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Determining the Facts

Reading 1: Herbert Hoover's Family Background

Jesse Hoover, with the help of his father, Eli, built a simple two-room cottage in the spring of 1871. The sturdy, cozy little home still stands on its original site at the corner of Downey and Penn streets in West Branch, Iowa. The timbers for this house probably came from Minnesota or Wisconsin because most of Iowa was covered by tall grass prairie. The logs would have been lashed together and rafted down the Mississippi River to a saw mill in Iowa. The finished lumber was then hauled to West Branch by ox cart.

The main room of the cottage served as living room, dining room, and kitchen. To reduce the heat in the house in the summer, the stove was moved to the back porch, which became a "summer kitchen." Jesse and Hulda Hoover's oldest child, Theodore, was nearly three years old when Herbert was born in 1874. Two years later their younger sister May was born. The whole family shared the single bedroom, with the boys sleeping together in a trundle bed pulled out from under their parents' bed.

Jesse Hoover prospered as a blacksmith and sold the cottage and shop in 1879. In May of that year, the Hoover family moved to a larger two-story house about one block south of the cottage, and — as reported in the Local Record — the family was "as snug as a bug in a rug." After selling the shop, Jesse Hoover purchased a building on the corner of Main and First streets where he began a farm implement business. Hoover proved to be a good businessman and quickly expanded his inventory to include pumps and wagons, and he also bought a machine to make barbed wire.

Then disaster struck: Jesse Hoover died of pneumonia on December 13, 1880, at the age of 34. Hulda Hoover kept her three children together by taking in sewing and accepting assistance from some of her relatives. She was often called upon to speak at the Quaker Meeting, and it was after returning from such a speaking trip to the nearby town of Springdale that she became ill with typhoid fever, from which she died in February 1884.

After Hulda's death, the Hoover children were separated. May was taken in by Grandmother Minthorn and Theodore went to live with his uncle, Davis Hoover. Herbert lived with his uncle Allan and aunt Millie Hoover on a farm northeast of West Branch.

The Allan Hoover farm was a busy place, as was typical of the time. The family made their own soap, wove their own rugs, sewed their own clothes, canned their own fruits and vegetables, and butchered hogs and cattle for meat. Farm families consumed about 80 percent of the products of their land and exchanged the remaining goods for other essentials and for the interest on the mortgage, which was a constant source of anxiety.

Hulda's estate provided $1.75 a week to Uncle Allan for Herbert's room and board, but this was reduced in return for Herbert's assistance with the chores. Herbert and his cousin Walter tended the garden and picked fruits and berries for Aunt Millie to can and preserve. Sometimes they earned extra money for special jobs: five cents a hundred to cut thistles, and two cents apiece for cleaning the barns. They even picked potato bugs at one cent a hundred. Herbert used some of his money to buy fish hooks. He used a butcher string for a line and a willow branch for a pole.

Although the work was hard, the farm provided adequate food, clothing, and shelter for everyone's health and comfort. However, Herbert Hoover's life once again was altered by a death, this time of the son of Dr. Henry John Minthorn, Hoover's uncle in Newberg, Oregon. Uncle Minthorn hoped that Herbert would replace this boy in their family, so he asked him to come to live in Oregon. In those days the railways had emigrant trains to the West. Each car was fitted with bare bunks and a kitchen stove. After some searching, an emigrant family was located that was willing to look after Herbert on the train to Oregon. Herbert was just 11 years old when his aunt Millie packed up some food and clean clothes and sent him off on the train.

1. What types of businesses did Hoover's father operate? Why would those businesses have been important in the economy of a town like West Branch?

2. What caused the deaths of Jesse and Hulda Hoover? How did their deaths affect the lives of their children? How have advances in health care reduced the dangers of death from those diseases?

3. How did young Hoover earn spending money? How does the amount he made compare with what you might earn today doing odd jobs?

4. Describe daily life on an Iowa farm in the late 19th century. How did families use their farm products? What types of goods would a family have to buy at a store? What is a mortgage and why was it such a burden?

5. How did another death within Hoover's extended family change his life again?

Reading 1 was compiled from Pat Wheeler, My Roots Are in This Soil (Eastern National Park and Monuments Association, 1976); and Herbert Hoover, The Memoirs of Herbert Hoover, Years of Adventure, 1874-1920 (London: Hollis and Carter, 1952).

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