A Heartfelt Visit to the Herbert Hoover Presidential Museum in Iowa

Herbert Hoover is the only U.S. president, so far, to hail from Iowa. Beloved in Europe, especially Belgium, Hoover was not necessarily a popular president during his time in the Oval Office. He lost his second election in a landslide. In fact, the American people learned to hate him. Why the big discrepancy?

To find out, take a road trip along I-80 through Iowa, get off at exit 254 in east central Iowa. Plan to love or hate, or understand, the 31st president at the Herbert Hoover Presidential Library and Museum in West Branch.

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Who Was Herbert Hoover?

Herbert Hoover was born in a little cottage near West Branch in 1874. His father died when he was three years old and his mother died when he was six. Little Herbert was then sent to Oregon to be raised by his aunt and uncle. The Hoovers were Quakers and West Branch today continues to have a small Society of Friends. Stanford was a small, new university when Hoover enrolled in the geology program. That’s where he met and married Lou, who was from Waterloo, Iowa.

With a geology engineering degree in hand, Herbert took a job in London and traveled the world with Lou. He was quite successful financially. One gallery in the Herbert Hoover Library is called “The Adventure Years,” covering all of their fabulous experiences from South America to Asia to Africa.

But that came to an abrupt stop in 1914. Herb and Lou were living in London when World War I broke out. They spent much of their own money in helping more than 100,000 Americans get out of Europe and safely back to the States.

Herbert Hoover in World War I

My grandpa fought in World War I, so I’ve had the pleasure of traveling throughout Belgium and France, learning more about the war and my grandpa’s role in it. One woman I spoke with at the Flanders Field Museum in Ypres told me that her grandmother had lived with them in her later years. “Until the day my grandmother died, as we prayed over our meals and other blessings, we always gave thanks for Herbert Hoover,” she said.

Herbert Hoover overseeing food shipments to Belgium in WWI

World War I simply crushed Belgium and northern France. Farm fields became battlefields. Home gardens were destroyed and food was confiscated by the enemy. Commerce that would have brought food to this area stopped.

The U.S. didn’t enter the war until 1917, but President Wilson immediately asked Herbert Hoover to find a way to feed the people of Belgium and France. Such international aid programs are fairly common today, but in 1914, it had never been done before. In addition to getting the food, he had to coordinate the delivery of food and medical supplies across oceans and through combat areas.

Photo by Bruce N. Meyer

During the worst days of World War I, Herbert Hoover was responsible for feeding up to nine million civilians a day along the Western Front. And it continued long after the war ended, until farmers could remove the barbed wire, the explosives and other detritus of war and make their fields productive again.

All told, Herbert Hoover raised an estimated one billion dollars and transported more than five million tons of food. He kept the people from starving to death. That’s why throughout France and Belgium you will find streets, towns, schools and more named Hoover.

What to See at the Hoover Presidential Library in Iowa

That story is prominent not only at the Hoover Presidential Library in Iowa, but in museums throughout Europe. My favorite exhibit is the one with decorated flour sacks. When the war was over, the people of Belgium took the flour sacks and turned them into thank you notes. They are beautifully decorated pieces of art to thank “Oncle Hoover.”

Herbert Hoover Becomes President

Throughout the 1920s, Herbert Hoover was a global hero. He became Secretary of Commerce and oversaw the construction of a dam in Nevada that bares his name. In 1928, he was elected our 31st POTUS. Hoover took office in March 1929 and six months later, the stock market crashed.

Despite his brilliance on so many fronts, nothing Hoover did seemed to make a difference in the face of a global depression.

On top of that, Hoover was a big supporter of Prohibition. And we know how that worked out. People were mad, confused, hungry, homeless and broke. They needed someone to blame. The presidential museum doesn’t mince words about how tough it was at that time. Exhibits on “Hoovervilles,” basically little shanty towns where homeless families lived, bring it home. My grandad talked about chasing a “Hoover hog,” in searching for better opportunities. And those are the nice things about Hoover that we can print here.

But hey, my cat could have beat him in the 1932.

So FDR became president and Hoover, well, he went to Europe and met Adolf Hitler. He reported back that Hitler was kind of extreme, but not a real threat. It was not a good time for Herbie.

What Else at the Herbert Hoover Museum

So after WWII, Harry Truman tapped Hoover to do what he did best – feed Europe. And later he consulted with every president until his death in 1964, including Eisenhower and Kennedy.

The Herbert Hoover Library has a gallery dedicated to Lou and her work as First Lady. The woman spoke five languages, including Mandarin. She was president of the Girl Scouts of America and a big proponent of women in sports.

Herbert and Lou are buried on the grounds, just a few yards from the cottage where Herbert Hoover was born. Because of his Quaker beliefs, the grave site is quite simple. It does not include the presidential seal or any indication of the giant contributions he made to this world in his 90 years.

Herbert Hoover fishing
Herbert Hoover was an avid fly-fisherman and spent much of his retirement in a stream looking for trout. Photo by Bruce N. Meyer

While in Iowa

About 30 miles north of the Herbert Hoover Presidential Library and Museum is Cedar Rapids. We highly recommend a visit to the National Czech and Slovak Museum and Library.

And a little farther west on I-80, pull off at exit 182 to spend the night in Grinnell.