Herbert’s Own Private Iowa, Part One: “I Carry The Brand”

or, “Adventures and Great Undertakings in West Branch, IA”

Photo by Rachel Pincus

We tumble through the Iowa border at half past two, Rachel and I, blasting Led Zeppelin IV out of tinny Macbook speakers in sweltering 99-degree heat. Oceans of cornfields swell up on either side. “Fields of Opportunities,” according to the goofy Iowa welcome sign. “The shorter crops are beans, actually,” my Iowan host Kathy later corrects. “When we have guests, we often point out the sites in West Branch: corn, corn, beans, corn, beans, beans, corn . . .”

To us, the Great Unknown. Iowa marks the westernmost reach of our Great Midwestern Odyssey, and that feels somehow momentous, like we’re the early settlers of the twenty-ninth state—before we circle back and start cruising east.

We follow I-80 as far as West Branch, a small, historically Quaker community just east of Iowa City with a population significantly less than that of my liberal arts college. More cornfields on either side. And silence here, save the chirping of birds and, somewhere far off, a church bell’s chimes.

Here, in 1874, in a modest white cottage, Herbert Hoover was born to Quaker parents, descendants of some of Iowa’s first white settlers who traveled by covered wagon from Miami county, Iowa. He was to be America’s first president born west of the Mississippi, and his was a classic Midwestern boyhood, stamped, in his words, with all the “wonders of Iowa’s streams and woods, of the mysteries of growing crops.”

And here, just a mile west of the birthplace, we spend the night with Kathy, a generous librarian and proud new grandmother, who shows us around Iowa City and feeds us mysteries from her garden (kohlrabi?) and graciously welcomes us into her West Branch home, a sprawling labyrinth of books, spiral staircases, and all other sorts of bric-à-brac. It’s “like ’90s objects stacked on top of ’80s objects piled high on ’70s objects,” Rachel describes it, nestled on a hilly notch beside a scowling, amputated tree branch.

West Branch is a small place—small, Midwestern, provincial, rural. Kathy didn’t have to call us and arrange a time to meet. She just wandered over to Main Street, found the car with the NY plates, spotted us effortlessly. When Hoover was born (Bert, they call him here, the middle son of Jesse and Hulda Hoover), it was a growing community of about 350, where life centered around Quaker traditions and Quaker worship, in a Quaker meetinghouse where Quakers would sit in Quaker silence for hours upon Quakers hours, until the spirit commanded speech.

“It would be the kind of community where people would look out for each other,” adds Helen, an employee at the birthplace. “You were part of a nuclear family, part of an extended family, part of an extended community.”

By 1800 the population stretched to 500, and by Hoover’s election in 1928, the town vote went 528 for Hoover, just 46 for Democrat Alfred E. Smith. About three-hundred Iowans traveled by train to DC for Hoover’s inauguration.

The town today has “retained its original fundamentals, the right beliefs and conservative ideals,” Maud Stratton writes, with “a surprising minimum of feuds, rivalry and distrust.”

“I carry the brand of Iowa,” the president would later remark, decades after leaving his birth state, after relocating to Oregon and California and eventually Manhattan, after losing the 1932 election amidst national depression and disgrace. “In those formative years, the stamp of character is pretty well stamped here,” posits Helen. “Ya get off to a good start, and—well, it’s pretty hard to go wrong.”

Today, West Branch locals carry the brand of Hoover—and today, still, they’re proud.

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There’s a stereotype, at least in the northeast, about small-town Midwesterners—that they’re friendlier, nicer, more down-to-earth. Kathy looks at us blankly when we mention it. But when there’s a siren blaring through town, she wonders who it’s for. West Branchers just look out for each other. That’s how it is.

Hoover’s childhood here, we’re told, was one of rustic simplicity, almost Hollywoodian small-town charm.

“I prefer to think of Iowa as I saw it through the eyes of a ten-year-old boy,” the president later wrote, “and the eyes of all ten-year-olds are or should be filled with the wonders of Iowa’s streams and woods, of the mysteries of growing crops . . . with adventure and great undertakings, with participation in good and comforting things.”

There is today the cottage where he was born. The schoolhouse where he was taught by a “sweet-faced lady . . . with infinite patience and kindness.” The streams where he developed a lifelong love of fishing. The hills where he went sledding on cold winter nights, the woods where he recalled picking potato bugs to earn cash for 4th of July firecrackers, the fields where he learned to plant corn, milk, saw wood, and other “proper, normal occupations for boys.”

And the serene hilltop plot where he lies buried beside his wife, Lou. Hoover lived to be 90—over thirty years after leaving office, and longer than almost any president of the day. He had requested to be buried in West Branch, with a site line between the birthplace and gravesite, and so he is.

We trek up the secluded grassy path to that burial spot, climbing weakly beneath a scorching 98-degree sun, along sunflower fields and clusters of trees. All is quiet up here, above the world (or a Midwestern town of about 2,300). Birds chirp far off. Squirrels and rabbits dart along the path. Somewhere far below, Main Street rustles.

In West Branch, an overwhelming sense of peace—that maybe everything will be okay.

In 1929, nothing was okay.

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Hoover entered office an inspiring public hero, but he inherited a broken bank system and a nationwide financial collapse already mere months away. When he left four years later, his reputation had gone the way of the economy. Displays of so-called Hoovervilles, Hoover flags, Hoover hogs spoke louder than words. Today’s historians tend toward a more nuanced view, but the Hoover presidency remains synonymous in popular thought with poverty and shame, hopelessness and collapse.

He was blamed for a Depression that had been rumbling years before he assumed office (because, face it, America needed a scapegoat). “If someone bit and apple and found a worm in it,” quipped Will Rogers, “Hoover would get the blame.” He was guilty, in fact, of only the tragic failure to effectively confront insurmountable crisis with ingenuity or charm. He clung to a personal philosophy of voluntary, grassroots assistance—the tactics that worked well in devastated postwar Europe—whiles shunning the direct relief programs that were so desperately needed.

One of the most telling anecdotes concerns a letter, on display at the Hoover museum, from Calvin Coolidge to Hoover, dated July, 1929. The former president, who governed during a postwar building boom and shiny budget surplus, writes of only two lingering problems of his administration: French debt and the need for further armament limitations. Hoover, previously Secretary of Commerce, had warned Coolidge of rampant market speculation as early as 1925. By the time he assumed the presidency, it was already too late.

One of the saddest concerns Hoover returning to Washington shortly after the 1932 election. The campaign trail had been an unremitted disaster; the president once known as the Great Humanitarian had been jeered in Detroit and Oakland, had become a target for tomatoes in Kansas. His hair went white. He lost 25 pounds.

And so an exhausted Hoover awoke to find a journalist sitting across from him on the train. The disgraced president offered up only a single word: “Why?”

The country needed a scapegoat for its despair, and why not the “remote, grim-faced man in a blue double-breasted suit” (Hoover museum)? By 1932, the Hoover name was mud pretty much everywhere.

Except Iowa.

The West Branch community continued to welcome Hoover with open arms, to celebrate with warm pride their native son.

In the 1930s, the former president committed to restoring the cottage where he was born. And in the summer of 1948, the community formally invited him and his family to West Branch for a joyous birthday picnic celebration. Hoover graciously accepted, and the small town welcomed him home with great cheer. The president returned again in 1954 for a grand 80th birthday celebration. He lived in a suite in New York’s Waldorf-Astoria Hotel during these last decades of his life, but he chose West Branch, his birthplace, as the site of his presidential library and museum—and burial.

Hoover died at 90 in 1964, but the town celebrated his posthumous centennial birthday in 1974 with a great picnic, which eventually morphed into an annual birthday celebration: Hooverfest (this year renamed “Hoover’s Hometown Days”).

Still today, the whole town community gets together in early August “for a weekend of small town Iowa fun,” Kathy tells me. There are fireworks, picnics, and, every year, tournament games of Hoover-ball (“kind of like volleyball with an inflated medicine ball”), a game Hoover’s physician invented for him to stay fit.

And still today, the locals I spoke to express great pride for President Hoover and his Iowan roots. “They see Hoover as a guiding figure for Republican thinking,” explains Spencer, an archive technician at the Hoover Presidential Library and Museum.

But it’s more than that. “The Hoovers,” says Kathy, “were people who did the right thing, and tried to do the right thing at all times.” She pauses. “You think of Hoover, you think of the Depression. But the man was so much more.”

If there’s a central disconnect in how West Branch remembers Hoover versus how the general public remembers Hoover, consider the following. The average American associates Hoover with a tragically ineffective, one-term presidency ruined by Depression-era economic ills. The West Branch community remembers Hoover as a deeply committed public servant, as a native son who rose to prominence as a mining engineer and the “Great Humanitarian” during World War I, as the one who fed war-torn Europe during and after both world wars and served nobly as Secretary of Commerce and administered aid to victims of the Mississippi flood—and, well, also served as a less-than-successful one-term president. But enough about that.

Like William Howard Taft before him, the presidency for Hoover constitutes only one, comparably minor episode in a rich career of public service. But unlike Taft, his missteps as president tragically overshadowed everything he accomplished before and after. Far more inspiring is Hoover’s lengthy resume of humanitarian efforts, or his unanticipated return to public service after World War II, when he aided Truman in efforts to avoid postwar famine in Europe.

“Being a politician is a poor profession,” Hoover once wrote to a twelve-year-old who aspired to politics. “Being a public servant is a noble one. So my advice is to refocus your ambition.” Appropriately, the thirty-first president never regarded himself as a politician. First and foremost, he was a public servant—and therein lay his downfall on the campaign trail. “Hoover’s failure to dramatize himself was his greatest strength as a humanitarian and his greatest flaw as a politician,” notes the Hoover museum, particularly on the subject of his tepid performance on the 1932 campaign trail. And how could a humble public servant, powerless to rouse hope in the face of Great Depression, compete with FDR?

“The perception I had of him growing up was very negative,” admits Helen, the soft-spoken woman who works at the birthplace. “And I knew nothing about the work that he had done before [the Great Depression]. Like anything else, the more you know, the less judgmental you are, ya know?”

And I know.

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