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An Iowa Boyhood

Jesse Hoover moved from Ohio with his father Eli, in 1854. They traveled by river boat and covered wagon to a farm outside West Branch, Iowa, a small town founded by Quakers. In 1870, Jesse, now the town blacksmith, married Hulda Minthorn, a teacher from Ontario, Canada.

The Hoovers began a family in a small cottage by the Wapsinonoc Creek. Their firstBoyhood Home son Theodore (Tad, 1871) was followed on August 10, 1874 by another boy, Herbert Clark Hoover (Bert.) On the occasion of his son's birth Jesse went through town declaring, "We have another General Grant in our house." Herbert's birth was followed in 1876 by the birth of a sister, Mary (May).

The Hoover children spent their early years growing up in West Branch, Iowa. West Branch provided both joys and hazards of life. The children could hike, explore, and swim as well as hunt for fossils and agate in the glacial gravel along the railroad tracks. Their Quaker upbringing forbade the Hoover boys from carrying a gun, so they learned to hunt for rabbit and prairie chickens with bow and arrow. They learned these skills from young Indian boys who were attending a local government training school. Willow poles, butcher string lines and hooks that cost a penny apiece provided Herbert Hoover with sunfish and catfish. There was also Cook's Hill for sledding on home-made sleds.

Their fun was tempered by the possibility of natural disaster and disease. The Iowa summer sun could scorch crops; prairie storms might wash out spring plantings or level a dwelling; the relentless winter favored typhus, diphtheria and pneumonia. Herbert Hoover's own memories give a glimpse into his childhood. He remembered trips into the country with his father Jesse. He also recalls as a small boy getting stuck in mud while crossing an unpaved road during a particularly rainy summer. "Papa's little stick-in-the-mud," his father called him as he lifted Bert to freedom.

A lifelong scar on the bottom of his foot reminded Bert of the time he walked into his father's blacksmith shop barefooted, and stepped on a hot chip of iron. He also recalled his father's farm implement shop which his father established after blacksmithing. At this shop there was a machine for putting barbs on wire. After this was done, the wires were dipped into hot tar to retard rust. Bert remembers trying an experiment whereby he put a lighted stick into the bubbling tar and caused huge clouds of smoke which brought the whole town running.

West Branch, West Branchwhere Herbert Hoover spent his first eleven years, practiced a strict Quaker morality. The Hoovers grew up within a sect that made its own affirmation of a rational, usable world. [The Quakers valued a blunt plainness. They believed that people will work well together, and that through rational discussion, compromise was possible.] They were dedicated to peace, and the belief that good common reason and strategic planning provide one with an uncluttered conscience.

The Hoover family figured prominently in the town's religious life. Hulda Hoover was a recorded minister who frequently spoke out at the Friends' meetings. Her faith was expressed in temperance and charitable activities. Herbert Hoover recalled that the Friends had "always held to education, thrift, and individual enterprise. In consequence of plain living and hard work poverty has never been their lot." He also recalled that the long hours of Quaker meetings waiting for the spirit to move someone provided him with strong training in the virtue of patience.

On December 13, 1880, Jesse Hoover died at the age of 34. Hulda and the children remained in West Branch, where she earned money working as a seamstress. She occasionally boarded Herbert with Uncle Will Miles. This gave her time to extend her godly pursuits as clerk of meeting, teacher of Sunday School, and as a member of a committee of correspondence charged with sending news of Iowa Friends to England and other parts of the world. Hulda composed poems and songs which she shared in Sunday School. By the Quaker method of common consent, her gift in the ministry was acknowledged, and so she traveled and spoke throughout Iowa. A return trip home by foot from a Springdale revival changed a chest cold into pneumonia complicated by typhoid fever.

On February 24, 1884 she died at 35. Hulda Hoover left more than $2000 dollars for the education of her children. Lawrie Tatum became legal guardian for the children. The children were separated: May went to live with Grandmother Minthorn, Tad went to Hubbard, Iowa and later to Newberg, Oregon with Uncle John Minthorn, and Herbert stayed on a farm outside of West Branch, Iowa for about a year with his Uncle Allen Hoover. In 1885, Herbert went to live with the Minthorn family in Oregon. Uncle Henry John Minthorn was a doctor in the Quaker settlement of Newberg, Oregon. His only son had died, and so the Minthorns asked for Herbert to be sent to them.

Bert traveled by train Train Ticketwith a family by the name of Hammil, who were emigrating, and had agreed to look after him on the trip. This was not his first time out of West Branch. Herbert had spent a few months with an uncle, Laban Miles, on the Osage Indian Reservation in Oklahoma Territory. He had also spent time at an Uncle's prairie farm in western Iowa where he lived in a sod house, and helped break new ground.

When Bert arrived in Oregon he was, "put to school and the chores." His work at the Minthorn farm included feeding the team of ponies twice a day, hitching them, milking the cow, and splitting wood. He attended the Friends Pacific Academy and excelled in mathematics. After graduating from school, Herbert moved with his Uncle to Salem Oregon to help open a real estate office for his uncle and his partners. Here he was an office-boy, but he learned to type, keep books and was involved in general office routine. At night he attended a local business college.

The Minthorns wanted Herbert enrolled in a Quaker College. His brother Tad was attending William Penn in Iowa, and Bert was to attend Earlham or Haverford Colleges. However Bert had been urged to attend the new tuition-free university in California, Stanford, by a visiting mining engineer, Mr. Robert Brown. He had decided that he wanted to become an engineer, and since Earlham offered no engineering courses, he wanted to go to Stanford. Dr. Joseph Swain, a noted mathematics teacher, and also a Quaker, had come to Portland, Oregon to recruit and administer entrance examinations to students. Bert needed some tutoring in all but mathematics and so left for Palo Alto in the summer of 1891.

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Last updated: June 20, 2001