Herbert Hoover

The Early Years

Jesse and Hulda Hoover lived in West Branch, a small Quaker community in eastern Iowa. Jesse was a blacksmith and Hulda was a seamstress and a minister in the Society of Friends, the official name of the Quakers. On August 10, 1874, Hulda gave birth to a baby boy, Herbert Clark Hoover. Over his 90-year life, Herbert would become a wealthy mining engineer, world traveler, humanitarian, Washington administrator, and President of the United States.

While Hoover did not live a long time in Iowa, he remembered his childhood days in West Branch fondly. Before he turned ten years old, both of Herbert's parents died and he went to live in Oregon with his mother's brother, Henry Minthorn. He graduated from high school in Newburg, Oregon, and made plans to go to college.

Herbert wanted to study science and he enrolled in Leland Stanford Junior University that was just opening in Palo Alto, California. He enrolled in geology classes under the instruction of John Caspar Branner, one of the leading geologists of his day.

At Stanford, Herbert met another Iowa native, Lou Henry, a fellow geology student a few years younger. Graduating from Stanford in 1895, Herbert took a job as a mining engineer in Australia, but he did not forget Lou. In 1899, he proposed to her from Australia. She agreed. They were married and they left on their honeymoon for China where Herbert had taken a new job as a mining consultant to the Chinese emperor.

Hoover the Humanitarian

Herbert's assignments would take them around the world and make them a wealthy couple, but their life was not always easy. In 1900 in China they were trapped in the city of Tientsin when Chinese nationalists led a rebellion to eliminate Western influences from their country. Herbert helped with the army in holding off the attackers while Lou assisted in the hospital. They were eventually rescued by a coalition of Western troops and left the country.

The Hoovers were living in London when World War I began. They began assisting Americans who were stranded without the ability to get tickets back to the United States.

They also volunteered to help the desperate situation in Belgium. The German army marched through Belgium to attack France, and the Belgian people suffered from food shortages and other needs. Hoover became chairman of the Commission for Relief in Belgium to get food to the starving people. Operating entirely with volunteers, the Commission fed 11,000,000 Belgians between 1914 and 1919. It raised the money through voluntary contributions and shipped the food past blockades of German submarines. The Hoovers' work in saving the lives of countless Europeans made them legends of humanitarian work.

Hoover Goes to Washington

In 1917 the Hoovers returned to the United States. President Woodrow Wilson appointed him to head the new wartime Food Administration. His job was to help increase the amount of food available to feed the army and U.S. Allies. Again Hoover favored encouraging voluntary efforts rather than forcing people to obey government regulations. He organized drives to get American families to pledge to use less meat, flour, potatoes and other staples so that more food could go abroad. His efforts were amazingly successful as millions of American households observed "Meatless Mondays" and "Wheatless Wedensdays."

In November, 1918, Germany surrendered, ending a terrible war. European countries were devastated, and their people were facing starvation. Because of Hoover's success as the U.S. Food Administrator, President Woodrow Wilson appointed him to head the American Relief Administration to deal with widespread hunger in Europe. Hoover immediately took charge of the program and implemented a plan to distribute food, especially to starving children.

In 1920, with European farms beginning to recover and produce again, Hoover resigned his position and returned to the United States. In the 1920 election, the nation elected Warren G. Harding, the Republican candidate, as the next President. Harding appointed Hoover to be Secretary of Commerce and to bring his administrative skills to the aid of American business. For the next eight years, Hoover worked hard to encourage the growth of new industries like radio and airplanes.

Hoover as President

In 1927, the Mississippi River in the South overflowed its banks in one of the worst floods in its history. People lost their homes, farms, businesses and sometimes even their lives. Hoover once again took the lead to bring relief, and his reputation as a skilled administrator rose once again. In the following year, he won the Republican nomination for President and was elected in November.

Since the end of World War I, some areas of the American economy had boomed. Factories were making money, and the salaries of city workers were rising. Farmers, however, were having a hard time. After working hard to expand production to feed the war effort, they discovered that they were producing more livestock, grain, cotton, and other products than the market needed. The surplus products forced prices down, and many farmers were struggling to save their farms.

In 1929, in less than a year after Hoover's inauguration as President, the economy took a severe downturn. In October, the stock market "crashed" when the price of stocks fell sharply. Many people saw their savings disappear, and some who had borrowed money to buy stocks lost everything. When people no longer had the money to purchase goods, factories shut down and workers lost their jobs. With even fewer people working, the demand for products dropped causing more even more job layoffs. The economy was spiralling down and no one knew where it would end.

Hoover created a number of agencies to try to reverse the trend. He made it easier for banks to loan money to industries wanting to expand. He created the Federal Farm Board to try to find way to raise farm prices. He created a Federal agency to hire workers on public projects. He encouraged private charities to do more to feed the hungry. His efforts were, however, for the most part unsuccessful. Unemployment continued to rise.

What he would not do, however, was to use Federal dollars to provide direct relief to the unemployed. He did not believe in giving money to poor families to buy food or to pay their rent. He feared that welfare would undermine free enterprise and individual responsibility. As the Depression grew worse, many people began demanding some sort of assistance and accusing Hoover of being indifferent to the nation's poor. Makeshift shacks were called "Hoovervilles" and newspapers that homeless people pulled over themselves for warmth at night were called "Hoover blankets."

In 1932, Hoover ran for re-election and defended his policies. He traveled the country by train urging the nation to "stay the course" and not give in to solutions that would undermine our freedom. In October he campaigned in Iowa, speaking in Davenport, West Liberty, Iowa City and Newton. When the train reached Des Moines on October 4, he gave a major speech.

The country was desperate for a change. Hoover lost to Franklin D. Roosevelt. The Democrats took control of Congress with big margins. The situation became even more critical and some were predicting a revolution. When Roosevelt became President, he began new programs to create jobs and provide relief on a much larger scale than anything Hoover had ever contemplated. The Federal government grew and took on many new functions. Roosevelt called it the New Deal. Hoover feared that America was losing its traditional reliance on the individual.

Hoover as Senior Statesman

In retirement, Hoover lived in New York City. He continued to promote his belief in individual responsibility and limited government through books and occasional speeches. He traveled to his home in 1933 and again in 1937. He gave the commencement address at Drake University in 1935 and spoke to the Iowa legislature in 1943.

Shortly before the end of World War II, President Harry Truman called upon Hoover's expertise as a food administrator to plan for European recovery after the defeat of Germany. At Truman's invitation, Hoover traveled extensively to report on world food needs. He joined with Truman to urge Congress to pass the President's programs to feed starving people in war-torn nations. He also served on a Presidential commission in 1949 to reorganize Federal agencies to make the government more efficient.

Hoover and his wife Lou had always been committed to youth activities. Lou was a champion of encouraging girls to participate in outdoor activities like camping and hiking. Herbert became active with the Boy Scouts in retirement.

Hoover also returned to his home state every so often. In 1951, Hoover returned to Iowa to receive the first Iowa Award ever given, the highest honor the state gives. Hoover's final and lasting connection with his West Branch was in the construction of the Hoover Presidential Library. At the urging of friends ad associates who wanted to honor the very "uncommon man", Hoover agreed to allow a library and museum to be built near the site of his birthplace and the blacksmith shop of his father. He insisted, however, that the building must not be so large as to be out of place among the other building in West Branch.

That was his trip alive to Iowa. He died on October 20, 1964. He had lived longer--thirty-two years--after leaving office than any other American president. His body lay in state in the U.S. Capitol to allow his fellow citizens to file pay to pay their last respects to this great American. On October 29, his body was buried in a grave next to his wife Lou overlooking the home where he was born.


  • Walch, Timothy, Ed. Uncommon Americans: The Lives and Legacies of Herbert and Lou Henry Hoover. Westport, Connecticut: Praeger, 2003.