont. The world leaders had just departed the Cozy Cap Tavern, a local watering hole. According to the proprietor, Churchill enjoyed a beer while dropping nickels into the jukebox, leaving the president and his dog to wait in the car.

Until it was torn down six years ago, Thurmont’s Cozy Country Inn and Restaurant was the unofficial center of town life. The establishment opened in 1929 as a small collection of tents, cabins and showers to accommodate the increasing numbers of tourists traveling by automobile. A gas station, restaurant and hotel were added over the years. The latter featuring rooms named after presidents and news outlets. Other than Roosevelt, no president is known to have visited.

Press and Protests


Taking advantage of the privacy and security available at Camp David, presidents have used the facility for high-level diplomacy and meetings between heads of state. Jimmy Carter famously brokered the Camp David Accords between Egypt and Israel in 1978. More recently, Barack Obama hosted a meeting of the G8 there in 2009. “The Camp David Accords was a big deal here in Thurmont.,” says longtime resident Jerry Brown. “Of course, we were used to Camp David. But that was something bigger, with all the press and so on.”
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Barack Obama meets with leaders during the G8 Summit at Camp David in 2012.

(Official White House Photo by Pete Souza)
Before Vickie Grinder was Thurmont’s economic development manager, she worked for the famous inn and restaurant where members of the media would stay when a president was residing at the camp. “The Cozy hosted Walter Cronkite, Helen Thomas, Lesley Stahl and Barbara Walters,” she says. “All of the big-name reporters were there back in the day.” The president’s staff and advisers would also visit the Cozy. “I was fortunate enough to meet Condoleezza Rice while I was there. And David Axelrod, Scott McClellan and Andrew Card.”

“When the world press shows up, they’re everywhere,” says Mayor Kinnaird. “When they had the G8 summit, we had camera crews everywhere. They were just looking for people to talk to. Anything that would say something, they interviewed it.”

Not only does the influx of media strain the town’s resources, so too do the hordes of protestors that can accompany the president and other world leaders. Prohibited from protesting anywhere near Camp David, protestors are relegated to making their views heard in Thurmont.
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Protesting in the center of Thurmont during the G8 Summit in 2012.
(Wiki Commons)
Mayor Kinnaird remembers the peaceful demonstrations that took place during Obama’s G8 summit. “We had the county riot squad and the state police riot squad, in battle gear with their batons and their helmets and their great big shields. Two busloads of protesters showed up and they closed off West Main St. and allowed them to protest over there. They were nose-to-nose with the police. But they were all laughing and carrying on. At the end of it a couple of their leaders came over and shook my hand and said, ‘thank you for letting us be here.’ And they got back in the buses and they’re waving to everybody as they left town.” There hasn’t been as much excitement in Thurmont since.

Quiet on the Mountain


A lot of the locals think Donald Trump didn’t spend any time there since he had other options more to his liking. But the record shows that he visited 14 times during his four years in office, none of them apparently newsworthy. Joe Biden has made at least ten visits since he took office, and the townspeople barely take notice. “I think most of the people in town today just take it for granted,” says 80-year-old Jerry Brown. “It’s been there for so long. Now the newcomers, the people that have just moved here in the last 10 years, they might find it more interesting than the older folks."

An Accidental Tourist


Anne Prendergast never saw President Roosevelt again after the surprise sighting from her front porch. But she did manage to get close to the presidential compound, also by chance. A year or two later, a favorite uncle bought her a brand-new Schwinn bicycle. “It had everything,” she says. “A horn, a light and a basket. Just a beautiful bike.” Anne and a friend decided they would try to ride up the mountain one day. “Well, we rode most of the way,” she says. “Much of it we had to push the bikes, because it was so steep.”

“We decided when we got up there, we were going to turn around and just go flying down the mountain,” Anne says. “And all of a sudden, two Marines with rifles came out of nowhere, and made us stop and wanted to know who we were and where we were going. It scared the living daylights out of us. They told us get on our bikes and go back to Thurmont. Which we promptly did.”
David Kidd is a photojournalist and storyteller for Governing. He can be reached at dkidd@governing.com.
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