It is not Paris. It is not even Mt. Vernon. But history lovers must not overlook the charmer of an understated and underrated Presidential Birthplace and Library in tiny little West Branch, Iowa.
The Herbert Hoover Birthplace
Herbert Hoover was born in West Branch in 1874, the son of a struggling farmer-blacksmith and his wife. By the time he was ten, both his parents had died, and he went to live with relatives in Oregon. But for the rest of his long life (he lived to be ninety), Hoover would always regard West Branch and Iowa as his home. His memories might fade with age, but they were fond ones.
The house of his birth itself still stands, furnished with a few original pieces of the Hoover furniture. Other items are period pieces from the surrounding area. It is a small house, only two rooms in its 14-by-20 space, attesting to the humble beginnings of Hoover’s life. The surrounding structures have been purchased and recreated to look like that tiny village of 350 people, much as it was a hundred and fifty years ago.
The site was purchased by Mrs. Herbert Hoover as “physical proof of the unbounded opportunity of American life.” She died in 1944, many years before the place she envisioned was properly developed. It was privately operated until 1965, when it became part of the National Park System. Both Herbert and Lou Henry Hoover are buried at the site.
The Herbert Hoover Presidential Library
Compared to the massive and majestic buildings housing some of our modern presidential libraries, the Herbert Hoover Library could fit into a small corner. The building is not large or imposing. You can drive by and not even know it is there. In actuality, it is very much alike the shy man it honors. Not inclined to toot its own horn, but once inside, you are in for a surprising treat.
The Library is part museum, part archive, part historical site, and part gift shop. Scholars seeking academic materials for their projects are warmly welcomed by a small team of dedicated archivists, who are happy to direct your search into the life and times of the man whose amazing life can be summed up as a Horatio Alger story: poor boy makes good. In Hoover’s case, it was poor boy makes VERY good.
The Herbert Hoover Museum
The museum contents and story is a delightful peek inside the man who rose from a poor orphan to a multimillionaire by the time he was thirty. Herbert Hoover worked his way through Stanford University to become a mining engineer. Thanks to his enormous energy and capacity for work, an uncanny “nose for mines,” a genius for administration, and desire to get ahead, he was able to obtain positions far beyond his youth and experience. By the time he was twenty-five (in 1900), he was earning more than $40,000 a year – equal to ten or more times that amount in today’s money.
The museum houses exhibits from his mining days in the Australian Outback, exhibits from being marooned inside a tiny enclave during China’s Boxer Rebellion where Herbert Hoover’s leadership became apparent to all, and exhibits from World War I, when he discovered his true calling: humanitarianism on a massive scale.
Then there are displays commemorating his inclusion in the cabinets of both Presidents Harding and Coolidge, and from his inauguration as President in 1929. It even includes a replica of the fishing cabin Mrs. Hoover had built in the Maryland mountains, so they could relax from time to time. There is also a full scale recreation of Hoover’s retirement suite in the Waldorf Astoria Hotel in New York City and Mrs. Hoover’s collection of exquisite blue-and-white Chinese porcelain vases. The display cases are attractively designed. The accompanying text is easy to read and understand.
It is a treat to follow the fascinating career of the woefully neglected and much maligned man who became our 31st President. No other President with the exception of George Washington came to office with higher expectations for greatness. None left office with greater disappointments. The decade following his presidency found him enshrined as the face of the Great Depression, buried in ignominious failure. Most historians today readily acknowledge that Hoover has been given a raw deal, and deserves the respect and regard he is only now beginning to reclaim.
The Herbert Hoover Presidential site is located just off I-80, at Exit 254. A single modest fee covers admission to all aspects of the site, and there is a gift shop with unique items and souvenirs for the history buff. The facilities are open daily from 9-5, closed only on Christmas, Thanksgiving and New Year’s Day. Parking is free.
If you are in the neighborhood – stop in. It is well worth the time!