Series: Herbert Hoover, West Branch's Native Son
President Herbert Hoover had his simple beginnings in West Branch, Iowa, a town founded in 1851. The town grew as a crossroads, with its Main Street along the road connecting Davenport and Iowa City. By the time of Herbert Hoover’s birth in 1874, West Branch was becoming a prosperous and modernizing town, a thriving rural center of opportunity.
Railroad Brings Growth
West Branch’s prosperity took off with the arrival of the Burlington, Cedar Rapids & Great Northern Railroad in 1870. The locomotives were fired by wood, and West Branch, like other stations along the route maintained a supply of fuel where the engines would stop to wood up. During the summer of 1871, one train passed each way daily through town, carrying both freight and passengers. Its population grew from 350 to 500 between the 1870 and 1880 censuses.
The railroad connected West Branch to the emerging national economy. Opportunities followed the town’s growth. In 1871 Hoover’s father Jesse built a blacksmith and wagon repair shop across from the family’s new cottage. Jesse advertised in the local newspaper saying, “Horseshoeing and plow work a specialty. Also a dealer in all kinds of pumps. Prices to suit the times.” Jesse was one of three blacksmiths in town.
"Adventure & Great Undertakings"
Between school, chores, and worship, the streams, fields, and woods around West Branch satisfied the boy’s desire for exploration.
“I prefer to think of Iowa as I saw it through the eyes of a ten-year-old boy. Those days were filled with the wonders of Iowa’s streams and woods, the mystery of growing crops. They saw days filled with adventure and great undertakings, with participation in good and comforting things. They saw days of stern, but kindly discipline.”
It was as a youth in West Branch that Hoover took an interest in rocks and minerals that presaged his studies in geology and career as a mining engineer. He wrote in his memoirs:
“I have mentioned the Burlington Track. It was an inspiring place. It was ballasted with glacial gravels where, by hard search, you discovered gems of agate and fossil coral which could, with infinite backaches, be polished on the grindstone.”
Hoover also recalled that the local swimming hole of his youth was “under the willows” where the forks of the West Branch of the Wapsinonoc joined below the railroad bridge southeast of the town. Maple trees growing on Cook’s Hill, half a mile south of the Hoovers’ cottage and the maples growing on the hill were hazards to be reckoned with by the Hoover children and their friends during sledding season.
The telephone came to West Branch in February 1870 when Townsend, Edmundson & Co. installed a line connecting their store with the train depot. By 1883, there had been a rapid expansion in telephone serviced within the town. By August of that year a local exchange in Meal Madson’s Tailor Shop had been established making it possible to place calls to Iowa City, Davenports, and Cedar Rapids.
During Hoover’s years in West Branch, the streets were either “dusty thoroughfares or muddy bogs.” In 1880 voters approved construction of a sidewalk along the west side of Downey Street. Sidewalks in the Main Street business district were “to be built of two-inch plank to be laid crossways six feet wide with four stringers two by six inches wide.” Horses had replaced oxen as means of transportation, and on a Saturday afternoon several wagons would be parked in town with their teams tied to hitching racks. Improvements had been made on streets where rain water had made its own ditch. On Main Street, gutters were macadamized with stone and where walkways crossed Main, tile was laid in the gutters to drain water after a heavy rain.
West Branch’s streets were first lighted in 1883 when Nate Crook, the owner of a downtown hotel, placed a street lamp in front of his building so as to attract late-arriving train passengers. By the end of the year there were eleven operating street lights in town.
Firefighters, Doctors, & A Dentist
The growing town demanded professional services. By 1878 there were four doctors practicing medicine in West Branch including Hoover’s uncle Dr. Henry John Minthorn. The town dentist, W.H. Walker, was also an amateur geologist with a collection of mineral specimens, coral, quartz, stuffed birds, mounted butterflies, and coins that he kept in his office cabinets. It is said that Hoover spent much of his spare time admiring Walker’s collection, which helped spark his own interest in geology.
Fire was an ever-present danger to downtown West Branch’s closely built wooden buildings. To provide efficient fire-fighting apparatus the town purchased a spring wagon and buckets and housed them in a shed. In 1879 the volunteer fire department extinguished a blaze at Jesse Hoover's farm implement store, caused by a burning cauldron of hot pitch. Decades later President Hoover admitted to starting the fire:
“While no one was looking I undertook an experiment in combustion by putting a lighted stick in the caldron. It produced a smoke that brought the town running and me speeding the other way in complete terror. Whenever I see a picture of volcanic eruption I recall that terror.”
Leaving West Branch
The Hoovers prospered along with West Branch. In 1878 Herbert’s father sold his blacksmith shop and the family’s small cottage. They moved into a larger home a block south on Downey Street, which Herbert’s brother Theodore later called the “house of the maples.” Jesse opened a new business, selling machinery, pumps, and farm supplies on the corner of First and Main Street. He operated that business until his death in 1880.
In 1885 eleven year old Herbert Hoover left on a train from the West Branch depot. He traveled to the west, America's new frontier of opportunity, to live with his Uncle Henry John Minthorn and his family in Newberg, Oregon. Hoover never returned to live in West Branch, but kept a lifelong connection to the town of his birth.