President Lyndon Johnson couldn’t resist playing jokes on friends during his summer vacation. While taking a spin around his ranch in Texas, Johnson would drive his guests down a hill ... and into a lake! Little did they know, the president had a rare car that could float.
Not all presidents were pranksters, but all of them have needed vacations, or time off to let loose and have fun, with their families and friends. Before the railroad, presidents would take days off and go back to their homes and plantations to either check on their farms or just unwind.
“Washington, D.C., in August isn’t the most comfortable place to be,” says Lindsay Chervinsky, a historian at the White House Historical Association. Presidents “were looking for a more comfortable place to spend the hottest months in Washington.”
Thomas Jefferson would go to Monticello, his estate near Charlottesville, Virginia. The house was perched on a mountaintop, so the breeze made it a welcome getaway for his family. Abraham Lincoln and his family spent several months just three miles from the White House. They stayed in a cottage at the Old Soldiers’ Home, a quiet spot in Northeast Washington.
When trains became accessible, presidents could take longer holidays and go back to their home states or other destinations. Sometimes they brought their pets. Rebecca, the pet raccoon of President Calvin Coolidge’s family, would travel with the president by train to their vacation home in Black Hills, South Dakota.
“She was a bit of a hooligan,” Chervinsky said. “She would escape, and Secret Service would have to spend hours trying to get her back.”
Journalists began to follow presidents on their getaways when the public was intrigued by Grover Cleveland’s new wife, the young, pretty Frances Cleveland.
Advisers and aides tagged along because the president has to be available to deal with a crisis at any time.
“The working vacation really started with Theodore Roosevelt, and that was because the telegraph and the telephone were available as resources,” Chervinsky said.
That doesn’t mean presidents haven’t made time for fun. Roosevelt would make sure he finished working at 4 p.m. to enjoy the outdoors with his kids when they stayed in Oyster Bay, New York. They would go hiking, fishing and rowing.
John Kennedy’s family enjoyed the outdoors, too, especially the water.
The Kennedy family created a game called “dragging” for their long weekends on Cape Cod in Massachusetts. They would attach a life vest to the back of the presidential yacht and drag three people holding the vest — including sometimes the president. Whoever held on the longest without going underwater would win the game. But everyone who played had a true vacation experience. After all, it would be hard to think about Washington when you’re getting a blast of saltwater in the face.