31. Herbert Clark Hoover

Learny and Bert (August 2014)

By most accounts, Jesse Hoover was a decent guy. His family settled in West Branch, Iowa, in 1854. He married a fine Canadian immigrant named Hulda in 1870 and set up a blacksmith shop the next year. The nearby railroad guaranteed a steady stream of clients, and before long he was selling farm implements to the many hardworking hayseeds that populated the Midwest. He also fathered three children, raising them in the Quaker tradition.

Jesse squandered all that good will by keeling over from a heart attack in 1880, like some kind of jerk. His widow, Hulda, scraped together enough money to keep the family afloat. They took on boarders, stayed with relatives as needed and carefully spent they payout from Jesse's life insurance policy on the children's education. But Hulda loved her husband dearly, and she ultimately decided to honor his memory by keeling over from typhoid fever in 1884.

Those lazy bums got to rest eternally in the West Branch Municipal Cemetery, but their children had to soldier on. Overcoming the terrible example of his quitter parents, their middle child even did pretty well for himself. Herbert Hoover wasn't the best president, but he might have been the most interesting person to become president. His journey started in West Branch, and thanks to some forward-thinking Hoover fans and the National Park Service, there's actually something to see there.

The centerpiece is the birth cottage, where the magic began on August 10, 1874. The Hoovers had a tiny place not far from Jesse's blacksmith shop; it was surrounded by a smallish lot and backed up on a creek. The building you're seeing today is legit -- when Hoover got famous, it had been preserved by a curmudgeonly owner and shown to gawking visitors at 10 cents a pop. Hoover's wife, Lou Henry, acquired it in an estate sale when that curmudgeon finally died.

By the time Bert's sister came along, there were five people in two rooms, and neither room was big. Even by the smelly and cramped standards of the 19th century, things were getting to be barbaric, and family moved to a larger home across the street.

That second home is gone, but there's a surprising amount of 19th-century West Branch remaining. The park service maintains a tidy little historic district -- a few blocks where every home and structure is either original to the era of Hoover's birth or damn close to what baby Bert would have seen. The streets are dirt and the sidewalks are wooden boardwalks. You can't barge into neighbors' homes, but there's a Quaker meeting house to see, and a replica blacksmith shop, and a one-room schoolhouse.

The site also has park rangers, who will tell you in great detail what all the buildings actually mean, in the profound life-shaping sense. The school reflects the Quaker commitment to education. Hoover was a fine student and among our nerdiest presidents. The blacksmith shop reflects Hoover's early exposure to practical problem-solving. As the only engineer president, he had a methodical approach to government intervention. The meeting house represents Quaker values; Hoover had very specific ideas about charity, service and community that helped him becpome the most famous man in America.

After ma and pa Hoover kicked the bucket, Bert and his siblings were passed off to relatives in West Branch. But John Minthorn, an uncle on the West coast, suffered through the death of his only son. He requested Bert as a replacement, and before long Bert was on a train heading to Oregon.

You can pick up the rest of the story at the nearby Herbert Hoover library and museum. It has fine displays walking any visitor though the triumph and tragedy of Herbie, the love bug:

  • Hoover's studies take him a brand-new college known as Stanford, where he gets a degree in geology and meets fellow rock enthusiast Lou Henry.
  • Early work takes him to Australia, and not the quaint, civilized parts; he lives in the wilderness with a bunch of yabbos and starts developing a reputation as the "doctor of sick mines."
  • Making a ridiculous salary, he gets transferred all around the world. He and Lou Henry were in China during the Boxer Rebellion, when shells regularly rained down on their home. Hoover was a guide to the troops that eventually showed up and led efforts to protect all the civilians.
  • Almost insanely rich at the time of World War I, he goes full-on Quaker and starts using his amazing logistics abilities to run aid to Belgium, saving many thousands of people and becoming a cultural hero. He would only be surpassed in hearts of Belgians by Jean Claude Van Damme.
  • In 1917, he is put in charge of the U.S. Food Administration, where he inspires the wartime nation to sacrifice with Meatless Mondays, Wheatless Wednesdays and Frogurtless Fridays. This economizing became known as "Hooverizing," giving parents everywhere a fun new way to tell their kids that they can't have hot dogs and need to shut the hell up.
  • Warren Harding makes Hoover the secretary of Commerce, and he soon becomes the most active and popular cabinet secretary in all the land. His quest for standardization across industries make him a prominent regulator of broadcasting, railroads and more; he makes the case for massive hydropower projects; and he coordinates a giant private-sector relief effort after the Mississippi River floods. Calvin Coolidge (who disliked Hoover and called him "Wonderboy") decides not to run for a second full term, and Hoover locks down the 1928 nomination within months.

And they all lived happily ever after.

HA! The Great Depression kicked off about the same time as Hoover's presidency. There are a number of theories as to why he screwed up, and they're all a little bit true. Before becoming president, Hoover had never been an elected official, so he wasn't all that great at politics. Some people wanted an overwhelming and immediate government response to the economic collapse, but Hoover tried to ease into it -- in all his previous disaster relief efforts, the public sector was mostly a facilitator to help the private sector come to the rescue. Things were spinning out of control so fast, however, that Hoover was painted as a callous jerk. It's also entirely possible that no president could have saved the day, and Hoover was just the guy holding the hot potato.

They cover all this in the museum, as well as Hoover's post-presidency years. Hoover was used a scapegoat by FDR, a remarkably experienced politician who loved bullying people to a pulp. But Truman extended an olive branch, asking Hoover to help reorganize the executive branch. Hoover kept writing and traveling -- he lived into his 90s, and he was active almost all the way to end. Instead of replicating the Hoover Oval Office, the museum has Hoover's office at the Waldorf Towers in New York City. Later in life, when Hoover was asked how he handled the abuse of the New Deal crowd, he said: "I outlived the bastards."

At least, he did until 1964. Hoover chose to be buried in West Branch, and the grave is within sight of the cottage where he was born. There's nothing too fancy about the markers, but there's a nice path taking you there. It cuts through a flower-filled meadow that looks something like an original Iowa prairie before the Quakers showed up and started building small towns. Hoover was a perplexing and complicated guy, but there's something pleasantly simple about his final resting place.

FUN HOOVER FACTS!

  • President Hoover was warned that his weight was getting too high, so he invented a sport to stay in shape. It's called Hooverball, and it involves team of people throwing a medicine ball over a volleyball net. Many high-ranking officials were enlisted to play. It is widely considered the second-greatest sport invented by a president, bested only by Teddy Roosevelt's version of polo involving grizzly bears.
  • Hoover's engineering career made him very wealthy, and he declined his salary while serving as president. He also decommissioned the presidential yacht. But all anyone wants to talk about is the millions of destitute people starving in the streets. That's media bias for you.
  • Lou Henry was a fairly amazing woman, and by amazing, I mean she collected weaponry from around the world. She was also a national leader of the Girl Scouts, but somehow those two passions never came together.
  • As the secretary of Commerce, Hoover was featured in the first long-distance TV transmission. Unfortunately, studio executives thought he was too edgy for flyover country and refused to order him to series.
  • Hoover was sworn into office by William Howard Taft, who was the Chief Justice of the United States at the time. It is the only time that a one-term Republican president swore in another one-term Republican president. That's the kind of stat you can use to make yourself sound really cool with the ladies the next time you're at a cocktail party.

Camp Rapidan (July 2008)

"My friends have made the American people think me a sort of superman," Herbert Hoover said after his election as president. "They expect the impossible and should there arise in the land conditions with which the political machinery is unable to cope, I will be the one to suffer." And then there was a thunderclap, a timpani roll, the faint sound on the wind of an old woman cackling ...

We could use a man like Herbert Hoover right now! It's intriguing to think about a guy who, facing economic problems 10 times worse, rolled up his sleeves and did mostly nothing. He didn't think government should be fixing such things. (And he wasn't a hard-hearted bastard: he had a sterling record as a humanitarian.) Hoover might have been right -- some historians and economists think The New Deal made the Depression worse -- but now he's lodged on the blooper reel of presidential history, right after the clip of Chester Arthur getting hit in the nuts with a baseball.

It's a sad fate for a guy with a very impressive career. As a mining consultant, he was the highest salaried man of his age (27); he was one of the most prolific and energetic Cabinet secretaries in history (Commerce); and most important, he wrote a book on trout fishing.

TROUT FISHING! FEEL THE EXCITEMENT! Or better yet, live the excitement yourself! Visit Camp Rapidan, the original presidential retreat -- because when a significant chunk of the country is forced to live in tents, what better way to show them you care than by living in your own tent?

Here's the back story: After his election, Hoover (an Iowan) put out the word that he was looking for weekend digs away from the horrible godforsaken hellhole that is Washington (too many tourists on Segways), and the good people of Madison County, Va., stepped up to the plate by stocking the local streams and brushing the three teeth in the county to a brilliant gleam. One sales pitch later, the Hoovers dipped into their personal fortune to buy some land, and Camp Rapidan was born. Today it's part of Shenandoah National Park. (Hoover donated it to the government after his presidency.)

When they say "camp," they mean it. The Hoovers weren't nancies -- you don't run mining operations in China for a decade without learning a) how to rough it; and b) enough karate to fight off bears. The original plan was for everyone to stay in canvas tents, and also to hunt large game with obsidian-flake daggers while wearing loincloths. But trips to Rapidan became working vacations, and you can't tell the Prime Minister of England to bring his own sleeping bag more than once, so the camp was improved to include some more-permanent structures. That included "The Brown House" (get it? It's not white! Hah!) for the Hoovers themselves. Check it:

Cozy, and ... uh, brown. The house is right next to a trout stream, and the porch was built around existing tree trunks. I didn't get to go inside, because apparently you need a ranger-guided tour, which you don't get if you actually HIKE to the camp in a effort to have better fitness than, say, Herbert Hoover. But pressing my face against the screen, I was able to determine that Herbert Hoover had manacles for his slaves bolted to every wall, shelves full of satanic texts and several cast-iron bathtubs for his personal gin-making operations. If the National Park Service wants me to say otherwise, then they can damn well leave the doors unlocked.

You can chill out on the porch and enjoy the view, though, and there's a really informative little display in one of the other cabins on the history of the site and the Hoovers themselves. They were a pretty dynamic duo; Lou Henry (i.e. Mrs. Hoover) was the first American woman with a geology degree and apparently oversaw the entire construction and management of Camp Rapidan, right down to the proper techniques for lashing the camp's Filipino manservants. Mostly, though, you'll just want to soak up the atmosphere. I've never been a big camper or fisherman, but if the entire world was falling into crippling poverty and I was powerless to stop it, you know what? I might buy 160 acres in the mountains and bait a hook every now and then. That or buy one of those Nintendo Wiis. Whichever is in my budget.

FUN HOOVER FACTS!

  • The only president to receive our nation's highest honor: mention in a sitcom theme song.
  • One of two presidents to refuse his salary (JFK), opting instead for WHAT'S IN THE BOX!
  • The Filipino stewards at Camp Rapidan were reassigned from the presidential yacht, which Hoover transferred to his Chinese opium-smuggling fleet.
  • In 1927, Secretary of Commerce Hoover was the first person ever to appear on an intercity television broadcast, on the hit show "Hoover of Love."
  • At the opening of Camp Rapidan, a celebration for the locals was catered with 5,000 tin cups of squirrel stew. Squirrels mark this as the start of the Squirrel Great Depression.
  • FDR had Hoover Dam renamed as Boulder Dam to spite Hoover, who was a critic of the New Deal. FDR also refused to use Camp Rapidan as a retreat, complaining of lingering Hoover smell. Hoover tried to rename Hoovervilles as Crippletowns, to no avail.

Back to Camp (August 2013)

You can't go home again, but I don't live at Camp Rapidan. So in August 2013, I drove out to Shenandoah National Park, walked down a fire road for a few hours and prayed to the presidential gods that Herbert Hoover's cabin retreat might be open for visits. It wasn't the first time I went, in 2008. I could have checked online if it was open before driving 100 miles and hiking five more, but why anger the gods?

My faith was rewarded, and before long a volunteer was letting me into the Brown House. The Hoovers weren't exactly camping in luxury, but the house was nicer than anything in the average Hooverville. Lou Henry had a nice office area on the back porch for working on her correspondence. There was a big open living room area, with huge fireplaces to warm everyone up at night. The den could be draped off to make another sleeping area. And there were little bits of Hoover-flavored decoration all around. Big woven Indian mats are hanging on the walls (with an unfortunate and, at the time, totally innocent swastika pattern), and there are mineral samples on some of the shelves. Both the Hoovers were geology experts.

Herbert and Lou didn't mind bunking up together, but the Brown House actually has a separate bed for the president; he was awake and working enough when on vacation that he didn't want to disturb his wife's sleep every time he had to get up. Their rooms are situated pretty close to camp's trout stream, which was regularly stocked with suitably large fish for the president.

No pictures are allowed in the Brown House, so there's nothing all that new to show you, photographically. But I have a nicer camera now, so what the hell ...



One man's quest to be the humblest person alive
Copyright 2013, Chris White