When Presidents Came to Visit
Some came for business, others for pleasure. But whatever brought them, our nation’s leaders left an indelible mark on Montgomery County history.
Franklin D. Roosevelt presides over the laying of the cornerstone for the Naval Hospital on Armistice Day, Nov. 11, 1940. Photo courtesy: Bettman Archives/Corbis
No U.S. president has ever claimed residency in Montgomery County, but many have spent time here. James Madison stayed overnight in the county in August 1814, while the British were sacking the nation’s capital. Teddy Roosevelt treated it as his personal playground. And Honest Abe Lincoln played ball on a presidential adviser’s lawn in Silver Spring.
Details of past presidential comings and goings are sketchy since, as Montgomery County Historical Society Librarian Patricia Andersen puts it, for much of the country’s history, “The press didn’t cover their every move. They had a private life.”
Still, there were sightings. Local lore has it that in 1829 Andrew Jackson stopped for dinner at a Clarksburg tavern, Dowden’s Ordinary, en route to his inauguration. The tavern is long gone.
More famously, Madison turned tiny Brookeville into the temporary capital of the United States after he fled the city as the British were burning the White House in Washington, D.C. The president came on horseback, reportedly carrying a strongbox that contained the entire U.S. Treasury. He stayed at the home of Brookeville Postmaster Caleb Bentley, whose wife, Henrietta Thomas, was a close friend of fellow Quaker Dolley Madison. The house, built in 1798, still stands and is privately owned.
Before arriving in Brookeville, Madison had stopped at Montgomery Court House, which is what Rockville was popularly called at the time despite an official name change in 1801. The first streets in Rockville were named Washington, Jefferson and Adams, but there is no evidence any of those presidents actually set foot in the county seat.
In October 1861, Montgomery County’s Sentinel newspaper reported that Lincoln “passed through” Rockville “en route for the camp of the New York 19th, near Muddy Branch,” where he was to meet with two of his generals. Since sentiment in the county was largely with the South, Lincoln might have chosen to avoid the place entirely. But he had another reason to cross the District line. Falkland, the estate of Postmaster General Montgomery Blair, was in Silver Spring, as was the country home of presidential adviser and newspaper publisher Francis Preston Blair Sr., who was Montgomery Blair’s father.
Silver Spring historian Jerry A. McCoy has found recollections by Francis Preston Blair III, published in the 1890s, of Lincoln’s social visits to his grandfather’s Silver Spring mansion.
As Blair recalled, the family patriarch’s estate was 400 or 500 acres “with an extensive lawn in the rear of the house. The grandchildren gathered there frequently. "Although I was but seven or eight years of age, Mr. Lincoln’s visits were of such importance to us boys as to leave a clear impression. He drove out to the place quite frequently. We boys, for hours at a time, played town ball [a precursor to modern baseball] on the vast lawn, and Mr. Lincoln would join ardently in the sport. I remember vividly how he ran with the children; how long were his strides, and how far his coat tails stuck out behind, and how we tried to hit him with the ball, as he ran the bases.”
The mansion and grounds are long gone. What’s left is a small park attached to the 8045 Kennett Street Condos off East West Highway.
Other documented 19th-century presidential forays into the county included a fishing trip in 1888 by Grover Cleveland, who stayed overnight at a white frame house by Pennyfield Lock, off River Road, on the Chesapeake and Ohio Canal. Fixing breakfast the next morning, Mrs. Pennyfield called up to him, “Mr. President, how do you want your eels cooked, skun or unskun?” The reply: “Skunned,” meaning “skinned.” The Sentinel reported that the president and his fishing companion “returned to Washington on Friday evening with a large supply of bass, the President having caught eleven.” The old building, now owned by the National Park Service, has fallen into such disrepair that the structure is to be demolished when funds become available.
President Theodore Roosevelt, a fabled outdoorsman, traveled by motor car with Ted Jr. and two of his son’s schoolmates to Great Falls one Sunday in June 1905. T.R.’s chauffeur “narrowly escaped arrest for fast driving” along Conduit Road, now MacArthur Boulevard, The Washington Post reported. After a half-mile pursuit, two bicycle policemen stopped the car for going at least 25 mph in a 15-mph zone. “The president took the matter good-naturedly, and instructed the chauffeur to proceed at a more moderate rate of speed,” the Post reported. Rather than ride in the allegedly speeding vehicle, the presidential party hiked back to Chain Bridge, inside the District.
Teddy and first lady Edith often rode horses in Rock Creek Park, and, on more than one occasion, into Montgomery County. A 1998 history of Woodside Park in Silver Spring recounts that a young horsewoman once encountered T.R., also on horseback, at what is now Georgia Avenue and Highland Drive. Seeking to elude his Secret Service protectors, Roosevelt asked her where the dirt road that is now Highland Drive went. Told it led to Colesville Road, off he went while the Secret Service headed straight out Georgia Avenue in search of the president.
Roosevelt was especially partial to the Northwest Branch, a stream just below Colesville Road near today’s Four Corners area, a few miles from downtown Silver Spring. One day in June 1904, Teddy and Edith took a four-hour trip there, and spent half an hour hiking along the branch, a portion of which looks more like Colorado than Montgomery County.
In a letter to son Ted, Roosevelt wrote, “Mother and I had a most lovely ride…way up beyond Sligo Creek to what is called North-west Branch, at Burnt Mills, where there is a beautiful gorge, deep and narrow, with great boulders and even cliffs. Excepting Great Falls, it is the most beautiful place around here. Mother scrambled among the cliffs in her riding habit, very pretty and most interesting.”
After he left office, Woodrow Wilson, who defeated Roosevelt and incumbent William Howard Taft in the 1912 election, was often seen along Conduit Road in the vicinity of Glen Echo, as his wife had relatives in the area. “The big Pierce Arrow always got waves from the kids along Conduit Road, and sometimes the ailing ex-president waved back,” Bethesda historian Bill Offutt writes in his book Bethesda: A Social History.
The county saw an influx of “New Dealers” during the administration of Franklin D. Roosevelt, and FDR himself often came, driving up Georgia Avenue to the Olney Inn, a popular dining spot for dignitaries that burned down in 1978. FDR also visited Marwood, the Potomac estate rented by Joseph Kennedy, the future president’s father, in the 1930s. Joseph Kennedy first headed the U.S. Securities and Exchange Commission and then the U.S. Maritime Commission. Kennedy, it has been reported, installed an elevator for the wheelchair-bound Roosevelt at Marwood.
Roosevelt also had business in Bethesda, where he was instrumental in designing and even selecting the site for the Naval Hospital. After Congress appropriated construction funds, Roosevelt drew a sketch of a 15-story tower with two wings. On July 5, 1938, the president toured the old Bladen farm on Rockville Pike with an entourage of Secret Service agents, aides and motorcycle police. On a gentle rise, Offutt writes, Roosevelt stopped the open presidential Packard, reached over the side, stuck his cane into the ground, and said, “We will build it here.”
FDR laid the cornerstone for the tower on Armistice Day, Nov. 11, 1940. Bethesdans, according to Offutt, felt they knew the president, as he “always waved and smiled when he rode along East West Highway and Wisconsin Avenue” on his way to the Bethesda Naval Hospital, which opened in 1942.
Roosevelt’s successor, Harry S Truman, often motored to the Baltimore and Ohio Railroad station in Silver Spring to pick up first lady Bess, returning by train from their Independence, Mo., home. On their way out of town on Jan. 20, 1953, the Trumans and their train stopped briefly at the Silver Spring station, just long enough for them to wave goodbye after the inauguration of President Dwight D. Eisenhower.
What if any time John F. Kennedy spent in the county is not well-documented, although his body was autopsied at Bethesda Naval on the night of Nov. 22, 1963. In 1961, Eunice and Sargent Shriver, the president’s sister and brother-inlaw, rented Timberlawn, a 300-acre estate bordered by Old Georgetown Road and Rockville Pike. A source close to the family says Kennedy visited Timberlawn “for social occasions,” but Lyndon B. Johnson did not. Tim Shriver, son of Eunice and Sarge, recalls LBJ’s presidential helicopter landing right in their backyard, however. Charles Koiner, 89, for many years the Timberlawn caretaker, says Johnson visited the place just once. Shriver, the first Peace Corps director under JFK, made a brief and unsuccessful presidential bid in 1976. Had he won, he would have been the first Montgomery County resident to have achieved the honor.
Nowadays, Montgomery County serves largely as a prop for presidential photo ops. President Bill Clinton showed up at Great Falls with Vice President Al Gore after the damaging floods of 1996 to do a little symbolic heavy-lifting of debris. Clinton and British Prime Minister Tony Blair paid a 1998 visit to Montgomery Blair High School in Silver Spring to demonstrate their support for educational programs and student use of the Internet (before Facebook). President George W. Bush also went to Blair in June 2005 to tout his plan to reform Social Security. Seventeen county school buses brought in outsiders. Picketing, irate locals were kept at a distance.
In March, President Barack Obama and first lady Michelle Obama traveled to Bethesda for a parent-teacher conference at the Sidwell Friends’ Lower School, which their younger daughter, Sasha, attends. There were no protests, only some grumbling when their motorcade interrupted traffic.
Eugene L. Meyer, a former Washington Post reporter and editor, is a contributing editor for Bethesda Magazine.