Hoover Museum Visit Sheds New Light On The Only Iowan To Be President

He didn’t live here long, but Herbert Hoover did say he carried the brand of Iowa—literally in his case—from being barefoot in his father’s blacksmith shop.

“The most formative years of my boyhood were spent here. My roots are in this soil,” said Hoover, who was the 31st President of the United States, when he accepted his honorary degree from the University of Iowa in 1954.

Shortly after, the former president chose to build his Presidential Library and Museum in West Branch, Iowa, the town where he was born in. Hoover bought and renovated the cottage he was born in and recreated his childhood neighborhood, including the Quaker church he attended.

Herbert Hoover’s birthplace/Photos by Starting Line staff

Hoover and his wife, Lou, are buried on a hillside nearby, overlooking the Herbert Hoover National Historic Site just off of Interstate 80, east of Iowa City.

And today, anyone can walk through the restored two-room cottage, along with the church, a recreation of the one-room school, and the blacksmith’s shop Hoover’s father worked at.

Hoover was elected in 1928 and served only one term because the Great Depression rocked the nation’s confidence in him. To this day, most people associate him with the Great Depression and him not doing anything about it. But is that a fair way to remember him? No, not really.

The Museum

I got to the historical site just after noon on a Wednesday. As a fan of museums, I went there first. I’d bought my $10 ticket online the day before and I was eager to see what was in store.

Inside, the museum was pretty simple and straightforward, a reflection of Hoover, who I learned liked to spend his time out of the political spotlight and out in nature.

A circular entrance leads to a space for a special exhibit, and straight ahead into the main event—a walkthrough of Hoover’s life. The emphasis is on the important events, especially the worldwide work he did before he came close to the Oval Office, and how he went from being a successful, rich mining engineer of global renown, to being a public servant and a symbol of hope for war-torn, starving Europe.

Along the way are artifacts from his work in different countries, both engineering and his relief work. Those include embroidered flour sacks from grateful Belgians and thank yous from children across Europe. A video plays interviews with adults who received this aid when they were children and how it impacted them.

Empty flour sacks were embroidered, painted and drawn on in order to raise money for relief efforts. Hundreds were sent to Hoover as thank you gifts.

 

Though he rejected many tokens of thanks, Hoover especially appreciated the thank you cards from children

Hoover, living in London at the outbreak of World War I, organized the distribution of fresh food and ingredients to famine-stricken countries, and aid for Americans trapped in Europe when the war started. Hoover carried on with his relief work through the war and after, as the head of the new US Food Administration.

The special exhibit, open until the end of the year, details Hoover’s work in 1920s Soviet Russia, and the food and medical relief he and his American Relief Administration provided to the famine victims there.

And, of course, the museum recounts the stock market crash and unfolding of the Great Depression along with the collapse of Hoover’s image as a man who could handle anything. At the end of the gallery, after the museum lays out how Hoover responded to the Great Depression, there are a series of buttons where you can vote on how you rate Hoover’s job performance.

The museum does make an effort to exonerate Hoover in his response to the Great Depression and all I can say is that they make some good points while also acknowledging some of his flaws. Ultimately, I came away concluding he was the wrong man for the moment. Of course, the Depression wasn’t his fault, but he could have responded more effectively.

Though many people think of the story ending there, it doesn’t. And the museum continues taking visitors through Hoover’s years out of office and how he regained his popularity and the admiration of the nation—mostly through continued public service at home and abroad, including in the divided Berlin, after President Harry Truman asked him to undertake another tour of Europe to manage food shortages post-World War II.

A section of the Berlin Wall

That was a really nice way to end the story, I think. Except the true ending of the story is fishing. Hoover never lost his love for the outdoors, but especially for fishing, and the subject of his last book “Fishing for Fun and to Wash Your Soul.”

“Man and boy, the American is a fisherman,” he said. “That comprehensive list of human rights, the Declaration of Independence, is firm that all men (and boys) are endowed with inalienable rights, including life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness, which obviously includes the pursuit of fish.”

My takeaways

My favorite galleries were the one dedicated to Lou Hoover—another Iowa native, from Waterloo, and a geology enthusiast. She and Hoover met in a lab at Stanford. She was also a knitter, a successful organizer in her own right, and she traveled the globe with her husband and two sons in tow. She led the American Women’s War Relief Committee in London and helped keep the Belgian silk industry alive by finding markets and customers for the artisans.

She also held office in the Girl Scouts of America, inspired thousands of girls to join, and is credited with leading the first Girl Scouts cookie drive in 1935.

My other favorite covered Hoover’s campaign for the presidency and his inauguration. He didn’t particularly want the job, but in 1928, President Calvin Coolidge declined another run and Hoover had a nationwide platform as the head of the Commerce Department to go with his reputation for aiding starving children in Europe and helping residents during the Great Mississippi Flood of 1927. He was seen as the obvious choice.

I liked the exhibit in part because the campaign materials were interesting (and creative!), and it went a little bit into why he ultimately won against Catholic candidate Alfred Smith. Also the corn cane carried by Iowans who attended inaugural ceremonies.

Campaign lightbulbs

 

The corn cane carried by Iowans at Hoover’s inauguration

 

Pencil erasers carved into the images of Hoover and Al Smith

And I appreciated how thorough the museum is in documenting the man who never wanted to be a politician, but did want to help other people. It shows more depth and different angles to Hoover than a lot of people remember him for, and it’s very interesting. There was too much FDR bashing, but it was what I expected.

The walkthrough of the museum took me about three hours, but I doubt it has to take that long. I’m notorious for having to meet my family at museum exits because I stay to read everything.

I did tour the little neighborhood, and my last stop was at the gravesite for the Hoovers, which is a peaceful, beautifully landscaped spot. It’s walkable from the museum, or a very short drive away.

Herbert and Lou Hoover’s gravesite

 

Herbert and Lou Hoover’s graves

And yes, I went to the gift shop. Yes, I bought a coffee mug.

I also bought a bag of coffee from Iowa roaster Deep River Coffee Roasters, special to the museum, called “Herbert Hoover’s Good Will Blend.” It’s weak, but alright.

The author’s new coffee mug and the coffee

This was the first Presidential Library I visited, but I know I’ll visit more. Probably all of them eventually. And I’d recommend Hoover’s to anyone who’s interested in learning more about him.

 

Nikoel Hytrek
09/02/22

 

Have a story idea or something I should know? Email me at nikoel@iowastartingline.com. You can also DM me on Twitter at @n_hytrek

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1 Comment on "Hoover Museum Visit Sheds New Light On The Only Iowan To Be President"

  • Wait wait, what about the prairie??! There’s an eighty-acre prairie reconstruction that deserves at least a short paragraph. And in the past, though I don’t know about now, there have been weekly tours of the prairie during the summer.

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