Pros: interesting look at Herbert Hoover's childhood
Cons: little information about Hoover as an adult outside of the Library & Museum
In our travels over the years, we've visited many Presidential homes, birthplaces, libraries and other sites of interest. We've been to Mount Vernon, Monticello, Ash Lawn, the Hermitage, the Nixon library, the Clinton library, Sagamore Hill and even the travesty of the Abraham Lincoln Birthplace. When we were planning our summer road trip, a short detour to the Herbert Hoover National Historic Site was right up our alley.
This property is located right off on I-80, about a five minute drive in West Branch, Iowa. Things to see include the Herbert Hoover Presidential Library and Museum, the Birthplace Cottage, Blacksmith Shop, Schoolhouse, Friends Meetinghouse, Visitor Center, Gravesites and a tallgrass prairie. There is a fee to visit the Library and Museum but all other sites are free.
As our children were a bit antsy from being in the car for a while, we chose to skip the Library and Museum for this trip. As it started to rain, we also ended up not seeing the Friends Meetinghouse, Gravesites and the prairie. We did see the rest of the site and the girls were able to complete the Junior Ranger program. According to the park ranger, it's a pretty quiet place without big crowds. In other words, we had the place to ourselves.
Herbert Hoover is a somewhat vilified and forgotten president these days. If you bring his name up to the average person, they might bring up Roosevet fixing all of Hoover's mistakes as the Great Depression began in the second year of Hoover's term. What people in my generation don't tend to know are the amazing things he did in feeding the starving Europeans after World War I and again after World War II. He was a self-made millionaire who put himself through Stanford and worked in the mining industry. Most also don't realize that Hoover did take steps to solve the Great Depression but it turned out the only thing that solved it was America's entrance into World War II.
Visiting West Branch, it is striking how someone who basically came from nothing became President of the United States. His father was a blacksmith and his mother was a Quaker minister. Herbert was orphaned at age 9 when his mother died, following his father who had passed away when he was 6.
Herbert Hoover was born in a two room house and it was a tiny 14x20 two room house. The bedroom had room for a double bed for the parents, a trundle for two children and a crib for the third. Then there was a second room for everything else - thankfully the stove could be placed outside for a summer kitchen! Surrounding the house are gardens, a clothesline and an outhouse by the fence.
Across the pebbled street is a recreation of Jesse Hoover's Blacksmith Shop. My youngest found it fascinating to see all of tools hanging from the ceiling. She found the horse tail troubling and wanted to know why they stole the tail from a horse. Supposedly, if a horse being shoed saw a horse tail, it would remain calm as it would think there was another horse there. I personally believe horses are way too smart for that malarkey and would behave in order to avoid having their own tails cut off for bad behavior! At certain times there is a blacksmith available to show visitors more about the trade but there wasn't anyone when we visited.
The Schoolhouse is right next to the Blacksmith Shop and is the oldest building on the site. It was relocated multiple times and they don't know if Herbert ever attended school in that building or not. The one room is decked out just as it would have been in the late 1800's. There are chalkboards which my kids marveled over. They don't have chalkboards in their schools as they've been replaced with Promethean boards which use computers and touch pens. They will never know the joys of being chosen by the teacher to clap the erasers, squeegee the slate or hear the squeak of chalk. Teachers also used to have the best handwriting! It was also a bit of light fun when one of them told us there was a picture of George Washington and Abraham Lincoln inside. My husband replied "Together?! That's amazing!"
As it was beginning to pour, we went into the Visitors Center where the girls worked on the Junior Ranger program. The requirements included watching the orientation film (where you can hear both Presidents Hoover and Taft at Hoover's inauguration), making a number of observations about the buildings we had already visited and a few mazes, word finds, crossword puzzles and a scavenger hunt. They were awarded certificates, badges, patches, pencils and bracelets - it was embarassing how many things they walked away with for answering a few questions! I wouldn't say that my children learned anything about Hoover as an adult or his Presidency but they did take away a great deal about what his childhood would have been like until age 9. For the rest of that, you would need to visit the Library and Museum.
Also in the Visitor Center is an exhibition of photographs taken from the mid 1980's through today of small towns and the people who live in them across the midwest. I found a few of them to be particularly evocative.
On our way out, we drove past the Statue of Isis which was a present to Herbert Hoover from the Belgian people in honor of his work in famine relief after World War I. We also were able to see the gravesites of Herbert Hoover and his wife, Lou Henry Hoover. Both are very simple with white marble slabs.
While I probably wouldn't make a dedicated long-distance trip just to see this site unless I lived nearby or I was engaged in research that would benefit from a visit, it is definitely worth the stop off the interstate when traveling.