Travelers driving through eastern Iowa often stop in West Branch (pop. 2,188) to see the house where President Herbert Hoover was born. Frequently, they’re surprised to learn more about the man who led the nation during one of its bleakest economic periods.
“People think, ‘We’ll stop and see the little house and then be on our way,’” says Cheryl Schreier, superintendent of the Herbert Hoover National Historic Site. “Then they’ll get here and go, ‘My goodness, I had no idea all this was here.”
The site includes Hoover’s birthplace, gravesite, a library-museum—one of only 12 such presidential facilities in the nation—and other buildings that provide visitors with a closer look at the life of the nation’s 31st president, the first to be born west of the Mississippi River. Hoover often is remembered for being in office during the stock market crash of 1929 and being unable to end the subsequent Great Depression. But, as the museum and birthplace reveal, there was much more to Hoover, whose Quaker faith compelled him to years of work to help people around the world before, during and after his presidency.
“Most people associate Hoover with the Great Depression, but when you begin to learn more about his life, you realize what a great humanitarian he was,” says Tim Walch, director of the Herbert Hoover Presidential Library and Museum.
Richard Kail and his wife, Jackie, of Urbandale, Iowa, toured the Hoover birthplace for the first time last year. “You hear about the Depression and how Hoover did this and that wrong, but after going through the museum, it occurred to me that he just happened to have gotten caught up in a bad time,” Kail says. “There’s so much I was not aware of.”
Hoover, born in 1874, was a world-famous mining engineer before entering politics. He won the 1928 presidential election in a landslide and served the nation until 1933. After losing to Franklin D. Roosevelt in his bid for re-election, he concentrated on humanitarian efforts, starting school-lunch programs in the United States and in British occupation zones in Germany.
Although the site’s annual 225,000 visitors often are delightfully surprised that the 187-acre complex contains much more than just Hoover’s birthplace, his family’s tiny, two-room cottage remains the most popular building on the grounds. Built by Hoover’s father in 1871, it was the family’s residence until 1879, when Hoover was 5 and the family moved to another nearby home, which also is on display.
Hoover bought the cottage in 1934 and had it restored. Today, it’s filled with handmade furnishings, photographs and personal effects, including a maple highchair that Hoover used as a toddler. A few handmade toys sit on the floor, and the carpets and curtains are bright but simple. The motif of simplicity is evident in other buildings on the grounds, including the schoolhouse and Quaker Friends meetinghouse—important structures of Hoover’s boyhood—which are adorned with few decorations.
Although the library contains thousands of documents and dozens of displays, Walch says the most popular items are the hundreds of embroidered flour sacks that Hoover received as gifts from people in Belgium who credited him with helping to end starvation in their country during and after World War I.
“Many people felt he was personally responsible for feeding them,” Walch says. “He viewed the flour sacks as a great honor, second only to having schools named after him, which he viewed as the biggest honor of all.”
Hoover’s hometown does have an elementary school named for its favorite son, and Walch says Hoover’s boyhood in West Branch greatly shaped the man he became.
“I think it’s so significant that 17 of the 20 presidents of the 20th century came from small towns,” Walch says. “Small towns nurtured our leadership.”
Hoover, like his parents, “valued a very simple way of life,” Schreier says. “Wealth and power were not at the heart of who he was. He believed in the importance of serving others.”