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31st President of the United States, 1929-1933
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Herbert Hoover National Historic Site

Harvesting Hulda's garden
Harvesting Hulda's garden
at the Birthplace Cottage
National Park Service

"My grandparents and my parents came here in a covered wagon. In this community they toiled and worshipped God. They lie buried on your hillside. The most formative years of my boyhood were spent here. My roots are in this soil. This cottage where I was born is physical proof of the unbounded opportunity of American life." -Herbert Hoover

Herbert Hoover, mining engineer, humanitarian, statesman, and 31st president of the United States, was born August 10, 1874 in a simple two-room cottage in West Branch, Iowa that is now a part of the Herbert Hoover National Historic Site. His Quaker family helped settle the town, and their principles of honesty, hard work, simplicity, and generosity guided Hoover throughout his life of service to the nation and the world.

Growing up in West Branch, Herbert saw his parents and other family members in leadership roles, which instilled in him a drive to become a leader and a success. He was influenced greatly by the Quaker belief in the equality of all people, regardless of race, gender, or creed, as illustrated by equality within the Quaker community and exemplified by his own remarkable relief efforts. Herbert's experiences as an orphan at an early age left a lasting impression on him. That impression led him to help children throughout his life.

Herbert Hoover, his wife Lou Henry Hoover, and their family shaped this presidential memorial area to present a fuller picture of Hoover's life. The park's memorial landscape and its elements symbolize American ideals of religion, education, hard work, community, and entrepreneurship as Herbert Hoover saw them and lived them. Rather than fully recreate the setting of his youth, the landscape and historic furnishings are an effort to commemorate and celebrate Herbert Hoover’s accomplishments and ideals. They reflect the wishes and the direct involvement of the Hoover family, especially Lou Henry Hoover, as they expressed them during the park’s development from 1935 to 1966. Four historic buildings-- the Birthplace Cottage, the Blacksmith Shop, the Schoolhouse, and the Friends Meetinghouse-- tell the story of Hoover's West Branch childhood. As additions to the historic landscape of Herbert's early years, the Gravesite, the Statue of Isis, and the Presidential Library and Museum connect his childhood to his later accomplishments.

The Great Depression began with the stock market crash in October 1929, soon after Hoover became president.  Committed to individualism and opposed to direct Federal intervention, he hoped at first that local governments and traditional charitable organizations could solve the problems that arose.  When the massive unemployment and poverty of the 1930s overwhelmed the political system, public opinion soon transformed this internationally famous humanitarian into “the man with ice water in his veins.”  Although Hoover did more than any previous president to relieve economic distress, he became the scapegoat for the Depression.  In the presidential election of 1932, he met overwhelming defeat at the hands of Democrat Franklin D. Roosevelt.

Interior of Birthplace Cottage
Interior of Birthplace Cottage
with Herbert's original high chair
National Park Service

Herbert Hoover’s father, Jesse, built the birthplace cottage in 1871.  There were two main rooms in the one-story, board-and-batten house.  The first was a combined living room, kitchen, and dining room; the second was the bedroom.  Herbert and his older brother shared the trundle bed kept under their parents’ bed during the day.  The partially enclosed back porch served as a summer kitchen or spare bedroom.

Jesse Hoover was a young, up-and-coming blacksmith.  The Hoovers lived in the cottage until 1879, when they moved to a larger home a short distance away.  Jesse sold his blacksmith shop and bought a larger store where he sold pumps, wagons, barbed wire, and sewing machines.  A heart attack cut short his promising career in 1880; he was 34.  For four years, Jesse’s widow, Hulda struggled to support her young family by taking in sewing.  She also accepted help from her relatives and from other members of the Quaker community.  The Quaker Meetinghouse was at the center of West Branch in the late 19th century, and Herbert’s mother often spoke at meeting.  In 1884, Hulda died of typhoid fever, leaving her three young children orphans.  The three siblings were separated and sent to live with different relatives.

In 1885, Herbert left West Branch to live with his uncle, Dr. Henry J. Minthorn, a physician and businessman, in Oregon. His brother and sister joined him there three years later.  His uncle oversaw his schooling and later hired him as an office boy. Herbert learned to type and to keep books and attended business school at night. In 1895, he graduated from Stanford University, with a degree in geology. To support himself through school and the years immediately following, he worked as a surveyor and for a mining engineering firm.  Early in 1899, Herbert returned to California and married his university sweetheart, Lou Henry.

The couple sailed the next day for China, where Herbert had taken a job as mining engineer-consultant to the Chinese Government.  For the next two decades, the Hoovers shared an adventurous life on several continents, as Herbert gained an international reputation for developing mines and managing other industrial projects.  From 1908 to 1914, Hoover operated his own international consulting business as a “doctor of sick mines.”  By the age of 40, he was a multimillionaire.

Meetinghouse in the snow
Meetinghouse in the snow
National Park Service

When President Coolidge refused to run again in 1928, the Republican National Convention nominated Hoover.  His service as secretary of commerce in the Harding and Coolidge administrations and his humanitarian work during and after World War I made him a highly respected figure.  He decisively defeated Democrat Alfred E. Smith in his first elected public office.  Hoover pledged to continue the prosperity of the 1920s, but he also predicted that "should conditions [arise] with which the political machinery is unable to cope, I will be the one to suffer."

On October 29, 1929, the stock market collapsed, triggering the worst depression the United States has ever known.  With no clear guidance from economists on how to deal with the unprecedented hardship, Hoover was torn between two clashing ideals.  Individualism suggested that local communities and private charities, like the ones he had worked with between the wars, should provide relief, but humanitarianism said that people must not suffer.

Gravesite of Herbert and Lou Henry Hoover
Gravesite of Herbert and Lou Henry Hoover National Park Service

President Hoover’s administration took more direct action to end the Depression than any previous one had done in such times.  He created the Reconstruction Finance Corporation to aid businesses, help farmers facing foreclosures, reform banking, and feed the unemployed.  He rejected direct subsidy payments to farmers and instead sought to stabilize prices through agricultural cooperatives. To prevent further decline, Hoover asked labor to hold down wages and industry to maintain payrolls and production voluntarily. He called on Congress to balance the Federal budget, but also urged it to cut taxes and increase public building programs.  At a personal level, he anonymously gave away $25,000 of his own money every year to help victims of the Depression.

After Hoover’s defeat by Franklin D. Roosevelt in 1932, the Hoovers divided their time between New York City and their house in Palo Alto, California.  Hoover continued to criticize the New Deal, which he considered “statism,” and briefly considered running for president again in 1936 and 1940.  President Truman asked him to help the hungry people of Europe after World War II by organizing the program to distribute food to them. Under Presidents Truman and Eisenhower, Hoover also chaired commissions to consider reorganizing and improving the efficiency of the executive branch of the Federal government. Herbert Hoover died October 20, 1964, at the age of 90.  He lies next to his wife on a hillside overlooking the cottage where he was born. The marble gravestones are in keeping with the Quaker ideal of simplicity.

Plan your visit

Herbert Hoover National Historic Site, a unit of the National Park System, is located at 110 Parkside Dr., West Branch, IA. Click here for the National Register of Historic Places file: text and photos. The Visitor Center, Birthplace Cottage, Blacksmith Shop, Schoolhouse, Friends Meetinghouse, and the Presidential Library and Museum are open daily from 9:00am to 5:00pm, except on Thanksgiving Day, Christmas Day, and New Years Day. The grounds of the historic site are open 24 hours. Visit the National Park Service Herbert Hoover National Historic Site website for more information to help plan a visit, learn more about Herbert Hoover and his family, find photographs, take a virtual tour, or to download teacher materials. Call 319-643-2541 for additional information. The Herbert Hoover Presidential Library & Museum sits on the grounds of the Herbert Hoover National Historic Site.

The site is the subject of an online lesson plan, Herbert Hoover: Iowa Farm Boy and World Humanitarian.  The lesson plan has been produced by the National Park Service’s Teaching with Historic Places program, which offers a series of online classroom-ready lesson plans on registered historic places. To learn more, visit the Teaching with Historic Places home page. Both the Herbert Hoover Birthplace House  and the Quaker Meetinghouse have been documented by the National Park Service’s Historic American Buildings Survey.

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