On Tuesday May 30th we left Hannibal, Missouri and soon crossed over into Iowa, a new state for us. On the way north we made a stop at the Herbert Hoover Presidential Library and Museum in West Branch, Iowa. Another presidential library to mark off the list!
We started at the Visitors Center where we watched a twelve minute movie. Then we began a walking tour of the area. When Hoover was born in 1874 the town of West Branch had a population of 350 people who were mainly farmers. Hoover’s father did not like farming so he had a blacksmith shop. The walking tour around the Herbert Hoover National Historic Site included his birthplace cottage, the schoolhouse where he attended school, the Friends Meetinghouse where he attended church as a young boy with his family and a replica of his father’s blacksmith shop.
The birthplace cottage, 14 by 20 feet and built in 1871, was sold and later bought and restored by Herbert Hoover and his wife. Hoover said the cottage “was physical proof of the unbounded opportunity of American life”.
The schoolhouse was built in 1853. This Quaker community believed strongly in education for both boys and girls. We saw evidence of how Hoover’s Quaker upbringing and faith shaped his life as we toured the Presidential Library and Museum.
The Friends Meetinghouse, built in 1857, was simply furnished with wooden benches and an iron stove. Hoover’s family belonged to the Religious Society of Friends (Quakers), and his mother was a minister and devout Quaker who often spoke on temperance and other causes. Services of silent meditation were held here twice a week. People sat for long periods of time waiting for anyone who had an insight or spiritual message to feel compelled to speak. Hoover said those services lasting hours taught him great patience and “intense repression”. Notice in the picture there is a partition that could be lowered between the two sides. Men and women were separated with the idea that the separation would allow women to feel more free to speak up.
Also in the historic area was a statue of Isis, the Egyptian Goddess of Life. It was given to Herbert Hoover by the children and citizens of Belgium in gratitude for his work on their behalf during and after World War I when he was Chairman of Commission for Relief in Belgium.
Next was the Presidential Library and Museum, built in 1962 and dedicated by former Presidents Hoover and Truman. The library/museum was small but well done and gave us great insight into our 31st President. Before this visit we thought of Hoover as a lesser known President who led us into the Great Depression and was a failure as President. We came away with a greater appreciation of Hoover the man and the struggles he faced as president.
As a young child Hoover faced great tragedy. His father died in 1880 when Hoover was six. His mother used life insurance money to buy food and clothing and did needlepoint to bring in extra money. His mother made sure the children remained strong in their community, school and religious activities. Four years later in 1884 he was orphaned at the age of ten when his mother died of typhoid and pneumonia. Hoover and his two siblings were split up when Hoover went to live with a maternal aunt and uncle in Oregon he hardly knew. He left West Branch with a suitcase full of clothing, a little food, and two dimes sewn in his clothing. His siblings remained in Iowa but in separate homes.
In Oregon he was quickly put to work, spending long hours helping at home. His time there was not a happy one, though his aunt and uncle loved him and taught him a strong work ethic. He dropped out of school at the age of thirteen and went to work at his uncle’s real estate office. He later went to night school and attended Stanford University where he graduated with a degree in mining. While at Stanford he met his wife, Lou Henry.
After graduation he worked as a mining engineer in Nevada, California and Australia. Later Hoover and his wife lived in China where he was a chief mining engineer. While in China the Boxer Rebellion trapped them there in 1900. While the city they lived in was under fire, the Hoovers worked to help defend the city, with Hoover guiding U.S. Marines around during the battle because he knew the terrain. Mrs. Hoover helped in hospitals and was fearless as she carried on her duties with a 38 pistol strapped to her side.
Hoover became an independent mining consultant, traveling around the world, and becoming a millionaire by the age of 40. He had investments on every continent and offices in San Francisco, London, New York City, St Petersburg, Paris and Burma. He specialized in helping troubled mining operations, bringing them back into the black and taking a share of the profits for his expertise. By 1914 he had an estimated fortune of $4 million.
After World War I began in 1914, Hoover helped organize the return of around 120,000 Americans from Europe, distributing food, clothing, steamship tickets and cash. When Belgium suffered a food crisis after they were invaded by Germany in 1914, Hoover led an immense relief effort to feed the entire Nation during the war. They obtained and imported millions of tons of food to distribute to the Belgium people, being sure none of it went to the German army.
In 1917 President Woodrow Wilson appointed Hoover to head the U.S. Food Administration to ensure the United State’s food needs during the war. Hoover believed “food will win the war” and in an attempt to avoid rationing he came up with “meatless Mondays, wheatless Wednesdays and the slogan when in doubt eat potatoes”.
After his efforts during World War I, Hoover was well known, perhaps second only to President Wilson. His rags to riches story and humanitarian efforts were very appealing to the American people. But it wasn’t yet his time to achieve success in politics though he considered running in 1920.
After Harding was elected president in 1920, he appointed Hoover as Secretary of Commerce. He remained in that office until 1928, serving under both Harding and Coolidge. Much of his work as Commerce Secretary centered around eliminating waste and increasing efficiency in business and industry. He worked on the early organization, development and regulation of radio broadcasting and was influential in the early development of air travel.
Hoover held a press conference on his first day in office and in his first 120 days in office held more press conferences than any other president, then or since.
His plan was to reform the nation’s regulatory system, believing a federal bureaucracy should have limited regulation over the country’s economic system. Hoover wanted a balance among labor, capital and the government.
Hoover early on tried to warn of the dangers of speculation and rampant investments in the Stock Market. He tried to discourage people from uncontrolled investments and encouraged people to invest in bonds rather than stocks. But only months after he took office the Stock Market Crash of 1929 occurred, resulting in the Great Depression.
Hoover implemented many policies in an attempt to pull the country out of the Depression but in 1930 the unemployment rate was 8.9%, rising to 24.9% in 1932. Businesses had defaulted in record numbers on loans and more than 5,000 banks failed. Homeless people lived in shantytowns called “Hoovervilles”.
Hoover believed in a balanced budget and to pay for government programs and make up for lost revenue he signed the Revenue Act of 1932 which raised taxes. Top earners were taxed at 63%, up from 25% when Hoover took office. Also estate tax was doubled and corporate taxes were raised almost 15%.
Hoover did not take a salary as president, instead he split his salary between a number of charities and put the rest toward the salaries of his staff.
Hoover ran against Franklin Roosevelt in 1932. As he campaigned around the country he faced the most hostile crowds of any sitting president as he was pelted with eggs and rotten fruit and heckled during speeches. On several occasions the Secret Service stopped attempts on his life.
Despite Hoover’s efforts, he was blamed for causing the Great Depression. Roosevelt won the election 57.4% to Hoover’s 39.7%. Roosevelt was the first Democratic Presidential nominee to win a majority of the popular vote since the Civil War.
Hoover left office bitter at his election loss and continuing unpopularity. He was a constant critic of Roosevelt and the New Deal. He wrote more than a dozen books, many critical of the New Deal, and even hoped to possibly run for president again in 1936 and 1940. He lost to other Republican candidates both times during the nominating process.
In his retirement he continued writing books and was a major fundraiser for the Boys Club of America. He died at the age of 90 in 1964. (Mrs. Hoover passed away in 1944). They are both buried a short walk from the Presidential Library and Museum in very simple graves, reflecting the Quaker ideals.
His time as president was unfortunate. Perhaps he is best remembered as the “Humanitarian President”. As well as feeding millions during wartime, he increased the Federal budget to include children’s programs. He had the first ever White House Conference on Child Health and Protection. In 1949 he co-founded UNICEF. He oversaw disaster relief for ten states after the Great Mississippi Flood of 1927. He achieved unprecedented prison reform including building new prisons and increasing rights and humanitarian treatment of prisoners. He increased the amount of land in the National Park System and canceled private oil leases on public land. There can be no denying the influence his early life as the poor son of Quakers in a small town in Iowa had on the man who would one day become President.
“My country owes me no debt. It gave me, as it gives every boy and girl, a chance. It gave me schooling, independence of action, opportunity for service and honor. In no other land could a boy from a country village, without inheritance or influential friends, look forward with unbounded hope. My whole life has taught me what America means. I am indebted to my country beyond any human power to repay“. Herbert Hoover, 1920