West Branch, Iowa is just a little ole place. It’s just down the road from Iowa City in the eastern part of Iowa just off I-80. Settled by Quakers in the 1870’s, It’s now called home by about 2,300 people. One of its claims to fame is that its the birthplace of Herbert Hoover, 31st President of the United States. It’s also home to the Herbert Hoover National Historic Park and Herbert Hoover Presidential Library and Museum.
I’ve passed by West Branch a few times but never gave it a thought to stop. From my vague recollection, Herbert Hoover was the guy who presided over and caused the Great Depression. One of our worst Presidents ever. What else was there to know about a guy who many have has labeled as a failure.
While on my RV journeys, I’ve been seeking out and visiting Presidential Libraries and Museums. It’s an interesting way to revisit history and here was one right on my route home. I’ve been to five Presidential Museums so far, so why not stop at this one?. How much could there be to see about Hoover?
So, I stopped for a visit and found out how wrong my perceptions were. The Hoovers, the town of West Branch, the National Park Service, and National Archives have created quite an impressive memorial to the 31st President.
Hoover was born in West Branch, Iowa in 1874. His family had settled in West Branch and he lived there until he was 11 years. The National Park Service runs a Visitor Center and several historic buildings. One is the two room cabin where Hoover was born. There’s several neighborhood homes, the school-house he attended, his dad’s blacksmith shop, and the Quaker Meeting House where the family worshipped. Nearby, the National Archives runs the Herbert Hoover Presidential Library and Museum. It’s an impressive collection of buildings.
The Hoovers acquired and preserved many of the properties that are part of the National Historic Site. Starting in 1935, the Hoovers began acquiring his birth place home and several of the nearby houses turning them into a historical park. Its like going back in time to the 1870’s and seeing what a couple of the town blocks looked like. The Hoovers, with help from various donors, maintained the park until his death in 1965 when it was turned over to the National Park Service. Here are some pictures.
It turns out there was much that I didn’t know about Herbert Hoover.
- His parents and grandparents were Quakers and that is how he was raised by his parents. His Quaker beliefs guided him in his adult life and were a foundation for much of his ideology as President.
- One of three children, he was called “Bert” by his family. He was orphaned by age 10. His father died when he was 6 years old and his mother died when he was 10. Being an orphan motivated him through out his life to help children.
- At age 11, he was put on a train and shipped off the live with his mother’s brother in Oregon. He went alone with two changes of cloths, a bible, some food, and 20 cents to live with people he had never met. It must have been very scary for a young child to make that journey.
- He graduated from Stamford University with a degree in geology and worked for many years all over the world as a very successful mining engineer and mine superintendent. By 1914, he had made a fortune working for mining firms.
- He met his wife, Lou Henry, at Stamford. She was also a geologist, from Iowa, and the same age as Hoover.
- He and Lou lived oversees (London, China) until the start of World War I. At the start of the war, he helped several thousand US citizens escape from Europe and return to the US.
- One of his greatest accomplishments was running the Commission for Relief of Belgium after WWI. Belgium was in ruins after WWI and the people were starving. From 1914 to 1918 he ran a project to supply food the citizens of Belgium. His efforts fed millions of people and Hoover fronted $1.5M of his own money to launch the effort He did it for no pay and wanted no recognition for his efforts. He earned the label – The Great Humanitarian for this effort.
- He was appointed Secretary of Commerce under Coolidge and Harding.
- In 1928, having never held an elected office, he won a landslide election to become the 31st President. Little did he know that 8 months into his term, the stock market would collapse and the world would sink into the Great Depression.
- At the time there were non of the safety net social programs we have now. Hoover believed in individuals helping and serving each other (part of his Quaker beliefs) in times of need, much like he did for Belgium. He did not believe in giving handouts to people and not having the government fund social welfare programs. Also, his managerial style of governing (versus that of an ideological / inspirational leader) was not effective for the crisis. He was also not a great communicator or public speaker. The Great Depression demanded more than Hoover could deliver and soon the people where blaming Hoover for the lack of progress of recovery. He became a scape goat.
- When defeated by Roosevelt in 1933 he went into somewhat of an exile until 1946 when Harry Truman tapped him to assess food relief efforts for Germany and to head the Hoover Commission, which recommended efficiency improvements within the Executive Branch. Eisenhower asked him to continue the efforts.
- After his presidency, he lived in California until his wife died in 1944. He then moved into the Waldorf Astoria in NY and lived in Suite 31A for over 20 years. He died in 1965 and was buried in West Branch IA.
- Roosevelt built the first Presidential Library in 1939 for his records. He felt the records of the President should be retained and made available to the public. In 1955, Congress passed the Presidential Libraries Act. Truman built his library in 1957 and Hoover built his in 1960.
The Hoover National Historic Site and Library Museum are well done and focus most on his benevolence and humanitarian efforts prior to his Presidency and his efforts after post-Presidency. He did some great things for people, yet he is most remembered for his failure to effectively deal with the Great Depression.
We had a good visit and learned a lot about Herbert Hoover. The Hoover National Historic Site and Presidential Museum are worthwhile stops if you’re traveling on I-80 in Iowa and have a couple of hours to spend.