Wednesday, December 30, 2015


Our next destination was the Herbert Hoover Presidential Library and Museum (the second PLM of our trip) in West Branch, just 12 miles east of Iowa City.

I have to admit that I've always viewed Hoover as somewhat of a place-holder in history. He got stuck with the Great Depression, not really his fault, and he mostly just had to be the figurehead in the White House until someone else could replace him.

I got a completely different view of him from visiting his PLM.

Hoover was the first President born west of the Mississippi. He was born in 1874, and the first census in West Branch wasn't until 1880, when the city had a booming population of 500.

Hoover's father died in 1880 and his mother in 1884, leaving him an orphan at age nine. He eventually went to live with an uncle in Oregon. After initially failing his college entrance exams, he was accepted into the inaugural class of Stanford University in Palo Alto, California, from which he graduated in 1895 with a degree in geology and a girlfriend named Lou Henry, a banker's daughter and fellow Iowan.
Herbert on the bottom left
Hoover's first job was as a geologist with a mining company in Australia. When he was promoted and asked to go to China, he first proposed to and then married Lou in 1899 so that she could come along. (They both learned Mandarin Chinese, which they would later use in the White House to foil eavesdroppers.)
Young Lou and Herbert--a very handsome couple
The Hoovers had two sons, traveled and lived all over the world, and gradually became quite wealthy via the mining industry. By the time their oldest son was 8, he had circumnavigated the globe five times!
Herbert at work in the field
Then World War I broke out. 

The Hoover PLM has some very interesting displays related to the Great War, making this museum a nice follow-up to our visit to the National World War I Museum in Kansas City earlier in the week. For example, there are photos and information about the Lusitania
There are interesting displays comparing and contrasting German and American weaponry and supplies:

If you're not sure if a man is a friend or foe, check out his gas mask:
Like the National World War I Museum, there is information about trench warfare and a recreated trench:

There are plenty of the usual overblown and yet still compelling propaganda posters:


The first victims of the War were used as fundraisers:

My enjoyment of the propaganda posters ended when we came to this one-inch-thick wall filled with tiny metal pellets about the size of a BB. Each one represents a person killed in the war--10 to 11 MILLION in all:

Gruesome photos accompany horrifying lists of the dead by country:
Hoover said, "I did not realize it at the moment, but on August 3, 1914, my engineering career was over forever. I was on the slippery road of public life." Austrian Archduke Franz Ferdinand had just been assassinated in Sarajevo, kick-starting the war, and 120,000 Americans were trapped in Europe. Hoover was asked to rescue them, and for the next five weeks he and his team helped bring his countrymen home. Hoover himself and several of his wealthy friends even loaned desperate travelers $1.5 million to facilitate their return to the US.

Hoover's next assignment was to lead a relief effort to feed the starving people of Belgium. Germany had invaded in 1914, and the Belgians were in a sorry state. Hoover and his commission undertook the feeding and clothing of the entire country for the length of the war:

His efforts expanded to bring aid to America's allies all over Europe:

Information at the site reads: "Following the Armistice of 1918, Hoover created the American Relief Administration to feed eighteen natons--including defeated Germany and Bolshevik Russia--from the North Sea to Wales. Hoover's European Children's Fund--forerunner of CARE--alone helped six million victims of war. Overall, it has been estimated that Hoover's relief efforts during and immediately after World War I rescued between fifteen and twenty million children."

Hoover's American Relief Administration fed as many as 10 million people daily.
Children from Warsaw, Poland, 1919

A Polish orphan from Warsaw, 1919

Refugees from Montenegro, 1919

Mrs. Hoover was no less active than her husband. She played an important role in preserving Belgium's vital lace industry. She found work and a market for 20,000 lace-makers during the war. Every dollar earned was returned to the women of Belgium:

This painting of children eating a meal in Vienna's Belvedere Palace, which was being used for American relief efforts, was "presented to him who has done more to save human lives than any man living: Herbert Hoover":

This plaster "life mask" of Hoover was made in 1917, about the time of the Versailles Peace Conference in France:
An excerpt from a letter written by Hoover's wife to their children is cited in the museum: "Those years of his life--and ours--he gave up to the cause of the little man, millions of him. And not only those years, but most of the kind of happiness, of pleasure, that had been his before. A certain definite, and very original, kind of joy of life was stamped out of him by those war years . . .  the old sparkling spontaneity is now only occasionally glimpsed far below the surface . . . "

The war was followed by a backlash against poverty and fear--the Roaring Twenties:

These years produced some of my favorite authors: F. Scott Fitzgerald, Willa Cather, Eugene O'Neill, and Sinclair Lewis:

New means of communication and burgeoning technology led to many changes in the way Americans saw themselves and the way they lived their lives.

Life expectancy rose by five years (from 55 to 60), the percentage of Americans graduating from high school doubled, and the Book-of-the-Month Club took off.

During the decade following the Great War, Hoover served very effectively as Secretary of Commerce under Presidents Harding and Coolidge. He was so respected that when the Great Mississippi Flood of 1927 hit, displacing 1.5 million people, governors of six states along the river asked for Hoover to be assigned to the relief effort, even though it was not within the purview of his Commerce Department.

The blue areas on the map at left shows the land flooded by the river. Hoover's effective use of everyday Americans rather than the military to do clean-up work and rebuilding strengthened his reputation as a great humanitarian and paved the way for his run for the Presidency on the Republic ticket in the 1928 election.

From the museum: ". . . the man who had fed Belgium, run the U.S. Food Administration, revolutionized the Department of Commerce, and ministered to victims of the Mississippi Flood appeared an ideal candidate: more realistic than Wilson, more respectable than Harding, more imaginative than Coolidge and less controversial than his Democrat opponent, New York Governor Alfred E. Smith. Dazzled by his past achievements, few of Hoover's countrymen stopped to ask whether the 'Great Engineer' had a political temperament."

Hoover easily won the election with 58% of the vote.

One of the biggest, most positive accomplishments of Hoover's presidency was the building of the Hoover Dam, one of the greatest engineering feats of the century. The Hoover PLM claims it was a bigger construction project than the Panama Canal and required the largest single contract ever let by the U.S. government up to that time. From the museum: "When construction got under way in 1931, as many as five thousand workers labored twenty-four hours a day in hellish conditions. In one month alone, fourteen men died from heat prostration. Others fell victim to accidents or avalances on the steep canyon cliffs But at a time when jobs of any kind were scarce, laborers on the site were grateful to be working at all. The work crews built for the ages."

Hoover's term had some interesting people. He received Amelia Earhart at the White House. Crime boss Al Capone was arrested and convicted of tax evasion during Hoover's presidency.

Unfortunately, the event that is most associated with President Hoover is Black Friday:

By 1930 4.3 million were unemployed, comprising 8.7% of the nation's workforce. Between 1929 and 1932, the country's economic output was cut in half. Almost 6,000 banks went under. By 1932 25% of the nation's workforce was unemployed. In an effort to alleviate unemployment, Hoover spent more money on public works than his predecessors had spent in the previous thirty. He created the National Credit Association to save tottering banks. He donated most of his own salary to charity.

It didn't help that in August 1930 the worst drought in American history hit an area the size of Europe in the Great Plains. President Hoover met with farm state governors, and over time his administration provided direct relief to 184,000 farm families via the Red Cross. He made over 200,000 tons of livestock feed and seed loans available to needy farmers. In October 1930 he created an Emergency Relief Committee, the first time the federal government had attempted to coordinate local efforts aimed at relief and employment. Hoover continued to stress self-reliance, independence, and persistence. Unfortunately, it just wasn't enough. Herbert Hoover, once an international hero for feeding the survivors of World War I, was now blamed for all the hunger in America. Even his 1932 Presidential election opponent, Franklin Roosevelt, blamed him for the Great Depression. Hoover became one of the biggest scapegoats in US history.

The outcome of the 1932 election was no surprise. Hoover received 39.7% of the popular vote to Roosevelt's 57.4%. The electoral college was a landslide for Roosevelt: 472 to 59. 
Hoover retired to his home in Stanford, California, and kept a relatively low profile for over a decade. 
Hoover and Roosevelt remained enemies for the rest of Roosevelt's lifetime, but when Harry Truman ascended to the Presidency after Roosevelt's death, the two men became friends, and in 1946 Truman sent Hoover to Europe to assess the devastated country's food status, a perfect assignment for Hoover, who created a school meals program that fed 3.5 million children.

The bronze statue at left was a gift from the children of Dresden, Germany, in appreciation for Hoover's post-war relief efforts.

Hoover was appointed to several more government posts in the following years, including one focused on reducing government waste. In 1954 he traveled to Germany on a diplomatic mission and spoke in Berlin, advising the residents of the broken, divided city to ". . . hold your heads high and say 'I am a Berliner'," a line President Kennedy would borrow nine years later. Hoover also served as the chairman of the Boys Club for twenty-five years, and was instrumental in creating UNICEF, the United Nations Children's Fund, an advocate for children's rights and welfare.

I was glad to learn that Hoover recovered some of his good reputation, although overall I don't think history gives him enough credit for the things he got right.

Hoover also wrote many books during the 30 years after his Presidency, including a biography of Woodrow Wilson, the first time one President had written a biography of another. His final book, considered his magnum opus, was finally published in 2012, forty-eight years after Hoover's death. Freedom Betrayed is a not too favorable critique of  Franklin Roosevelt, US foreign policy from 1930 to 1945, and the years of the Cold War.

The museum has a reproduction of Hoover's suite at the New York Waldorf Towers (which is where he died in 1964). The desk is original, as are the pieces of Chinese porcelain from the Hoovers' personal collection. Several of the gifts of appreciation given to Hoover over the years are also on display.

What Herbert Hoover really liked to do in his "retirement years" was fish. In fact, one of the books he wrote was about fishing:

Hoover died on October 24, 1964, at age 90, a year into the Presidency of Lyndon Johnson. I can only imagine what he thought of Johnson's expansion of social programs.

He and his beloved wife Lou (who died in 1944) are buried side-by-side on the beautiful grounds of the Hoover Presidential Library on a knoll overlooking the two-room cottage in which Hoover was born in 1874.

It is incredible to think that a man who rose to the highest office of government in the United States was born in this humble home and is buried not far from it. While the physical distance between the birth and death sites is small, the life in between ranges from the mining fields of Australia and China to devastated Europe to the halls of government. There is a compression and expansion of time here that makes me think of Einstein's Theory of Relativity.

The cottage interior is simple but homey; nothing really sets it apart from any other home of the period:

A muddy creek runs through the property:

A bizarre, enigmatic, 7 1/2-foot-tall statue of  Isis, the Goddess of Life sits nearby, facing the cottage:
A plaque on the base states, "I am that which was and is and will ever be, and no mortal has yet lifted the veil which covers me." The figure was sculpted specifically for this spot by the Belgian artist Auguste Puttemans and presented by a committee of Belgian school children, Belgian refugees, and soldiers of the Belgian army in gratitude for Hoover's famine relief efforts in World War I.

Isis wears a veil, symbol of mystery. Her left hand holds the key of life, and her right hand holds the torch of life with three flames representing the past, present, and future. 

The statue was shipped to California's Stanford University in 1922, where it remained until it was brought to West Branch in 1939. Hoover wanted it to be installed in a place where it would appear to be contemplating his little house.

More than any other Presidential Library and Museum we have visited, I was very moved by the Hoover PLM. I discovered an orphaned boy who made good, a great humanitarian, a desperate President, and a widower who continued to serve, especially children, long after he left the public eye. All in all, our drive to West Branch was a detour well worth our time.

We took a brief stroll through West Branch (pop. 2,326 in 2012) after leaving the PLM and came across this nice war memorial:

Bob had done his homework ahead of time, ferreting out a nice little diner called Reid's Beans for our lunch:
It had a charming, solid Midwestern interior:
. . . with a few unexpected touches:

I had a beet salad with walnuts and blue cheese that was quite good:

Bob opted for a pulled pork wrap, also good:

We had fresh peach pie for dessert--hard to go wrong there:

It was the perfect ending to a great visit to West Branch, Iowa.

In 2012, The Washington Post published a list of the best biographies of all the American Presidents. They cited Herbert Hoover by William E. Leuchtenburg as the book to read on the 31st President. Leuchtenburg is a retired professor of history from University of North Carolina a Chapel Hill and is considered a leading scholar on Franklin Roosevelt, so it's no surprise that this is not a very kind treatment of Hoover.  Leuchtenburg presents Hoover as having a sharp business mind but not a sharp intellect, as being stubborn and immovable once he took a position, and as seriously lacking charisma. While Hoover did well when he could dictate procedures, he did not work well with Congress and had no feel for diplomacy. The author quotes acquaintances who said Hoover typically spoke "only in chill monosyllables." He wasn't one to greet staff members. He worked seven days a week, Sunday being no exception. Throughout the initial years of the Great Depression, he refused to acknowledge the severity of the crash, and even when faced with evidence of suffering, he minimized the problem.

In his disastrous campaign for re-election in 1932 (I would think he should have known better than to attempt a run), a British journalist reported on "the dispiriting influence of Mr. Hoover's personality, his unprepossessing exterior, his sour, puckered face of a bilious baby, his dreary, nasal monotone reading interminably, and, for the most prat inaudibly, from a typescript without a single inflection of a voice or gesture to relieve the tedium."  

During the campaign, this parody was circulated:
Hoover is our shepherd
We are in want
He maketh us to lie
Down on park benches
He leadeth us beside the still factories
He disturbeth our soul.


In the end, Leuchtenburg notes, "The Oval Office requires more than dedication and managerial skills, both of which [Hoover] had in abundance." However, the author also concedes, "There was more to his career than the four years in the White House. Hoover, an associate told the press, 'fed more people and saved more lives than any other man in history.'"


  1. What great and interesting stories. I learned a lot. I'm looking forward to your opinion of the book.

  2. I had a horrible opinion of Hoover before our visit. I came away with great admiration for him. It is interesting how politics can jade our view of people and history.