Hoover Museum takes visitors on a journey that turned a young man into the leader of the free world
He was a child born to a humble home in a small Midwestern town who would someday lead the Republican party to the highest office in the land.
It’s likely the first person Sauk Valley residents will think of is Ronald Reagan. But they should think again. Another president with an alliterative name called the Midwest home: Herbert Hoover.
The 31st president was born in Illinois’ neighbor to the west, Iowa, in the town of West Branch. And in one more nod to the west, he was the first president born west of the Mississippi River. Today, the town is home to the Herbert Hoover National Historic Site and the Herbert Hoover Presidential Library and Museum.
Hoover took office in 1929, as America began to fall into a Great Depression, an economic upheaval that would define his presidency and tarnish his legacy. But there was more to Hoover than just the Depression. His life didn’t lack meaning or adventure. It included a reputation as an international humanitarian, and time in China with his wife, Lou, during the Boxer Rebellion. It’s said that Lou wasn’t going to let a few bullets bother her. She still went out and rode her bicycle, but she stayed closer to the walls.
During his time in office, federal veterans’ services were combined into the Veterans Administration, work began on the Boulder Dam – later renamed the Hoover Dam in his honor, and “The Star Spangled Banner” was officially made our national anthem. These bits of history and more can be found at the site.
I started out at the library, where I was really impressed. The journey into the president’s life began, of course, with his birth in West Branch and followed him through his education, marriage, civilian career, the presidency and the years beyond.
The journey through his history was presented in an easy-to-understand way and should appeal to both those who like to dive deep into presidential history, or those who just like to skim. Whichever you prefer, you’ll still come away with a better understanding of Hoover.
From the museum, I went to pay my respects at the graves of Lou and Herbert before heading over to the National Park Services’ Visitor Center after a lunch in town at Reid’s Beans Coffee Shoppe Cafe, 106 E. Main St. It’s open for breakfast and lunch only. The lunch menu had selections of unusual, yet familiar sandwiches, and the decor was unique. I highly recommend it if you’re looking for some local flavor.
After getting more Hoover information at the Visitor Center, I headed off on the walking tour. Several houses on the walk aren’t open to the public, but were good examples of the architectural styles of Hoover’s time.
I was able to step into a blacksmith shop, similar to the one Jesse Hoover, Herbert’s father, worked in around 1871 to 1878. Near it is a schoolhouse, the primary school in town when the president was a child. The school was built in 1853.
I saw Hoover Creek, where Herbert fished, and the Friends Meetinghouse that was finished in 1857. The Hoovers were Quakers, and Herbert’s mother, Hulda, was a recorded minister there.
The Birthplace Cottage also can be toured. It was built by Herbert’s father and grandfather, Eli, in 1871.
Seemingly out of place, across from the Meetinghouse, is the Statue of Isis, the Egyptian goddess of life. It was given to Hoover by the citizens and children of Belgium to thank him for his efforts on their behalf, both during and after World War I. He was able to provide much needed food to civilians.
A trip to West Branch will take you into the lives of Hoover and his wife, the easy times and the hard times, so that when you leave, you’ll feel like you really got to know them. By the time I left, I felt like I wanted to go fishing with Hoover – but not bicycle riding with Lou!
IF YOU GO ...
What: Herbert Hoover National Historic Site
When: 9 a.m. to 5 p.m., open daily except Thanksgiving, Dec. 25 and Jan. 1
Where: 110 Parkside Drive, West Branch, Iowa
Cost: Free (includes Visitor Center, Birthplace Cottage, Blacksmith Shop, Schoolhouse, Friends Meetinghouse, Gravesite and Tallgrass Prairie)
Distance: About 122 miles from Dixon
Accessible: Visitor Center, walking tour accessible to wheelchairs
Information: 319-643-2541 or nps.gov/heho