Today was one of the semi-annual open houses held by the Maryland Department of Natural Resources at the Woodmont Clubhouse. Up until 1995, the clubhouse and the 3,000 acres surrounding it were the property of the Woodmont Rod and Gun Club. For most of the 20th century, Woodmont was a getaway for the wealthy and the famous. Babe Ruth visited to shoot turkeys in 1932. There’s still a photograph of him on the wall of the poker room. And there’s a chair, aptly named the Presidents’ Chair, that was sat in by half a dozen Presidents of the United States, starting with Grover Cleveland and ending with Franklin Roosevelt.
Roosevelt visited Woodmont in 1935. He fished on the lower lake at Camp Cleveland. A special barge was constructed for the president, which he boarded and fished from in a wheelchair. Hanging in the clubhouse dining room is a framed seating chart, recording where Roosevelt and his party sat around the table during the dinner held in his honor in May, 1935. At the head of the table was Roosevelt’s host, Club President Henry P. Bridges. To the right of Bridges sat Roosevelt, and across from Roosevelt sat Vice President John Garner. Also seated at the table were the Speaker of the House of Representatives, and the Secretary of State.
As did every other guest of the club, President Roosevelt signed his name to the guest register. For decades afterward, the register sat on a desk in the clubhouse library, largely unnoticed. When I was 13 years old, I opened it and found Franklin Roosevelt’s signature. My father, and his father — Pap — had worked as guides at the club for years. My other grandfather had lived on and operated the club’s game farm until 1987. My parents met there. If not for Woodmont, I and my brother wouldn’t exist.
When I found FDR’s signature in the old guestbook in 1993, I flipped to the first blank page and signed my own name. When the club sold the property to the State of Maryland in 1995 and Dad and Pap cleaned their stuff out of Room 14 where they (and I) had always stayed, the guestbook was on the desk in the library where it had always been.
I asked the volunteer park ranger in the library today if he knew what happened to the old guestbook. “It was lost in the fire,” he told me.
The fire he was referring to was the fire that destroyed the previous clubhouse in 1903. I suggested that the guestbook signed by Franklin Roosevelt in 1935 was unlikely to have been lost in a fire that occurred thirty-two years before. Ashley told me later that I had made him feel stupid and behaved poorly toward the poor bastard. I feel kinda bad about that. But somewhere in the world someone has an old guest register from the Woodmont Rod and Gun Club, and in that book, along with the signature of Franklin Delano Roosevelt, is the childishly scrawled name of a kid who still can’t quite grasp how lucky he was. I know I have no right to keep it — it was never mine to begin with — but I’d love to see that book again someday.
Woodmont was a place where I spent most of the happiest days of my childhood. It’s impossible to go there without thinking of my father, and of Pap. Seeing it again for a few hours was nice, but bittersweet. Walking back to my truck after our visit today, I had the feeling I had just been standing over a loved one’s grave.