For more than 200 years, Montgomery County has been a place for presidents—a playground, a refuge, an investment opportunity, an escape from the pressures of the office. And once a president visits a place—especially overnight—they’re forever attached.
While George Washington is known for his Mount Vernon home in Virginia, he also owned property in Montgomery County. Out Darnestown Road, in the western reaches of the county, lie more than 1,000 acres known as Woodstock. Washington was deeded nearly 600 acres there after the death of John Mercer, his partner in a speculative land venture called the Ohio Company of Virginia. Mercer was indebted to Washington, so his son, John Francis Mercer, a local dignitary and eventual governor of Maryland, paid off the debt with the portion of Woodstock that his wife, Sophia, had inherited from her father in 1782. Washington, who visited the farm but never lived there, kept it until his death in 1799. Today, it’s part of the Woodstock Equestrian Park Trails.
Washington’s successor, John Adams, would leave his mark on the county in 1800 on his way to the newly completed White House. He took a western route from Philadelphia to Washington, D.C., passing through Lancaster and York, Pennsylvania, and eventually arriving in Rockville. The president chose the route partly because of the superior roads, partly for political reasons—it was an election year, and the route allowed him to campaign at places he had not visited.
On June 3, 1800, Adams’ carriage wheeled down Wisconsin Avenue, through Bethesda, stopping in Friendship Heights at the District line. There he was met by a large contingent of area residents on horseback who joyously accompanied him into the city. Within a year, Adams would be making the long journey back to Massachusetts after losing the election to Thomas Jefferson.
Fourteen years later, President James Madison would also pass through Rockville as he and his administration fled Washington shortly before British troops sacked and burned the city’s federal buildings, including the Capitol and the White House, in August 1814. Madison and members of his Cabinet regrouped in Rockville, then headed up Georgia Avenue to Brookeville and the home of Postmaster Caleb Bentley, whose wife, Henrietta Thomas, was a close friend of first lady Dolley Madison. The president’s overnight stay earned the small town the nickname of “U.S. Capital for a Day.”
Leaving the White House during the summer has been a time-honored tradition of presidents. The city often becomes oppressively hot and humid, and there was a time when the air could grow rancid from putrefying garbage and open sewers. While presidents today might travel out of the city for a little relaxation, in the 19th century it was considered vital for their health.
President Rutherford B. Hayes often visited Montgomery County for respite. He became so enamored by the countryside that in 1889, several years after leaving office, he bought land in a new community called Glen Echo, intending to build a summer home. He died four years later, his Potomac River retreat unrealized.
President Herbert Hoover, a Quaker, liked to explore the county, traveling out to Sandy Spring to spend time with the large Friends community—and occasionally stopping by The Corner Cupboard for a ham sandwich and a slice of pie. Today, the café is the Olney Ale House.
Franklin Delano Roosevelt was perhaps the most oft-seen president motoring in Montgomery County. In 1942, the presidential retreat at Catoctin Mountain—originally called Shangri-La and later renamed Camp David—became the official summer White House, but until then, Roosevelt would spend time cooling and relaxing at country estates of friends.
Just north of Potomac Village, FDR would stay at “Marwood,” a palatial beaux-arts chateau that was rented during the 1930s by Joseph Kennedy, political operative and father of President John F. Kennedy. The elevator in the mansion reportedly was installed specifically to carry Roosevelt up to the guest quarters in his wheelchair.
It’s uncertain whether President Kennedy ever visited his father at Marwood, but he did journey up Rockville Pike for social occasions at “Timberlawn,” the home of Eunice and Sargent Shriver, his sister and brother-in-law. The Shrivers had moved into the rambling house in 1961.
After 1937, FDR, his chauffeur and his Secret Service detail would motor up Georgia Avenue to the town of Olney, where Secretary of the Interior Harold Ickes had an expansive estate named “Headwaters Farm.” Ickes’ home played host to an interesting collection of FDR’s traveling companions, including Winston Churchill. The two heads of state discussed world events there over leisurely games of cards. Today, the home is a bed and breakfast called RowanLark at Headwaters Farm.
A number of presidents came to the county to play. In the 1870s, Grover Cleveland regularly visited Pennyfield Lock along the C&O Canal, a quiet place to fish. He stayed at a small Victorian farmhouse near the lock. The building fell into disrepair and was demolished in 2009.
President Teddy Roosevelt preferred more vigorous activity and often could be seen on the Chevy Chase side of Rock Creek, tackling an exhausting cross-country hike, galloping on horseback with foxhunters through still undeveloped fields and forests, or enjoying a leisurely horse ride with his wife.
While Teddy was an avid outdoorsman, President William Howard Taft was obsessed with golf. His favorite course was at the Chevy Chase Club on Connecticut Avenue, and he often would drag his Cabinet members along for a round, conducting the nation’s business while driving and putting. Later presidents, from FDR to George H. W. Bush, were extended honorary memberships at Bethesda’s Burning Tree Club.
“Silver Spring,” the country estate of publisher and presidential adviser Francis Preston Blair (and the inspiration for the community’s eventual name), was a favorite escape of Abraham Lincoln. It also became a refuge for Lincoln’s second vice president, Andrew Johnson.
Johnson had humiliated himself at his inauguration in March 1865 by getting drunk before the proceedings in the Senate chamber. He harangued Congress with an incoherent rant and, as was custom, began to swear in the new senators. But he became so confused that he had to turn over the job to a Senate clerk. Johnson retreated to “Silver Spring,” staying there for a week while talk of his impeachment swirled around the city. Lincoln, however, assured Congress that “it has been a severe lesson for Andy, but I do not think he will do it again.”
Though some presidents have chosen Montgomery County as a getaway, every president since World War II has trekked to Bethesda for a less leisure-filled outing—an annual physical at the Walter Reed National Military Medical Center (previously the National Naval Medical Center). These days, you can’t miss the motorcade.
Author and historian Mark Walston was raised in Bethesda and lives in Olney.