Historic Sites and Buildings
The nucleus of this national historic site, a complex of structures in West Branch commemorating Herbert Hoover, is the tiny cottage where he was born and spent the first 5 years of his life. Another major building is the Friends (Quaker) Meeting House he attended. Also within the park area are the Herbert Hoover Presidential Library, operated by the General Services Administration, and his grave and that of his wife.
In 1853 Jesse Hoover, Herbert's great-grandfather, emigrated from Ohio to West Branch, Iowa, a predominantly Quaker community on the west branch of Wapsinonoc ("Sweet Water") Creek. In 1871 his grandson, a blacksmith of the same name, built a small cottage at the corner of Downey and Penn Streets as a residence for himself and his wife, Huldah Minthorn Hoover. Across Penn Street, he erected a blacksmith shop. On August 10, 1874, Mrs. Hoover gave birth to her second child, Herbert, nicknamed "Bertie."
In 1879, after the arrival of his third offspring, Jesse Hoover, who had decided to sell agricultural implements, disposed of both structures and moved into a larger residence on Downey Street, about a block to the south, no remains of which are extant. His premature death the next year and that of his wife in 1884 orphaned their three children. Herbert at first went to live with an uncle, Allen Hoover, on a farm just northeast of West Branch. In 1885, at the age of 11, however, he was sent to Newberg, Oreg., to reside with another uncle, Dr. Henry J. Minthorn.
The Hoover birthplace was a three-room frame cottage with small front and rear porches. The two main rooms were the bedroom, the birthplace of Hoover; and a combined living room, kitchen, and dining room. The third room, formed by an enclosed portion of the rear porch, served as a summer kitchen or spare sleeping room. The sidewalls of the cottage were constructed of wide vertical boards and battens closely fitted together. To keep out the cold, the cracks were taped with strips of cloth; they are now covered with board strips. In 1890 the owner of the cottage shifted it to a different direction on the same location and attached a large two-story structure on the side facing Downey Street.
About the time Hoover achieved the Presidency, in 1929, his family became interested in restoring the birthplace to its original appearance. In 1935 a son, Allan, purchased it, as well as several adjoining lots. Restoration work, begun by the family in 1938, was completed the next year by the Herbert Hoover Birthplace Society, an organization of West Branch citizens that had acquired the site that same year. The project included razing the front two stories of the altered structure and relocating the remaining section to its original position; painting the exterior and interior walls white; reconstructing the front and rear porches and a picket gate and board fence around the yard; and restoring the wooden pump at the rear of the cottage. The society furnished the house with period pieces, among them the original high chair, bureau, and kerosene lamp, plus a cupboard apparently built by Jesse Hoover at an earlier date. A short distance to the west of the birthplace, the society constructed a caretaker's house.
Throughout the years, as the society acquired additional land, the birthplace cottage became the nucleus of a 28-acre park. One of the major projects was the installation of a statue of Isis, Egyptian goddess of life, that had been presented to Hoover in the early 1920's by Belgian school children in appreciation for his relief work in Europe. Other improvements included picnic and camping grounds and landscaped areas. In 1956-57 the Herbert Hoover Birthplace Foundation, formed in 1954 to assist the Birthplace Society in administering the park, built adjacent to the birthplace a blacksmith shop typical of the era of Jesse Hoover. It is furnished with 19th-century tools and other historic objects.
In the late 1950's, the two organizations merged under the name of Herbert Hoover Birthplace Foundation, Inc. The major accomplishment of this realinement was the completion in 1962 of the Herbert Hoover Presidential Library, a storehouse of Hoover papers, books, and other memorabilia that is southwest of the birthplace.
In 1962, the year of the library dedication, in which Hoover and Truman participated, the foundation donated the entire park to the Federal Government. The General Services Administration operated it until 1965, the year Congress authorized it as a national historic site. At that time, the National Park Service assumed responsibility for all of the park except the library, which remained under the control of the General Services Administration. Meantime, in October 1964 Hoover had died and was buried on a hillside about one-quarter mile southwest of and overlooking the birth place. That same month, the body of his wife, Lou Henry Hoover, who had been buried in California in 1944, was reinterred adjacent to that of her husband.
The national historic site has continued to expand and today includes about 148 acres, approximately 22 of which are in non-Federal ownership. Most of the increased acreage, to the south and west of the birthplace complex of structures, has been acquired to preserve the natural setting and to prevent commercial intrusions. Other acquisitions extending north and east of the birthplace into the town of West Branch contain various historic and modern structures. Some of the older buildings have been or are being restored and others have been removed as part of a long-range plan to recreate the 19th-century appearance of the southwestern portion of the town.
One of the major historic structures, the Friends meetinghouse in which Hoover worshipped with his parents, was restored in 1964-65 by the Herbert Hoover Birthplace Foundation, Inc. It had earlier been moved to its present location on the east side of Downey Street, opposite the Hoover Library and southeast of the birthplace. The meetinghouse had originally been on the west side of Downey Street north of Main. Subsequently, prior to the erection of a new place of worship, it was sold and moved directly across the street and used for a theater and garage before the Hoover Foundation acquired it and moved it to its present and third site.
The one-room West Branch elementary school that Hoover may have attended is on the corner of Penn and Poplar Streets. It was moved there in 1971 from the corner of Orange and Oliphant Streets, where it had been a residence for many years. The exterior has been restored.
Last Updated: 22-Jan-2004