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Camp David Museum displays history of Presidential retreat
By Barbara and Ken Beem

THURMONT, Md. — Taking an oath to “preserve, protect, and defend the Constitution of the United States” as President is the crux of every Inauguration Day, which is Jan. 21 this year. But on a day-to-day level, there are many levels to assuming the highest office in the land.

After the ceremony and luncheon, the parade and balls, it’s about the First Family calling 1600 Pennsylvania Ave. in Northwest Washington, D.C., home for the next four years. It’s about access to Air Force One. And then there’s Camp David.

One “perk” of winning the election is having an official country residence – a secure complex of cabins and lodges a short helicopter trip from the nation’s capital. When the pressures of inside-the-Beltway politics mount, or when world leaders need to hole up and work out a problem, this sylvan retreat, tucked away on Maryland’s Catoctin Mountain, offers seclusion, recreation and relaxation.

But Presidents do not travel alone. Through the years, entourages of family and friends, world leaders and members of the press have accompanied them to the mountains.

For those in need of overnight accommodations who were not invited to stay on the retreat’s grounds, or for those looking for a bite to eat or just a little down time, the neighboring town of Thurmont has been a familiar stop. And the Cozy Inn has come to be synonymous with the sleepy burg on the road to Camp David. Little wonder, then, the Cozy is the site of the Camp David Museum.

Camp David

Before there was the Presidential retreat known as Camp David, a wealthy Washingtonian named Lawrence Richey purchased 1,800 acres of land on Catoctin Mountain in 1927. His intent was to establish a fishing camp in the area, an increasingly desirable vacation and leisure spot.

One of Richey’s friends was then-Secretary of Commerce Herbert Hoover. Shortly after becoming President in 1929, Hoover purchased mountain property near Madison, Va., where he began construction of what was called Rapidan Camp, considered by many to be the forerunner to Camp David.

The seed had been sown.

The Cozy

With Catoctin Mountain gaining in popularity among those seeking fresh air and respite from the city, one Detroit man saw his opportunity to cash in. Wilbur Freeze moved to Thurmont, Md. in 1929, where he joined family members already living there, including an uncle who operated Freeze’s Cigar Shop.

In that same year, Freeze opened a gas station and camp kitchen in Thurmont, where he served simple meals to travelers. Although he had no previous experience in the hospitality field, he undertook the construction of an up-to-date tourist camp that he called “Camp Cozy.” Guests soon began stopping here to take advantage of three very small cottages and a row of tents, a building with showers, and restrooms.

Freeze capitalized on the fact that unemployed transients would work for food, which attracted hobos to the area. Using this cheap labor, Freeze, in 1933, added a 12-stool sandwich counter adjacent to the gas station. He hired Mary Gehr to work for him; within a year they were married, and together, they operated the “Camp Cozy Club.”

The Freezes had a winning combination and no competition. By the time Wilbur died in July 1961, the Cozy Inn had expanded to include more overnight accommodations and a restaurant that could serve 275. Mary and Wilbur’s son, Jerry, took on the business with his mother and later, his wife and their family.

Today, the Cozy Restaurant can seat 750 people. The rooms of the country inn and several updated cottages are each decorated to commemorate the Presidents, dignitaries and members of the press who have stayed here because of its proximity to Camp David.

Camp David Museum

A trip to the Cozy’s Camp David Museum is a lesson in modern Presidential history. Through the years, visitors with Presidential ties, especially members of the press corps, have donated papers, photographs and memorabilia, but it was not until 2006 that an entire room of the complex was set aside and dedicated to Presidential exhibits, arranged chronologically by administrations.

Today, the museum gives visitors a glimpse into the world of Camp David, a property that is off-limits to the public. And it also provides an insight into the personalities of the men who have led America, not to mention some insider stories and interesting gossip.

Although the museum begins the story of Camp David with Hoover, it was his successor, Franklin Roosevelt, who selected the nearby site for a Presidential retreat when security of the Presidential yacht USS Potomac was deemed too difficult to maintain.

Roosevelt toured properties in the Shenandoah area on a rainy day, but when he arrived the following day at a federal employee retreat near Thurmont called “Hi-Catoctin,” the sun was shining and everything looked picture perfect. “This is Shangri-La!” he exclaimed. The property was officially dubbed “USS Shangri La,” and a new main lodge was constructed in the style of Roosevelt’s winter home in Warm Springs, Ga. On visits to Shangri-La, Roosevelt and his traveling party often stopped at the Cozy; in fact, it was here that Winston Churchill first discovered the jukebox.

Deeming the name “Shangri-La” too fancy for a Kansas farm boy, Texas-born Dwight Eisenhower renamed the retreat “Camp David,” in honor of his grandson. He was so enamored with the area, which was often the inspiration for his paintings that he and his wife, Mamie, decided to retire to a farm in nearby Gettysburg.

Although the Kennedys had numerous properties at their disposal, the family enjoyed time in the Maryland mountains. Posted newspaper clippings explain how priceless wallpaper made its way to the White House, thanks to a Camp David connection. The Kennedys spent considerable time at Camp David, as did their successors, the Johnsons. It was at Camp David, in fact, that one of Johnson’s beagles, Him, met his demise when he was hit by a chauffeur-driven vehicle on the property.

When Richard Nixon found his Presidency beleaguered, he literally headed for the hills of Maryland, enjoying a swimming pool that was an extravagant improvement on the one Roosevelt had ordered years before, as evidenced by a photograph on display.

But it was Jimmy Carter who focused the world’s eyes on Camp David with the Camp David Accords, the summit at the retreat in 1978 for Egyptian President Anwar al-Sadat and Israeli Prime Minister Menachem Begin. Later, Bill Clinton would take advantage of the seclusion to host a summit of his own.

Ronald Reagan and George W. Bush both spent hundreds of days at Camp David, and there are photographs of them and their families and staff lounging about on the property. Even though Barack Obama hosted a G8 Summit here last year, security measures continue to limit access to Camp David, and as a consequence, memorabilia gathered during the last four years is scanty, according to Vickie Binder, manager of the Cozy. She said that although she could retrieve photographs from the Internet, the museum is determined to exhibit only first-hand information.

Completing the offerings is a showcase in the middle of the room that exhibits a variety of trinkets and memorabilia, including souvenirs from Air Force One flights. Still, a nostalgic mood lingers for the days when Presidents and their wives would just drop by for lunch and a chat at the Cozy.

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