The Hoover Houses and Community Structures
Historic Structures Report
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A. Significance

Built in 1853, 16 years before West Branch was platted, this one-room frame structure served the community as its first school and the local Friends as a meeting house. It was the focal point around which the town grew and prospered, as a school and a meeting house were prerequisites for a viable Quaker Community.

After the new school was built in 1867, this structure was relocated and housed the primary grades. Tad Hoover's first year in school was spent in this building, while Herbert Hoover may also have learned his A, B, Cs here. The Cottage, the Blacksmith Shop, the Meeting House, the 2d Hoover House, and the Schoolhouse are part of the community which produced Herbert Hoover—statesman and humanitarian.

B. Construction History of the Schoolhouse

1. Building the Schoolhouse

On January 23, 1852, Aaron Baker of Baltimore, Maryland, entered on the northeast quarter of Section 7, Township 79 North, Range 4 West, surrendering a land warrant issued to him for service in the Mexican War. [1] Baker's 160 acres extended to the north and east to what is today the intersection of Main and Downey streets. Within four months, Baker sold his 160 acres to Samuel King of Cedar County for $162.50. [2]

King and his wife, Constant, on March 28, 1853, sold to Joseph Steer for $208 a tract in the subject quarter section, beginning at the northeast corner of Section 7, then west 69 rods with the section line, then south 30 rods, then west 13.54 rods, then south 130 rods, then east 82.54 rods to the section line, and then north with the section line 160 rods to the point of beginning. The tract conveyed contained 80 acres. [3]

By 1853 there were enough settlers on the West Branch of the Wapsinonoc that there was a need for a school. A school district was organized, and William Townsend elected president of the school board. Before a building could be erected, a lot had to be acquired, and on June 3, 1853, the school board purchased from James Steer for ten dollars a one-acre lot. The boundary of the lot conveyed began at the northeast corner of Section 7, then west eight rods, then south 20 rods, then east eight rods, and then north 20 rods to the beginning. [4]

Having acquired the site, the school board undertook a campaign to raise funds for construction of a schoolhouse. Eight hundred dollars were raised, and a one-story frame structure erected in the summer of 1853. The schoolhouse was located about 100 feet southwest of the northeast corner of Section 7, and a little north of where Wetherell Street was subsequently platted. The structure faced the country road destined to become Main Street. [5]

Mary Mills, a young lady from Ohio, was recalled as the teacher during the 1853-54 term, the school's first. Others who taught in the little frame schoolhouse were Mahlon Oliphant, Mary Smith, Dora Darlington, and Jessie Cartland. [6]

Much of the money to fund construction of the school had been donated by Friends, so the structure was also used as a temporary meeting house, until the Society erected its own Meeting House in 1856-57. Each First Day and Fourth Day Meetings were held, and the children were obliged to attend the midweek meetings. For the business meetings a canvas stack cover was hung in the center of the school room, dividing the men's and women's groups. On regular meeting days, the men and women were seated separately, but no partition was used. [7]

2. The Construction of a New Schoolhouse

In the immediate post-Civil War years there was an influx of settlers into western Springdale Township. This increase in population taxed the facilities of the one-room schoolhouse. Some years there were as many as 60 pupils in attendance. Taking cognizance of this situation, a number of public spirited Friends, along with their neighbors, subscribed $1,500 for construction of a new building to be known as the "Friends Academy of West Branch." An organization of stockholders was effected, and a building committee composed of Joseph Steer, Sr., Asa Staples, and James Hirst appointed. There were two building sites favored—one was on Main Street, west of the Friends Meeting Grounds, and the other a two-acre tract in William Oliphant's field, north of the Friends Burying Grounds. [8]

The Building Committee determined to build in Oliphant's field, and a two-acre lot fronting today's Downey Street acquired. Construction was started immediately, and a two-story frame building, 24 x 44 feet, fronting east, was built. Joel and Hannah Bean, experienced teachers and preachers, who had "conducted a Select School at their home, 'The Evergreens,' a mile east of the crossroads, were employed as teachers at the new academy." West Branch had not been platted when the academy opened in the autumn of 1867. [9]

3. The Organization of the Independent School District

A change in the Iowa School laws permitted subdistricts to be reorganized into independent districts, thereby increasing the powers of taxation by vote of the taxpayers. To take advantage of this legislation and provide better quality education for their children, the subdistrict was reorganized as the Independent School District. The academy had been in operation only a short time, when the Friends agreed to rent it to the Independent School District. The academy passed out of existence, and the first term of public school opened in the recently platted town of West Branch in the autumn of 1869. Joel and Hannah Bean were retained as teachers. [10]

4. The Old Schoolhouse is Relocated

In the spring of 1870 the Independent School District purchased for $2,500 the property belonging to the Friends Academy of West Branch. The one-acre school lot at the southwest corner of Main and Downey was subdivided and sold at public auction for $900. The old one-room schoolhouse was relocated in late May 1870. James Cook was paid $30 to move the structure from the one-acre school lot and position it adjacent to and northwest of the new schoolhouse, on the hill north of the Friends Burying Grounds. The building was out fitted as the primary department. When the fall term opened in September 1870, Miss Mary G. Townsend had charge of the primary department. [11]

The relocation of the old schoolhouse and the subdivision of the one-acre lot made possible the growth of the West Branch business district at the intersection of Main and Downey streets. With a steady increase in population, facilities of the West Branch School were again crowded. In 1877 a two-story wing, 28 x 40 feet, was added to the north elevation of the school. The cost of this addition was $l,775, and it provided West Branch with, a four-room structure. [12]

5. Tad and Herbert Hoover Enter School

Soon after his fifth birthday in 1876, Jesse Hoover entered his son, Tad, in the "old district schoolhouse on top of the hill above the Friends meeting-house." Between the "old district school" and the Meeting House was the new two-story school building. The "old district school" was used for the primary grades and Mary Townsend was Tad's first teacher, and

if she failed to arouse in me that enthusiastic love which I felt for some of the later ones, she at any rate holds the highest place in reverence; she was very dignified and kind. I remember learning here the A, B, Cs, and reading about the trout caught in the brook. [13]

Herbert Hoover entered school in 1880. His primary teacher was Lizzie Chandler, and she subsequently recalled that her department met in the little one-room schoolhouse. Records of the West Branch Independent School District for this period are in complete, so it is impossible to document Miss Chandler's statement. We do know that the old schoolhouse was not removed from the grounds to the corner of Orange and Oliphant streets until the mid-1880s. This, however, does not constitute conclusive evidence that the structure was used as quarters for the primary department subsequent to the construction in 1877 of the two-story 28 x 40-foot wing. [14]

6. West Branch High School Graduates its First Class

The construction of the addition to the school resulted in a reorganization of the curriculum, and the establishment of a course of study sufficiently advanced to insure that a graduate might enter the freshman class at the State University. Nathan W. Macy, who had succeeded Eugene Elliott as principal, besides organizing the high school, had the pleasure of graduating the first class in 1878. There were eight seniors, Lida Gruwell, Emma Miles, Anna Penrose, M. W. Savage, Sadie Vore, Etta Bean, Willis Atkins, and Isabel Cole. By 1892 there had been 72 graduates of West Branch High School, of whom 35 to 45 per cent had gone on to college. [15]

C. The Schoolhouse as a Residence

1. It is Relocated and Becomes a Home for the Rowlens

J. W. Witter had platted a subdivision in northwest West Branch in the late 1870s. On August 4, 1881, he sold Lot 15 in his addition to Martha Rowlen for $100. [16] Some time before 1884 Frank and Martha Rowlen purchased the little one-room schoolhouse from the trustees of the Independent School District for $50. They had it moved from the school lot and positioned on Lot 15, at the southwest corner of Orange and Oliphant streets. [17]

The Rowlens, who had three children, remodeled the schoolhouse into a home. On June 2, 1884, the Town Council directed the recorder to notify Frank Rowlen, in writing, to build a sidewalk in front of his house on Oliphant Street, as required by the Sidewalk Ordinance of September 1883. [18] Rowlen built the walk as directed.

On January 10, 1887, the Rowlens found themselves short of money, and mortgaged their house and lot to W. M. Steer for $213.20, at ten per cent interest. [19] The mortgage was retired, and the Rowlens retained possession of the property until 1911.

Frank Rowlen was a collector of oddities, and as such he frequently exhibited objects at county fairs. In September 1887 it was announced that Rowlen would display a table of curiousities including "blocks of wood, a petrified stump, and Noah's grindstone," at the West Branch fair. [20]

The Rowlen sons, Ben and Ed, enlisted in the U. S. Army and served in Cuba. Ben Rowlen was discharged in January 1899 and returned to West Branch, with his wife, and re-entered the construction trade as a plasterer. Ed Rowlen remained in the army and returned to Cuba with his unit, where he died of typhoid on May 12, 1899. (See Appendix B for a history of "The Rowlen Boys in the Spanish-American War.")

Frank Rowlen in mid-September 1905 moved part of his and his wife's household goods to West Liberty. The senior Rowlens had decided to retire and make their home for the time being with their daughter, Mrs. E. Stokes. On leaving West Branch, they told their friends that they planned to spend part of the coming winter with relatives in Nebraska. [21]

Ben Rowlen, who was now a railroad clerk, moved into his parents' house with his family. He continued to live there until his transfer to Iowa City. Following the death of her husband, Mrs. Frank Rowlen on November 27, 1911, sold the house and lot to George Yetter for one dollar and other valuable considerations. [22]

2. George Yetter as Owner

Yetter, the son of George W. and Catherine Yetter, had been born near Plato, December 15, 1872. He had married Edith Holloway on December 31, 1902, and she had died in January 1908. Five years after Yetter purchased the Rowlen property, he married a second time, taking Myrtle Holloway for his wife on January 18, 1916. She died on July 16, 1926, leaving Yetter a widower for the second time. [23]

George Yetter lived in the historic old structure from 1911 until his death in the summer of 1939. Eleven years before his passing, Yetter had sold on June 27, 1928, the subject property to Thomas A. Taylor for one dollar and other valuable considerations. He, however, reserved a lifetime in the house and lot. [24] Taylor and his wife, Thelma, on May 24, 1941, sold to his grandmother, Helen B. Butler, for one dollar and other valuable considerations Lot 15 and the improvements thereon. [25]

3. Improvements Made by the Taylors

Mr. and Mrs. Tom Taylor, after taking possession of the Yetter property, had the old schoolhouse remodeled in the summer of 1940 into a modern bungalow. When carpenters removed the wallpaper, they found the "old blackboards, painted on the plaster, and the troughs for chalk" hidden by the wainscoting. Other signs of pioneer useage were the high ceilings.

Visitors to the Taylors' house were delighted with "the attractive modern cottage with its roomy fireplace and cheerful refinished interior," which "masqueraded one of the first three houses built in what is now West Branch." The Taylors had also added an ell, housing their kitchen, a front porch, and a basement garage. [26]

4. The Bruce Thompsons and the Schoolhouse

Five years later, on May 22, 1946, L. C. Rummells as trustee for Helen B. Butler sold to Herbert and Dorothy Sorenson for one dollar and other valuable considerations the subject property. [27] The Sorensons, in August 1946, sold the subject property to Higdon and Katherine Elkins for one dollar and other valuable considerations. [28] Within one month, on September 15, the Elkinses sold to Bruce and Lila Thompson for one dollar and other valuable considerations Lot 15, the house, and improvements thereon. [29]

In 1954, when the new Herbert Hoover High School was dedicated, the Bruce Thompsons resided in the cottage at the southwest corner of Orange and Oliphant streets. The Iowa City Press-Citizen ran a feature article on the new school, in which it was pointed out that it stood near "the one-room structure in which Herbert Hoover is said to have begun his formal education."

The late Mrs. Stephen Sunier of Iowa City had recalled many times that in 1880, when she, as Miss Lizzie Chandler, had charge of the primary children, Herbert Hoover was one of her pupils, and they met in the little one-room schoolhouse. [30]

D. The Foundation Acquires and Moves the Structure

The Thompsons in the late 1950s conveyed the subject property to the West Branch Community School District. An affidavit testifying to this was filed on July 27, 1967. [31]

After acquiring the cottage from the Bruce Thompsons, the School District used it first as a teacherage, and then as a storage facility and bandroom. The West Branch Heritage Foundation, a local organization championing historic preservation, became interested in the old Schoolhouse. Glenn Brown, acting as agent for the Foundation, purchased the building from the School District in 1968. Bill Wagner paid to have the structure moved from the corner of Orange and Oliphant to the National Historic Site, where it was temporarily located in July at the northeast corner of Penn and Poplar streets. The Heritage Foundation at this time transferred title to the structure to the Herbert Hoover Birthplace Foundation. [32]

In late August and early September 1971, a basement was excavated, a foundation poured, and the Schoolhouse relocated on Lots 29 and 30, Joseph Steer's Plat of West Branch. To help fund this undertaking, the Herbert Hoover Birthplace Foundation made use of the $1,000 donated to it by the Questers.

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Last Updated: 28-Jul-2006