The Hoover Houses and Community Structures
Historic Structures Report
NPS Logo

HOOVER COTTAGE (continued)


A. The "West Branch Times" Discovers Herbert Hoover

After having taken cognizance of Herbert Hoover's activities during the Boxer Rebellion in 1900, the West Branch Times did not again mention the man destined to be the 31st President until October 29, 1914. On that date his hometown newspaper called attention to a news release of October 24, announcing that Herbert C. Hoover had been named chairman of a committee in London organized to assist the 150,000 Americans stranded in Europe by the outbreak of World War I to return to the United States.

Although barely 40 years old, the West Branch native had had "a most astonishing career." After having graduated from Leland Stanford University, Hoover, it was pointed out, had

served the government in the western mountains, went from there to Australia, from there to China, where he took part in the defense of Tientsin in the Boxer Rebellion, from there to London, where his home now is.

He is interested in many of the biggest mining ventures in China, South Africa, Australia, Russia, a number of the great scientific societies, a trustee of Stanford, and a world figure in mining and mining investments.

He has been acting as chairman of the American Relief Commission in London and will now undertake the larger work of caring for the Belgians with American aid.

In closing, Editor Frank Corbin observed, "West Branch is justly proud of having contributed a world figure to the present situation." [1]

Facilities having been secured by Editor Corbin for reproducing illustrations, the West Branch Times for April 8, 1915, featured a photograph and brief biography of Herbert Hoover, the former West Branch boy, "who had gained a noteable place for himself" in world affairs. During the past several months, Hoover's fame had spread, as activities of the Commission for Belgium Relief, which he headed, expanded. [2]

When the United States declared war on Germany in April 1917, Hoover was called home and appointed chairman of the food sectism of the Council of National Defense. Four months later he headed the Federal Food Administration, and in that office he organized the United States Grain Corporation and Sugar Equalization Board. Hoover's fame as an administrator and fighter against hunger spread.

Laban J. Miles, former West Branch merchant and Indian agent, wrote the editor of the West Branch Times on January 31, 1918, from the nation's capital, enclosing a clipping from the Washington Post about his nephew Herbert Hoover. Miles pointed out that this was similar to many others, appearing daily, concerning Hoover's role in feeding the starving millions of the world. He reminded Editor Corbin that West Branch has the distinction of being Hoover's birthplace, and it was not too many years ago that Hoover was a "barefoot lad running errands for his father and mother, who now lie in the little 'white city' near the town."

From this humble beginning, Miles continued, Hoover had pushed himself forward "until his ability is not only recognized county-wide, state-wide, nation-wide, but world-wide." Riles had spoken with Hoover on the 30th, and he had talked of "world needs and world production with . . . knowledge and directness that a farmer would of his last year's crops." Hoover had explained how by securing the cooperation of the rice growers, millers, and distributors, he had been able to fix the price for the grower and consumer for 1918 and assure to the people of Europe an ample supply of this staple.

Miles closed with the observation, West Branch should "be proud to have produced such a lad." [3]

B. The Cottage as a Source of Mementos

With Herbert Hoover a world figure, interest began to focus increasingly on his birthplace. This manifested itself in one way, which if pursued, would have resulted in destruction of much of the Cottage's original fabric. In July 1917 Alfred H. O'Connor was the principal speaker at the West Branch Chautauqua. With Hoover's name a household word, the West Branchers to honor O'Connor determined to present him a cane carved from wood from the Birthplace Cottage. Mrs. Scellers was agreeable. Two different kinds of wood was obtained from the Cottage and carved into a handsome cane which was presented to the distinguished speaker. [4] Fortunately, the presentation of canes carved from the Hoover Cottage fabric did not become a fad.

C. Mrs. Hoover's First Visit to West Branch

Lou Henry Hoover first visited her husband's home town on October 11, 1921. This was eight months after Herbert Hoover had been named Secretary of Commerce in President Warren G. Harding's cabinet. Mrs. Hoover had been called to Monterey, California, by the illness and death of her mother. After attending the funeral, Mrs. Hoover, accompanied by her father, her nephew, and a Filipino chauffer, started back to Washington in her sports-model, four-passenger Cadillac.

Mrs. Hoover and her party stopped on the night of the 10th in Waterloo, former home of the Henrys. From there they drove to West Branch to visit scenes of her husband's boyhood. While in Cedar County, Mrs. Hoover and her party were guests of her husband's cousin, Mayor G. C. Hoover. He accompanied Mrs. Hoover as she visited sites, including the Cottage, she had heard her husband describe.

Mrs. Hoover expressed herself as "delighted" with West Branch, and she was surprised at the "size and progressiveness of the town." She told Editor Corbin that she and her husband had "many times planned to visit his birthplace, but something had always prevented them from doing so but they would certainly arrange to come at some future date." [5]

D. Secretary Hoover's 1923 Visit

Herbert Hoover spent several hours in West Branch on Friday afternoon, April 13, 1923. He was accompanied by his secretary and chauffer. The Secretary of Commerce had come to Iowa to address a League of Women Voters meeting in Ames on Thursday afternoon. After spending the night in Le Grande with the Pembertons, Hoover motored to West Branch to see friends and relatives before returning to Washington by train from Iowa City. [6]

Mrs. Maud Stratton, correspondent for the Times, introduced herself to Secretary Hoover, with the exclamation, "I want to meet you because my mother used to go with your father!" Hoover replied, "This is logical reason enough." [7]

As he was preparing to leave West Branch after a three-hour visit, Hoover remarked to his friends, "I am disillusioned. The hills have flattened out; the old familiar buildings are gone; the town has trebled in population and the old swimming hole down under the railroad bridge is only about half the size it was when I was a boy."

The Birthplace Cottage did not resemble the building he recalled. It had been incorporated into the home of Mrs. Jennie Scellers, and her two unmarried children—Della and Elmer. His father's blacksmith shop was gone, and the home where his parents had died would soon be razed. [8]

E. The 1928 Homecoming

1. Hoover is Invited to Speak at West Branch

The Republican National Convention at Kansas City in June 1928 nominated Herbert C. Hoover as its candidate for the Presidency. On Friday evening following Hoover's nomination, more than 4,000 people crowded the streets of West Branch to demonstrate their enthusiasm and confidence in the local boy who had grown into a world leader.

A huge "Hoover's Birthplace" banner was hung above the intersection of Main and Downey streets. More than 50 newspaper correspondents, a score of photographers, and several newsreel cameramen covered the activities. There were fireworks, flags, and bunting. Bands, drill teams, speeches, and cheers paid tribute to the candidate and his Iowa background. Mayor N. P. Olsen was master of ceremonies. Dr. L. J. Leech and other West Branchers addressed the crowd. [9]

Soon afterwards, West Branch civic leaders contacted James Good of Cedar Rapids, Hoover's western campaign manager. Good, having represented the Congressional district in which Cedar County was located, was well known to the West Branchers. They suggested to Good that Hoover make their town his mid-western campaign headquarters. They were realists, however, and when Chicago was chosen over West Branch, they volunteered to assist in any manner possible.

An invitation was extended for Mr. Hoover to speak at West Branch. It was suggested that the occasion of the annual community picnic and homecoming, "when the village was in the habit of entertaining as many as 4,000 visitors in ordinary years," would be an appropriate date for the candidate to open his mid-western campaign in his native state and home town. [10]

A local committee, known as the Hoover Birthplace Committee, was organized with T. A. Moore as chairman, F. L. Pearson as secretary, and Mayor N. P. Olsen, John Thompson, and William B. Anderson. The committee traveled to Chicago in July to meet with Mr. Good. When they returned to West Branch, they announced that Hoover would speak at West Branch on August 21. [11]

2. The Preparations

Preparations for the Hoover homecoming engrossed the community for the next several weeks. Civic pride manifested itself "in freshly painted houses, neatly trimmed lawns, carefully graded parkings, removal of trash from back yards and alleys, and the appearance of shining windows and well swept pavements." Rock Island Railroad maintenance people painted the depot and policed the right-of-way through the town.

The school grounds were mowed and two huge circus tents secured. These tents were pitched on the football field behind the school to provide an outdoor auditorium with seating for 18,000. They were flanked by "several large rest tents," equipped with chairs telephones, cots, and running water. Drinking fountains and toilet facilities were provided for the anticipated thousands of visitors.

Plans were made to serve the official guests at luncheons in the church dining rooms. Seven free parking fields were laid out to accommodate an estimated 4,000 automobiles. Emergency services for motorists were organized, while free camp grounds were laid out.

An amplifying system was installed by the National Broadcasting Company to carry the words of the speakers to every part of the huge tents and to those to be seated on the nearby grassy slopes. The second floor of the grade school was outfitted as a press room, with accommodations for 250 correspondents. Microphones were positioned to carry Hoover's speech to 20 radio broadcasting stations, which in turn would carry the words of the candidate to millions of listeners. Western Union installed 20 special circuits, with an office from which to transmit the stories of newspaper correspondents. [12]

Great numbers of green corn stalks were used to decorate the speakers' platform in the big tent and buildings on Main Street. Bunting in the national colors and huge welcome signs decorated the streets, while United States flags were displayed from the homes. [13]

3. The Hoovers Breakfast at the Cottage

On Monday night, August 20, a savage wind and rain storm punished Springdale Township. Trees were up-rooted, and there was an electric power failure. The storm, however, failed to dampen the ardor of the West Branchers. By daybreak the townspeople had turned to and the debris was quickly cleared. The committee observed with pleasure that the bunting decorations were the kind that did not fade.

The morning dawned bright and clear, and by 7:30 a.m., when the campaign special chuffed into West Branch from Palo Alto, a large crowd had assembled at the depot to welcome Herbert Hoover. On hand were Governor John Hammell of Iowa and several bands. After Hoover and his official party had detrained, they got into automobiles for the drive to the Birthplace Cottage, where they would be guests of Mrs. Jennie Scellers for an old fashioned Iowa farm breakfast.

With the bands in the lead, the caravan drove west on Main Street and turned south on Downey to the Scellers' home. There another crowd eagerly awaited the coming of Mr. and Mrs. Hoover and their sons Herbert and Allan. [14]

Mrs. Scellers had notified the committee that she would like to serve breakfast to Mr. Hoover and his family. The storm, having toppled a tree across the power lines on south Downey, had handicapped Mrs. Scellers' breakfast preparations. But she was ready when her distinguished guests arrived.

Assisted by her daughter, Mrs. J. C. Enlow of Des Moines, she had tastefully arranged her kitchen "with its daintly ruffled window curtains and shining linoleum and the old fashioned extension table pulled out its full length and spread with a snowy cloth." Hothouse flowers had been provided by the committee, but Mrs. Scellers had replaced them with a vase of flowers from her garden.

When the Hoover party arrived, Mrs. Scellers removed her apron, smoothed her hair, and opened the door to the kitchen fronting on Penn Street. Her visitors entered the room in which, as a small boy, "Bert Hoover" had eaten his meals more than 50 years before.

While Mrs. Scellers and her daughter completed breakfast preparations, Mr. and Mrs. Hoover, their two handsome sons, and Mrs. Mollie Curran were invited into the parlor. There they discussed the trip, the change in the town's appearance, and the day's schedule. [15]

Mrs. Hoover, when asked if she believed that a family of five had lived in the three-room cottage, replied, "Oh yes, many people do live in such small houses. I have myself."

Preparations for breakfast completed, the Hoover party returned to the kitchen and sat down at the table. When offered the platter by Mrs. Scellers, Herbert Hoover exclaimed, "Ham and eggs just the kind of breakfast I'm used to. For 30 years, I suspect, I have not missed having eggs for breakfast." Mrs. Hoover spoiled his story by reminding him that during the Boxer Rebellion, they had gone a whole month without their breakfast eggs. The nominee praised the coffee, while his wife complimented Mrs. Scellers on her hot buttered rolls, and strawberry jam. The sliced peaches and country cream were delicious.

While they ate their leisurely breakfast, there was small talk. The current climate in Iowa was contrasted with that of the 1880s. The Hoovers wondered if the "snow drifts ever got as deep as they used to," and whether the Wapsinonoc carried as much water as formerly.

After they had finished breakfast and had gotten up to leave, Mrs. Scellers presented Mrs. Hoover with a bouquet of gladiolas from her flower garden. On behalf of the people of West Branch, she presented Mr. Hoover with a cane carved of wood from the room in which he was born. The cane was a painstaking copy of a stalk of corn, with the ears growing from the sides.

Before saying good-bye to their hosts, the Hoovers signed Mrs. Scellers' guest book. Mr. Hoover graciously insisted that Mrs. Curran join them in signing. He then accepted the photographs of the house, which his hostess presented and autographed a number for her. [16]

On emerging from the Cottage, the Hoovers posed for a number of photographs by the battery of cameramen awaiting them on the south lawn. From Mrs. Scellers', the Hoover party was driven to the cemetery to visit the graves of Jesse and Huldah Hoover. Next, they drove to the farm where Grandfather Eli Hoover had lived and to Uncle Allen Hoover's farm, with stops at other sites associated with boyhood memories. They were then driven to the school grounds. It was an eventful day, and one that is vividly recalled in West Branch.

That night the Hoover family was entertained in the home of Mr. Hoover's cousins, the O. O. Yoders. On the morning of August 22, driving in open cars, they traveled west ten miles to Iowa City. After an impromptu reception, they continued on to Cedar Rapids. [17]

<<< Previous <<< Contents>>> Next >>>

Last Updated: 28-Jul-2006