By CINDY LADAGE
WEST BRANCH, Iowa — A visit to the Herbert Hoover National Historic Site and Presidential Library and Museum in Iowa reveals his deep agricultural roots.
Hoover served as president of the United States from March 4, 1929-March 4, 1933. Before becoming president, he made his fortune as a mining engineer for a London-based company, Bewick and Moreing, in the gold mines of Australia and China.
Heading up the American Food Relief Administration during World War I, Hoover’s work in European hunger relief made him a worldwide-known humanitarian. After the war he became the secretary of Commerce and spearheaded the development of the St. Lawrence Seaway and the Hoover Dam.
Before he became president, Hoover was one of the best-loved men in the nation. But just eight months after taking office, the stock market crashed, bringing an economic depression so great that all of Hoover’s efforts could not overcome the pall the crash cast.
This was not the scenario he pictured when taking office; when Hoover accepted the Republican nomination in 1928, he said, “We in America today are nearer to the final triumph over poverty than ever before in the history of any land. The poorhouse is vanishing from among us.”
Information about his life and presidency are found at the Iowa Historic Site, which consists of the museum, library, the cottage where he was born, the reproduction blacksmith shop his father, Jesse, built in 1871, West Branch’s first one-room schoolhouse built in 1854, the Friends Meetinghouse where he worshipped and the gravesite of both he and his wife, Lou (nee Henry).
Herbert Hoover was born in 1874 to Jesse and Hulda, devout Quakers, the second of three children. Furnishings in the two-room cottage show how the family lived in close quarters. Hoover said about where he grew up: “This cottage where I was born is physical proof of the unbounded opportunity of American life. In no other land could a boy from a country village, without inheritance or influential friends, look forward with unbound hope.”
Jesse was a blacksmith, and the shop at the Historic Site is a reconstruction of the one he operated, a mere 20 yards to the west of the present site.
The shop has tools and a forge that are vintage from that time period. He was one of three blacksmiths operating in West Branch.
As a young man, Hoover earned money picking potato bugs off plants one summer at his Uncle Allen’s, where he also cut stems of thistle. For extra income, he and his older brother, Theodore, also cleaned the barn and helped their uncle break the tough prairie sod to planting fields.
The Hoover family flourished and Jesse’s business expanded when he added a wagon shop to the east side of the blacksmith shop. He offered horse shoeing and plow work and was a dealer for pumps of all kinds. Theodore and Herbert would help out at the shop and run errands for their busy father.
Prosperity continued and, in 1870, Jesse sold the cottage and blacksmith shop to open a farm implements shop on main street. The implement shop included a wide inventory of agricultural machinery, implements and wagons. Jesse added well-drilling to his business later, and introduced single-strand barbed wire that he made in his barbing machine, to West Branch, according to museum history. The family also moved into a new, larger house.
Then, Jesse died of heart failure in 1880, brought on by pneumonia – at the age of only 34. His brother, Benijah, took over the implement shop and eventually bought it from Hulda in 1882.
The death of their father started an exodus from West Branch for the Hoover children.
Herbert did spend eight months with his uncle, Laban Miles, who was an agent for the Osage and Kaw Indian territory, but Hulda was able to keep her family together for four years after Jesse’s death.
When she died in 1884 of typhoid fever, the children were taken in by relatives, but split up.
Herbert went to live with Uncle Allen and his wife, Millie; he only stayed there for a year after another uncle, Henry John Minthorn, lost his son and needed assistance on his farm in Oregon.
The rest of the Hoover story is well documented and covered thoroughly at the museum and library, which are located at 110 Parkside Drive, West Branch, IA 52358. If you will be traveling in the area, call 319-643-2541 or log onto www.nps.gov/heho for more details.