Herbert’s Own Private Iowa, Part Two: “Of Quakerism, Of Peace, Of Helping Each Other”

“I’m the only person of distinction who has ever had a depression named for him.” —Herbert Hoover

During my visit to Iowa, I had the pleasure of speaking at length with my host, Kathy—from whom I learned about West Branch, Hooverfest, and, most of all, the startling number of things that go unmentioned about Hoover’s life and career. Kathy, a librarian, avid gardener, and proud mother of four, had more to say on the topic than just about anyone I spoke to at the Herbert Hoover National Historic Site or Presidential Library and Museum. Plus, she’s living proof that not everyone you meet on the internet wants to chop off your limbs and store them in a basement freezer.

Never mind. Here’s that interview in full.

So how long have you lived in West Branch?

Nineteen-and-a-half years. But we moved to Iowa—Iowa City—in January of 1980.

How would you describe the town of West Branch to an outsider?

Two thousand people. Many of them know each other. And care about each other. Someone warned me when we moved here 19 years ago that when you hear the fire alarm and you hear the sirens run, you’d wonder who it was. And they were right!

We used to live just north of Iowa City, but when you live in any other sized town bigger than, say, two or three thousand people, you don’t think about it. You hear the noise, you think, “Oh, dear, somebody’s having an emergency.” But when you live in a town of two thousand, you wonder if you know who it is. So, that says something about the size.

It’s been comfortable. The fact that it has the Hoover Library and Museum here makes it a really special town. You’ve visited a number of birthplaces and museum, and they’re mostly in bigger cities. This is different.

How does that connection to history shape the town?

The town really enjoys it. There are two Quaker churches—well, there’s a Quaker meetinghouse and a Quaker church here in West Branch. And, of course, Hoover was a Quaker. His mother was actually one of the preachers. You didn’t really study to become a preacher or minister, you just sort of took on the role. So there’s still that feeling.

Scattergood, which is a small, private boarding school, is about four miles east of here. It’s a Quaker boarding school, and kids come from all over the world to go to school here. Again, that feeling of Quakerism, of peace, of helping each other.

For me, living this close to the Hoover library, I learned a lot more about it. Most of us, when we grow up, we study American history and what do we know about Hoover? “He caused the Depression!” Hoover, Depression—they go together. And he was sooo much more than that. So much of his life was helping people—he fed millions of people. And that’s not usually something you see in the history books. You just see that he was an ineffective president and had a four-year term and was kicked out.

Instead [in West Branch], you find out that he was a mining engineer, he made millions of dollars for his company himself, he was an intellectual, he and his wife translated a Latin book about old mining. You find out that he used his own money at the beginning of World War I and loaned it to people to get back to the United States as the U-Boats starting coming and as the U.S. entered the war.

He was extremely important in feeding Belgium. Feeding France. Feeding the people in all those countries. He was the one that put the face on there. When you go in the library, you’ll see wheat sacks, flour sacks that were sent over to Europe. And the women there use them to embroider. And they sent them back secretly, because the Germans would have used them for something with cannons. But they were sent back secretly, and then taken on tours to say “Thank you” from all these people who are now eating because of these countries that help feed them.

He was so many things. That’s one of the fun things about this—and we have a Hooverfest, and you’re gonna miss it! Just by two weeks. It’s the first weekend in August, which is closest to his birthday. It’s a combination of things between the town and the Hoover Library and the Hoover Foundation. Everyone gets involved, everyone has some part in it, whether you run the 5K run or whether you run a booth raising money for whatever organization or whether you just see the fireworks in the evening. You can sit here in my front yard and see the fireworks.

When I came out earlier to find you, I went instead to the library. And there were four cars left in the parking lot—from Illinois, Wisconsin, Texas, and I can’t remember the other state. But they were all out of state. It’s a place that attracts people. You came here!

How might Hoover’s upbringings here have played a role in his later career?

You know he was orphaned early. And spent time with some family here, and later was shipped by train—his little suitcase, and some money inside his clothing—to an uncle in Oregon, where he lived and then went to Stanford. His upbringing in Iowa was only up to the first nine years of his life. I get the impression that he had a loving family, and that that was important. I think he always took pride in being from Iowa. Always took pride in being a Quaker. The idea that people support themselves and each other.

He was a president who actually served in the twentieth century, but he was born in the nineteenth century and his father was a blacksmith. And so again, very poor, just a different upbringing. But I think it changed when he lived with his uncle in Oregon. The uncle was a doctor, so there was an upgrade in the house.

But he never seemed to forget his Iowa roots. He wanted to come back here and be buried here. He wanted his museum to be here.

He wanted people to be able to see the birthplace from the grave, correct?

Yes, you will notice that there is a site line between the birthplace and his grave. You can stand at the birthplace and look up and see the gravesite. Or you can stand up at the gravesite and look back down and see his birthplace.

The man lived in London, he lived in New York City, he spent the last years of his life in the Waldorf-Astoria Hotel in New York City. But his feeling was that he was still from Iowa.

He was quite a fisherman. And he said that was something that he started doing in the little creek that runs through town here when he was a little boy. Maybe the fishing stayed with him all those years.

Did you learn all this about Hoover just from living in West Branch?

Most of it was. Like I said, most of what is mentioned in history books is pretty negative. You think of Hoover, you think of the Depression. But the man was so much more!

History books don’t usually blame him for causing the Depression so much as failing to confront it.

That’s right.

Do you consider that a misrepresentation, as well?

No. Remember I mentioned that he believed in self-reliance—that people should help themselves and help each other. And that was probably part of the problem. Of course, who knew how huge it [the Depression] was going to be? I don’t think anyone did. Hoover was elected by a huge majority. Before that, he had been Secretary of Commerce. He had helped with floods along the Mississippi. He had gotten to the dam that was later called Hoover Dam.

Until I came here, my little bit of Hoover was just what I had read. I had no idea that he had worked so hard feeding people. World War II, also. Roosevelt was a good politician. Hoover wasn’t a good politician. Maybe in some ways that was part of his downfall. He didn’t make the big effort, make the big speech, make the big thing that would lead people. He was basically kicked to the curb by Roosevelt.

But when Truman came in, one of the first things he did was call Hoover. And asked him if he would help him rebuild Europe. And he sent this 70-, 75-year-old man to Europe to help with feeding the hungry in Europe after World War II.

What’s funny is that Republicans won’t come here when they run for president. They don’t like to be seen as visiting the Hoover area. Because, well, he was the Depression.

And yet the man was so much more. And he was such an interesting fella.

He lived a long time.

He was quite old. He was in his 90s when he died.

I hope you have time to look through the museum. There’s a particular thing I liked: his wife had a party. For tea, afternoon tea, for some of the other representatives and their wives. And one of them was a man from Chicago, who was black. And the letters Mrs. Hoover got for hosting those people were just—well, they have some of the letters out there, showing the letters they received. They were people who did the right thing, and tried to do the right thing at all times.

Yes, I’m very proud of Herbert Hoover! I’m glad I live near here. [laughs]

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