“…for really showing us the way.”
It’s not 31st President’s fault that the catchy song from Annie played on repeat in my head throughout my visit to his boyhood home and Presidential Library. Annie is such a deeply ingrained part of my childhood that I can sing every song word for word. I mean no disrespect. It’s just that besides being the subject of an unflattering Broadway showtune, I couldn’t have told you much else about Hoover prior to my visit. I know, of course, that he was considered a failed President by most, and that he has a big dam named after him (I’ve even taken the Dam Tour). But that’s about it.
I’ll confess, history (unless it’s related to the space age) was never my favorite subject, but here I am exploring our vast country, and history – the good and the bad – is a very big part of that journey.
We arrived to the Herbert Hoover National Historic Site in West Branch, Iowa late in the afternoon. The site chronicles Hoover’s life from boyhood home, through his presidency to his final resting place. We stopped into the Visitors Center for maps and information, and explored the very brief exhibit there.
Late in Hoover’s life, he said of his childhood, “I do not know much of anything that happens to a small boy in Iowa that is not cheerful. It is a life of more nearly complete joy than any other form of existence I can imagine.” Sill, his early years were not easy. His father, a Quaker blacksmith, passed in December 1880 when Hoover was only 6 years old, and his mom just four years later. At 11 years old, Hoover traveled by train from Iowa to Oregon to live with his uncle, a doctor. In his possession was one suitcase, a basket of food from his aunt and 50 cents sewn into his clothing in case of emergency. He would never live in Iowa again and returned only to assist in the planning of the site.
We wanted to spend the majority of our limited available time in the Presidential Museum, so we made only a quick visit to the various buildings on the property (his boyhood home, the Quaker Meeting House where his family gathered, a blacksmith shop that would have been similar to his father’s, as well as the school house where Hoover was educated).
We strolled across the vast property to the Presidential Library. Presidential libraries are, by their very nature it seems, designed to be a bit of a lie. Balance isn’t necessarily the goal – the goal is, of course, to showcase the President’s highlights, even if, as in the case of Hoover, those highlights mostly didn’t come during the Presidency.
Blamed for the Great Depression (or for not doing enough to end it), Hoover is pretty much synonymous with “presidential failure.” But there was more to the man than the Presidency, and the museum tells an interesting story of a distinguished Commerce Secretary, and a great humanitarian – a man who spent 50 years in public service, and is often defined only by 4 of those years.
Hoover went to Stanford University, while in it’s infancy, to become a mining engineer. He then used his education in China and Australia, where he literally struck gold and became a very wealthy man at a very early age, earning the adage the ‘great engineer’. The museum showcased the difficult living conditions in the Australian desert and the tense times in China during the Boxer rebellion.
While he was in Europe, WWI broke out and he led the efforts to bring Americans stranded in Europe home safely. He then had the unenviable job of getting American food aid to the European allies, without it ending up in the hands of the German occupiers, thereby cementing his reputation as a ‘great humanitarian’.
One of my favorite parts of the the museum were the flour sacks within the Humanitarian Exhibit.
Here are a few of the flour sack samples throughout the exhibit.
Appointed Commerce Secretary by Warren Harding in 1920 (and continuing to serve under Calvin Coolidge), Hoover was said to be so popular that he over-shadowed both presidents. It was joked throughout Washington that Hoover was “Secretary of Commerce, and Undersecretary of everything else.” His great accomplishment during this time was the establishment of the ‘Bureau of Standards’, which established standards for such things like sizes for car wheels and tires; bedframes and mattress. This resulted in vast efficiencies and enabled consumers to buy a car from one manufacturer and the tires from another.
The roaring 1920s were depicted with interesting exhibits. One exhibit presented the early age of commercial radio, and how Hoover thought only live performances should be broadcast, while another chronicled the establishment of the early version of air traffic control.
Having won the presidential election with relative ease, there were very high hopes for Hoover. However, the feelings did not last through the depression. The newspaper articles and cartoons show that there were rumors that he was running away from the country with all his gold on Andrew Carnegie’s yacht.
Overall, we felt the great depression did not get the level of attention that it deserved. Still, the museum was very much an eye-opener for me and an in-depth look at the man, if not the President.
The final exhibit hall, a re-creation of his suite at the Waldorf Astoria (where he spent his post-presidential years) demonstrated the extent of his personal wealth. Hoover would go on to do many great things in those years, including heading the Boys Clubs of America (which he raised millions of dollars for), serving as the coordinator for Food Supply for World Famine during World War II, serving as occupancy adviser to President Truman, among many other things. He also paved the way for the 1949 Executive Reorganization Act, which restructured the executive branch of the government. He also found time to author dozens of books.
A President is laid to rest ~ October 1964.
It is said that his Quaker faith helped guide him through the years. In the Quaker tradition, his grave is marked with only his name and dates. You’ll find no Presidential Seal or fancy engravings here.
Our visit to the Hoover Library was certainly interesting. We have other Presidential Libraries on our itinerary for the trip, but Hoover was my first. I have been to the JKF Library in Boston, but it was a screening of an installment of the HBO Mini-series From the Earth to the Moon. I have not visited the exhibits. Somehow, we always forget to make time to be tourists in our own states. Will definitely have to change that soon.
Have you visited a Presidential Library? Let us know which and your thoughts. Maybe your library is next on our list. And since we discovered the Presidential Library Passport on this visit, we’re looking forward to checking them all out.
Apologies for the very long gap since the last post. Life has been crazy! Lots more posts to follow.