Lou Henry Hoover had one of the most interesting lives of any First Lady.
A Brief Background:
Lou Henry (1874-1944) was Iowa born, but her family moved to California when she was a small child, and California was still part of the Wild West. She learned all the frontier skills of camping and riding, climbing and marksmanship – plus all the niceties of town life, since her father was a banker of comfortable means.
That included an education at a Normal School (teacher’s college), and a year or so teaching the tough subjects – math and science. Then, after attending a geology lecture by Prof. John Branner, she persuaded her parents to let her continue her education at newly-created Stanford University.
Sociable as well as brainy, she majored in geology, met fellow Iowan-turned-Westerner Herbert Hoover, and set herself firmly on a path of adventure. Despite the fact that Hoover and she were the same age, she had taught school for a year, thus he was a senior while she was a freshman.
When he graduated to begin a career in mining engineering, they agreed to correspond; if there were to be any future for the couple, he needed to be able to support a wife. It did not take him long. He parlayed his first job pushing a tram cart for $2/day into a position of superintendent of a Chinese mining operation that paid $40,000/year – only ten grand less than the President of the United States! At twenty-five, Bert Hoover could easily afford a wife. When Lou graduated Stanford with a degree in geology, the two married in 1899, and spent their “honeymoon” en route to China.
The China Years
In the early years of the 20th Century, China was seething from years of poverty, unrest, and corrupt government, a good deal of which was believed (by the Chinese) to be due to the “foreign interests.” It was a tinderbox waiting to explode.
Herbert and Lou Hoover moved to Tientsin, and settled in a mile-square compound of housing and ancillary services where all foreigners were expected to live. The little compound was divided into separate zones of “influence”: British, German, French, and a small American contingent. As was customary for the wealthy foreigners (compared to their Chinese servants who labored for $5/week), the Hoovers began their life together with six servants to handle the various household chores. The very capable Mrs. Hoover helped her husband with some of his geological tasks, managed the house, socialized pleasantly with her “foreign” counterparts, and began learning Chinese.
Blessed with a gift for languages, Lou Hoover eventually learned several with sufficient proficiency to make herself generally understood. Including a few dialects of Chinese.
Meanwhile the Boxer Rebellion was fomented by angry and unhappy Chinese who targeted their little compound for shelling and siege in 1900. Both Hoovers displayed their leadership coolness under pressure, and began their well deserved reputations as people of consequence and ability. Nevertheless, the Rebellion culminated in “foreign” soldiers (mostly German) sent to Tientsin to maintain order and protect their citizens.
The Cow-Pup Story
Since the compound where the Hoovers lived was small and fairly isolated, its residents were required to be as self-sufficient as possible. Thus, in order to provide fresh milk, the Hoovers purchased a cow – and her calf. Some time later, the cow went missing.
After checking all the neighboring places where a cow might wander off, Mrs. H. was suspicious of mayhem. The animal may have been stolen.
Adding to the consternation of being cowless and milkless, there was the problem of the calf, who incessantly mooed mournfully for his (or her) mother. The noise was disturbing the entire area.
One of Lou’s Chinese servants, a young boy who spoke enough pidgin English to be understood, made a viable suggestion: take the cow-pup (as he called it) around the compound and let him wail away. Perhaps his mother would hear him, or recognize his scent, and come to look for him.
It seemed like a good idea, so that very evening, Lou Hoover tied a rope around the cow-pup’s neck, and along with a couple of friends, began walking through their compound.
Her original suspicions about a possible cow-napping led her to focus on the German cavalry soldiers who had built a small barracks in the German sector. She decided to go there first, cow-pup in tow, mooing his (or her) obvious orphaned distress.
Sure enough, as she approached the soldiers’ barricade, the cow-pup began howling – but this time, there was a distant but distinct response from the other side of the fence. Mama and cow-pup began an active conversation, as the cow began making her way to her offspring.
Lou’s German was fair, and she tried to explain the situation to the sentry at the gate, asking that her cow be returned. Perhaps her linguistic talents did not include specific “mother-and-cow-pup” references. The guard obviously did not understand a word of it. Meanwhile, the cacophony was growing louder, as the joyous bovines came closer.
Finally there was a glint of understanding from the guard: The cow inside the fence and the cow-pup outside needed to be together.
He grinned his best “aha moment,” opened the fence, grabbed the cow-pup by the halter around his neck, and brought him inside the gate where mother-and-child were reunited. Then he immediately closed the gate, and nodded and smiled at Mrs. Hoover, saying, “danke schoen, danke schoen.”
Mrs. Hoover laughed and went back cowless. What else could she do? It was one of the stories she always enjoyed telling.
Boller, Paul F., Jr. – Presidential Anecdotes, Oxford University Press, 1988
Pryor, Dr. Helen B. – Lou Henry Hoover: Gallant First Lady – Dodd Mead, 1969