Camp David today is a highly secure area in a park near Thurmont, Maryland, where the president goes to relax, but before it was a presidential retreat it was a summer camp for families of federal employees and hosted summer camp programs run by the Girl Scouts, Boy Scouts and Salvation Army.
Located in Catoctin Mountain Park, the retreat was part of a 1936 government land purchase intended for a recreational facility.
The New Deal’s Works Progress Administration, WPA, developed the newly created recreational area along with the Civilian Conservation Crops, CCC.
The first camp built was Camp Misty Mount, which was originally used by the Maryland League for Crippled Children, but the League moved to a second camp that was built to accommodate wheelchairs called Camp Greentop (one of the first handicap-accessible facilities in the country). A third camp, Camp Hi-Catoctin, was completed in the winter of 1938-1939 on much higher elevation. It was used for three years as a family camp for federal employees and was also used for summer camp programs run by the Girl Scouts, Boy Scouts and Salvation Army in 1941.
This post at the Frederick Girl Scout History blog has photos and images of the program from the Girl Scout Camp held at Hi-Catoctin in 1941.
President Franklin D. Roosevelt was the first president to use Camp Hi-Catoctin for a retreat in 1942 due to safety concerns over his usual retreats to the presidential yacht “Potomac” or Hyde Park, N.Y.
According to an article on the National Park Service website:
World War II had brought an attack on Pearl Harbor and German U-boats close in Atlantic waters. Presidential safety was a concern and Presidential health was also a concern. The muggy climate of Washington, D.C., was considered detrimental to his health, affecting his sinuses. A new retreat, a place to relax, within a 100 mile radius of Washington, D.C. and in the cool mountain air was sought. Several sites were considered, but Camp Hi-Catoctin in the Catoctin Recreational Demonstration Area was selected after the President’s first visit on April 22, 1942. A camp was already built on the site and the estimated conversion cost was $18,650. It was also almost 10 degrees cooler than in Washington, D.C. The camp for federal employee’s families became the camp of one federal employee, the President of the United States.
Roosevelt renamed the camp “Shangri-La” after the fictional Himalayan paradise in James Hilton’s 1933 novel, Lost Horizon and Dwight D. Eisenhower gave the camp its current name, naming it after his father and grandson. Camp Misty Mount and Camp Greentop are still in use today as camping areas.