The story of Camp Big Mac started in 1951 – long before the hamburger of a similar name became famous — when the scoutmaster of Boy Scout Troop 139 of Alexandria, Virginia, Harry Leach (“The Old Goat”), wanted to have a family camping trip for his troop as a sort of Thank You to all the family members who had helped out with spaghetti-dinner and donut-sale-fundraisers for the troop. Sponsored by Del Ray Methodist Church, Troop 139 was a young troop chartered in 1945, so fundraisers had been essential. Mr. Leach called the local Scout council office to reserve a weekend at one of the local Scout camps. He was told that females, i.e., the mothers of the scouts, were not permitted to use Boy Scout facilities. The Old Goat was incensed. A U.S. Capitol policeman, he was not accustomed to being told no under any circumstances.
After he informed the neighborhood of his predicament, Alexandria policeman Claude McDonald (“Big Mac”), volunteered to donate the first $500 for Harry to start his own youth camp. Mr. Leach, raised in Delaplane, VA, started asking his friends in the country if they knew of any available property suitable for a camp. Fortunately, the postmaster in Markham told him about some property at the end of Moss Hollow Road that had been abandoned and was up for tax sale. Half of the property was purchased outright and the other half was purchased at the tax sale. Soon after, The Claude McDonald Foundation was incorporated in May of 1952 to own and operate the camp named Big Mac in honor of our original benefactor.
The first years of Camp Big Mac were tenuous ones. The property was in pretty rough shape. The road was nothing more than a wagon trail, steep and all but impassable in wet weather. The one standing structure was the old cabin of Emily Johnson, which had been abandoned twenty years before. Snake infested, full of wood rats, it was named The Hilton and served as the mess hall, cabin and center of the camp until a suitable temporary mess hall could be built.
The Old Mess Hall was started in the summer of 1952 and part of it was operational by fall. It was built in stages, like all buildings at Camp, with the donation of supplies and manpower of devoted volunteers. The wings with the bunkroom and pantry were added later. Headquarters Cabin was built in the summer of 1953 and Black and White Cabins were built over the next few years. P Street (the outhouse) was built about the same time as the Old Mess Hall. Showers and another outhouse were eventually constructed by the cabins. By 1954, Big Mac was hosting its first summer campers.
John Gary, Jr. was Harry Leach’s successor in Troop 139 and worked for the Alexandria Redevelopment and Housing Authority. He received permission to take surplus lumber from demolished homes in Alexandria up to Big Mac. Most of the structures were built from this material and two of the original cabins (Black and White) still stand nearly 60 years later.
The ‘New’ Mess Hall is named for Mr. Gary, who also served as President of the Foundation for 20 years. In 1977, we knew the Old Mess Hall was in dire need of replacement. When Mr. Gary and Bill Darrough went to Warrenton to inquire about a building permit for a new building, they found that the tax deeds for the lower half of the property had never been perfected. One lawyer, two years, and $10,000 later the bottom 22 acres were deeded correctly to the Foundation. Needless to say, the 25 years worth of funds raised and set aside for a badly needed new mess hall was gone in a flash.
Unflappable, the Foundation began anew. We cut and sold firewood, had a number of yard sales, sold Christmas trees and ran numerous pancake breakfasts. Thanks to the generosity of many local businesses, friends, family, and Scout groups, the New Mess Hall was started in May of 1981. Over the next two years, many weekends were spent building the John Gary, Jr. Mess Hall. It was dedicated in May of 1983, as was The Old Goat Pond. At its dedication, Mr. Gary’s son was there representing his father, who had passed on. Mr. Leach was still capable of attending and was proud of the pond named after him. Jack Williams, former scoutmaster of Troop 139 and then-president of the Foundation, was the master of ceremonies.
In 1988, we asked the Orlean Fire Department to help us usher in a new era for Camp Big Mac. The Old Mess Hall, beyond repair and long-since a hazard, burned to the ground in less than 15 minutes for a department training exercise. Headquarters Cabin was used as a storage building until 2003, when we burned it down as well.
The history of the property Big Mac occupies goes back to the family of Chief Justice John Marshall. Big Mac is located on land that the Marshall family gave to their former slaves when they were freed. They had farmed and lived on this property for over 100 years. During the Great Depression of the 1930s, the slaves’ descendants moved their farming roots to the city. Since then the property had been sporadically owned and abandoned by any number of tenants. We feel that it is fitting that Camp Big Mac represents the freedoms that Justice Marshall stood for.