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A Brief History of Presidential Vacations

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President Obama is headed with his family to Martha's Vineyard for a little rest and relaxation, where he'll join in the grand tradition of presidential vacations. Where did past presidents get away? Let's take a look.

1. Abe Lincoln Doesn’t Go Too Far

Far-flung vacations are nice, but President Lincoln preferred to stay a bit closer to home. When Lincoln needed a getaway from the heat and political turmoil of Civil War-era Washington, D.C., he headed to…a different part of Washington, D.C. From 1862 to 1864 Lincoln spent June through November living in a cottage atop a hill at the Soldiers’ Home a few miles from the White House. Lincoln apparently loved the slight change of scenery, which meant slightly cooler temperatures and a chance to ride his horse each morning. If you’re considering a stay-cation this year, consider this Honest Abe’s endorsement.

2. FDR Heats Up Georgia

Some presidents choose to head to their hometowns or a beachside resort for their vacations, but Franklin Roosevelt preferred to travel to western Georgia. Warm Springs, Georgia, is the home of (you guessed it!) warm springs that supposedly had therapeutic value for polio sufferers. FDR, who had contracted his own paralytic illness in 1921, started visiting Warm Springs in 1924 in the hope that exercising in the springs’ warm waters would cure him.

Although the springs didn’t reverse his illness, FDR felt like his time at the resort alleviated his symptoms somewhat. In 1927 he bought the resort he’d been staying at, and in 1932 he ordered a six-room Georgia pine house to be built on the property. This house was FDR’s retreat throughout his presidency and became known as the Little White House.

FDR was sitting for a portrait at the Little White House when he died of a stroke in April 1945. Today, the house is part of Georgia’s state park system and is open to visitors; it’s been preserved to look almost exactly as it did the day FDR died.

3. Movie Cowboy Does Real Ranching

Think George W. Bush was the first president to sneak away from the White House to spend time on his ranch? Not quite. At the end of his second term as Governor of California in 1974, Ronald Reagan paid just over half a million dollars to acquire Rancho del Cielo in California’s Santa Ynez Mountains.

The 688-acre ranch, complete with stables and a 1500-square-foot adobe house, was Reagan’s go-to vacation destination while he was in office, and he entertained some big names there, including Margaret Thatcher, Queen Elizabeth II, and Mikhail Gorbachev, who gamely wore a cowboy hat during his visit.

4. LBJ Does Some Ranching, Too

Texan Lyndon Johnson was very involved in the everyday operations of his ranch. Johnson, who had gotten into ranching in 1951, grew his LBJ Ranch into a 2700-acre spread populated by 400 head of Hereford cattle.

Johnson was no absentee owner when he was in Washington, either. Johnson frequently headed back on vacations and supposedly drove his foreman crazy by calling every day to talk about the weather on the ranch or how the pastures looked. Today, the National Park Service maintains LBJ’s spread as a working ranch, complete with a herd of cattle descended from the Herefords Johnson bred.

5. George W. Bush Initiates a War on Brush

George W. Bush followed in LBJ’s footsteps and went to his own Texas ranch when he needed a getaway. Prairie Chapel Ranch, a 1583-acre spread Bush owns near Crawford, Texas, served as the secondary White House throughout Bush’s presidency, and he was often shown clearing brush during vacations.

Bush wasn’t just doing farm work, though. He exhorted visitors to join the “President’s 100-Degrees Club” by running three miles or biking 10 after the mercury hit 100 degrees. Anyone who could pull of the feat got a specialized Under Armour shirt as recognition. We can only hope one of the many foreign dignitaries Bush entertained at the ranch – including Vladimir Putin, Tony Blair, Silvio Berlusconi, Ariel Sharon, and Saudi King Abdullah – managed to get one of the coveted shirts into their suitcases.

6. Nixon Gets the Right Ice Cubes

When Richard Nixon wanted a break from Washington, he headed to a modest ranch home he owned on Key Biscayne off Miami. Nixon’s “Florida White House,” which he visited 50-plus times during his tenure in office, eventually swelled to include three houses and a floating helipad, which the Department of Defense installed at a taxpayer expense of $400,000. (There was plenty of room for taxpayer outrage at the $625,000 total the government spent sprucing up the Florida White House; one itemized expense was $621 for a replacement icemaker because “the President does not like ice with holes in it.”)

Given that this house was Nixon’s retreat, it’s no surprise that some shady dealings transpired on the premises. Nixon allegedly discussed plans for the Watergate break-in at the house, and he holed up there when the coverup came to light. The house fell into disrepair after Nixon sold it, and in 2004 it was razed to make room for a new building.

The Florida White House wasn’t Nixon’s only retreat, though. He bought a mansion overlooking the Pacific Ocean in San Clemente, California shortly after taking office in 1969. Nixon dubbed his new digs “La Casa Pacifica,” but the press quickly started referring to the spread as “the Western White House.” This house wasn’t cheap for taxpayers, either; the government dropped over a million dollars improving this home with temporary office quarters for staffers, helipads, and an upgraded heating system.

7. FDR’s Successor Gets His Own Little White House

Harry Truman may have been from Missouri, but he headed south when he needed some R&R. Truman started suffering from exhaustion in late 1946, and his physicians recommended a warm weather vacation to revitalize the President.

Truman took his vacation in a converted duplex in Key West that already held some history. The house, which was originally built in 1890 for the commandant and paymaster of Key West’s naval base, had already hosted William Howard Taft while he was in office in 1912. When Thomas Edison developed 41 new weapons to aid in the American efforts in World War I, he spent six months living in the house. Once Truman visited the house, though, it quickly became known as Truman’s Little White House. He ended up spending 175 days in Key West over the course of his two terms in office. Presidents Eisenhower and Kennedy later used the house while they were in office, and it’s now open as a tourist attraction.

8. Teddy Roosevelt Goes Bear Hunting

Lounging on the beach is great, but do you really think Teddy Roosevelt would miss the opportunity to do something manly? Roosevelt’s vacation in 1905 took him to the Hotel Colorado in Glenwood Springs, CO, where he stayed for three weeks while bear hunting.

9. Kennedy Retreats to His Compound

Starting in 1926, Joseph P. Kennedy began taking his family to Hyannisport, Massachusetts, on vacation each summer. His son John liked the area so much that in 1956 he bought a cottage of his own near his parents’ digs, and the family soon purchased a third cottage in the area, giving rise to the name “the Kennedy Compound.” JFK used his cottage as a base of operations for his presidential campaign and later vacationed there each summer he was in office.

10. George H.W. Bush Prefers Not to Ranch

Not to be outdone by the Kennedys, the Bush family has an even older compound of their own in Kennebunkport, Maine. In 1903 George H. Walker, the grandfather of George H.W. Bush, built a great mansion on his oceanfront estate in Kennebunkport, and the property has remained in the family ever since.

George H.W. Bush used the Kennebunkport compound as his vacation home during his presidency, and George W. Bush made a few getaways to the house as well. Between father and son, they’ve entertained some pretty big names at their summer house, including Yitzhak Rabin, Vladimir Putin, and Nicolas Sarkozy.

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Courtesy Sotheby's
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You Can Buy the Oldest Surviving Photo of a U.S. President
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Courtesy Sotheby's

The descendent of a 19th-century U.S. Congressman has discovered a previously unknown presidential portrait that is likely the oldest surviving photograph of a U.S. president, The New York Times reports.

Previously, two 1843 portraits of John Quincy Adams were thought to be the oldest photographs of a president still around. Currently hanging in the National Portrait Gallery, one of them was found on sale at an antique shop in 1970 for a mere 50 cents. Now, an even older photo of the sixth president has been uncovered, and it’ll cost you more than 50 cents to buy it.

Adams sat for dozens of photographs throughout his life, so it’s not entirely surprising that a few more surviving portraits would be uncovered. At the time this newly discovered half-plate daguerreotype was taken in March 1843, Adams had already served out his term as president and had returned to Congress as a U.S. Representative from Massachusetts. The photo was taken by Philip Haas, who in August of that same year would take other daguerreotypes that we previously thought were the oldest surviving photos. (Despite his apparent willingness to be photographed, Adams called them “all hideous.”)

John Quincy Adams sits in a portrait studio in 1843.
Courtesy Sotheby's

After having three daguerreotypes taken that day in March, Adams gave one of them to his friend and fellow Congressman Horace Everett, inscribing it with both their names. Everett’s great-great-grandson eventually found it in his family’s belongings and is now putting it up for sale through Sotheby’s.

It isn't the oldest picture of a U.S. president ever taken, though. The first-ever was actually a portrait of William Henry Harrison made in 1841, but unlike this one, the original has not survived. (The Metropolitan Museum of Art owns a copy of it, which was made in 1850.)

The head of the Sotheby’s department for photographs, Emily Bierman, told The New York Times that the newly discovered image is “without a doubt the most important historical photo portrait to be offered at auction in the last 20 years.” (She also noted that the former POTUS is wearing “cute socks” in it.)

The daguerreotype will be on sale as part of a photography auction at Sotheby’s in October and is expected to sell for an estimated $150,000 to $250,000. Start saving.

[h/t The New York Times]

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The Great Presidential Pardon Heist

Awarded by the Commander-in-Chief, presidential pardons override previous rulings handed down by any other federal judge or court. Some presidents are more generous with pardons than others, but overall, they’ve been granted with increasing frequency since Washington issued the first 16, including two for participants of the Whiskey Rebellion. By contrast, Barack Obama pardoned, commuted, or otherwise granted clemency to 1927 people.

Despite the increasing number, receiving a pardon is no easy task. First, there’s a required waiting period of five years. Applicants must write an essay about why they are seeking clemency, including documentation; they also need at least three character references, and they have to go through a “very thorough” federal review. And that’s just for starters.

However, if you’re determined to get a presidential pardon, there are other ways to go about obtaining one (though we don't recommend it)—as long as you don’t care whose name is on the certificate. Just ask Shawn Aubitz.

Some time in the middle of his 14-year career as a curator with the National Archives and Records Administration (NARA), Aubitz realized he was sitting on a gold mine: The files, letters, maps, and photographs he handled every day could command big bucks from the right collectors. From 1996-1999, he pulled off the historical heist of the century simply by surreptitiously slipping documents into his briefcase. Over the three-year period, Aubitz made off with hundreds of items, including 64 pardons and 316 photos taken by astronauts.

Though the number is rather staggering, the thefts weren’t discovered until 2000, when a National Park Service employee noticed a suspicious item for sale on eBay and notified the National Archives about the auction. The National Archives Office of the Inspector General quickly took action and discovered a total of four National Archives documents on eBay. The items were traced to Aubitz, who pled guilty to the crimes in 2002. In court, Aubitz blamed his actions on “a compulsive need to amass collections for self-esteem and approval,” but also admitted that his motives were financial—he used more than $200,000 in ill-gotten funds to pay his credit card debt. Aubitz served 21 months in prison for his crimes and paid $73,793 in restitution.

Because Aubitz provided the names of his buyers, many of the pilfered items were recovered, such as a warrant for the seizure of Robert E. Lee's estate during the Civil War. Many are still missing, however, including pardons issued by 10 presidents, from James Madison to Rutherford B. Hayes. So, history buffs, if you’re not totally sure about the origins of that Andrew Jackson-signed pardon hanging on your study wall, contact NARA at MissingDocuments@nara.gov.

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