Work sent me to Iowa and after sending a text to my friend who lives there, I looked up the National Park situation. Iowa has just two National Park units, Effigy Mounds National Monument and Herbert Hoover National Historic Site. With limited time and an already-packed schedule, I decided to aim for the closest park and on my last day in Iowa I woke up well before dawn and headed to the Herbert Hoover National Historic Site, located in West Branch, Iowa.
Going in, I knew almost nothing about Herbert Hoover. I knew he was one of our presidents, of course, and that he was president during the Great Depression and really, that’s about it.
I started my visit at the visitor center, watched the 12-minute film that chronicles Hoover’s early life, and then set out to walk the grounds, which includes the house Hoover was born in as well as several additional historic buildings. There’s a prairie walk there too, and Hoover’s Presidential Library and Museum is adjacent to the historic site, although it does charge a separate admission fee and is not run by the National Park Service. Hoover is buried in West Branch too, alongside his wife, Lou, on a little hill behind the library.
Hoover was the first president to be born west of the Mississippi River, in a two-room cottage his father built in West Branch, pictured above. He and his family were Quakers, and when Hoover was six his father died and just three years later his mother died too, leaving him an orphan at the age of nine. He went to live with his mother’s brother in Oregon and then studied geology at Stanford University as a member of the school’s inaugural class of 1891, even though he’d failed the entrance exam.
After college, he started working as a mining engineer, working in Australia and then China and eventually traveling to more than 40 countries spread across four continents. This made him very, very rich.
When World War I started, Hoover helped organize the return of approximately 120,000 Americans from Europe. He then became known as “The Great Humanitarian,” saving around 7 million people in Belgium from starvation and later, he helped feed tens of millions of people in more than 20 countries during the war.
After the war, he was appointed to a variety of roles, including as head of the U.S. Food Administration in 1917, which later became the American Relief Administration. Hoover directed aid to the Soviet Union, helping feed some 15 million people each day. He said it didn’t matter what their politics were, they were starving and, “They shall be fed!”
In 1927, the Mississippi River flooded and left 1.5 million people displaced from their homes. Six governors specifically requested Hoover’s help and President Coolidge appointed Hoover to oversee the flood response. He established more than 100 tent cities, raised $17 million and raised a fleet of more than 600 vessels.
After all this success, he ran for president, which was his first-ever election campaign. He won, in 1928, and became America’s 31st president.
Then, in 1929, the stock market crashed and that became the thing Hoover was known for. He ran for reelection in 1932 but lost to Franklin D. Roosevelt. The two did not get along, with Hoover criticizing Roosevelt’s policies and in 1935 when the Hoover Dam was dedicated Roosevelt’s administration didn’t even invite Hoover and instead changed the name to “Boulder Dam.” In wasn’t until 1947 when President Truman restored the original name of the dam.
After he left office, he stayed busy, helping to feed children after World War II, writing and overseeing Stanford’s University’s Hoover Institution and working with what is now the Boys and Girls Clubs of America.
He’s buried alongside his wife, Lou, in West Branch, on a little hill that overlooks his presidential library and the Herbert Hoover Historic Site.
The Herbert Hoover National Historic Site includes several historic buildings and includes a visitor center as well where visitors can get a map of the site, visit a small museum and watch a video on the early years of Herbert Hoover. Admission is free and the buildings on site are open daily from 9 a.m. to 5 p.m. every day of the year except Thanksgiving, Christmas and New Year’s Day. The grounds of the historic site are open 24 hours.
The Presidental Library and Museum is adjacent, but separate and charges an admission fee of $10 for adults, $5 for military members, seniors and students and $3 for kids.