Presidential retreat

December 28, 2003|by

After downshifting into second gear to cross the bumpy railroad tracks along Md. 66, visitors to this sleepy town see a small rusty sign that reads, simply, "Smithsburg."

A bit farther down is the traditional, bigger green sign welcoming people to Smithsburg, but the first sign better captures the town's spirit.

Living in the shadow of Camp David, a getaway used by presidents beginning with President Franklin D. Roosevelt, has not made people here pompous.


Or nervous.

"I think it's an honor that we can live and know that the president is this close to us," said Joyce Grove, one of five family members who owns the Smithsburg General Store. "I'm sure that it's very secure."

Quilts, kitchenware and model trains are among the items sold at the General Store. A set of model train railroad tracks is suspended from the ceiling, an idle train waiting to round a curve.

Visible in the distance from the store's back office window are the Catoctin Mountains. Camp David is snugly nestled in there somewhere, invisible to the naked eye because of tree cover.

First named Shangri-La by President Roosevelt, the multi-building retreat was renamed Camp David by President Eisenhower.

Since then, at least one president has made a visit to nearby Smithsburg.

Grove, 61, was at her Lutheran church when gossip quickly spread that President Johnson was at the town's Episcopal church. After the service, Grove and others rushed over to the Episcopal church, where they spotted the president. He graciously posed for photographs and shook hands, Grove recalled.

Grove also spotted President Kennedy's motorcade one Saturday as she traveled along Md. 77 toward nearby Thurmont, Md.

The sounds of jets and helicopters always alert residents as to when the president is visiting. Shortly after the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks, residents and business owners were asked not to divulge such information.

Some continue to keep mum, including people Grove knows who worked at Camp David. "They don't talk. It's very secret, whatever they do," she said.

Down the street from Grove's store at The Dixie Eatery, owner Lori Hartley was in the kitchen, stirring a pot of boiled potatoes that would later be mashed to go with the night's dinner special.

Hartley moved to the Smithsburg area when she was 5 years old.

"You know when the president's here without turning on the TV," she said with a laugh. "I don't give it a whole lot of thought."

Occasionally some of Bush's security team members, possibly SWAT members, come in for breakfast, Hartley said.

Dwelling on any dangers connected to the president's proximity is useless, she said.

"If anything happens it's going to happen. We're toast anyway, this close to D.C.," Hartley said.

Smithsburg Mayor Mickey Myers has lived in the area all of her 69 years.

"Living here all my life in the shadow of Camp David, I don't look at it as a problem at all. I feel safer," she said. "While they're protecting him with as much as they can, with all the resources they have, that's going to protect us."

After 9/11, the sound of jets roaring overhead was "kind of nerve-wracking," Myers said. Now, "it's kind of a comforting sound."

A few visiting dignitaries have strolled through Smithsburg and press conferences have been held at Smithsburg High School. Seeing the town's name on CNN was memorable, Myers said.

While town residents may give little thought to being so close to the president, visitors want to see the retreat. Myers has been to the entrance, but never beyond. "That's as far as anyone gets," she said.

President Bush and his family spent Christmas at Camp David, which comes as no surprise to Myers.

"I can't imagine any place any prettier in all seasons," she said. "I can understand why a president would want to go there."

She hopes the president might descend the mountain. "We would love to have President Bush come down here and go to church," Myers said.

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