WHAT IS IT? The original birthplace cottage, small-town neighborhood, Presidential Library and Museum and gravesite of Herbert Hoover, our 31st president. The Site also includes over 80 acres of re-introduced tall grass prairie.
BEAUTY (6/10) The entire site is beautifully manicured. Hoover’s birthplace cottage sits in its original location next to what used to be a main street through town. The Park Service has relocated a Quaker meetinghouse and a one-room schoolhouse, West Branch’s oldest building to the small neighborhood which is now accessed by pedestrian-only walkways.
Past the tree-shaded neighborhood are picnic pavilions and, at the time of our visit, a traveling exhibit entitled The Moving Wall. Further along the path are the graves of Herbert and his wife, Lou. The site is bordered on the South and West sides by flowering tall grass prairie.
HISTORIC SIGNIFICANCE (4/10) Prior to our visit, we did not have the best opinion of Herbert Hoover. His stubbornness was responsible for the Great Depression. After our visit, we were not so sure. Hoover was obstinate but he also led a fascinating life. Born in a small cottage in small town Iowa. His mother was a Quaker minister and a border state abolitionist. Both his parents were well known for their sense of humor. They both died shortly after Herbert turned 10.
Soon after, Herbert moved to Oregon where he lived with relatives. After graduating with a geology degree from Stanford, Herbert took a job searching for gold in Australia. By the age of 23, he was a multi-millionaire living in China with the reputation as the world’s pre-eminent and most financially successful geologist.
In the succeeding years, Hoover achieved many humanitarian goals. He fed Europe and then the United States during World War I. He evacuated thousands of American citizens with his own money during the Great War. He was loved throughout the world for his giving spirit. When elected president, America believed Hoover’s promises to end poverty. No other president had ever been more prepared to help. The Great Depression proved otherwise.
CROWDS (5/10) Who goes to the Herbert Hoover NHS? More people than we expected. There was a good crowd of visitors strolling the grounds and looking through the Visitor Center. They did not impact our visit. A few women were louder than necessary in the Presidential Library. Gab kept a distance and as a result did not get to see the later exhibits before the Library closed.
EASE OF USE/ACCESS (5/5) Herbert Hoover NHS is just a stone’s throw from Exit 254 of Interstate 80. West Branch is in the eastern portion of the state, about 10 miles east of Iowa City and the University of Iowa.
There are two different parking areas in the 187-acre site, one for the Visitor Center and one near the Hoovers’ graves. If you do not care to drive the short distance between lots paved walkways take you past immaculately manicured lawns, a canopied picnic area and a few restored buildings. The Site is fully wheelchair accessible. Even the tall grass prairie, forbidding from a distance, has a grass path blazed through it and cared for as if it were a golf course fairway.
CONCESSIONS/BOOKSTORE (5/5) The bookstore at the Presidential Library stocked a definitive selection of mostly obscure Herbert Hoover-related books in addition to lots of fun and expensive items. Dozens of magnets, reproductions of the Hoovers’ famous oriental vases and serving dishes, hollowed out pencils with the inscription ‘Be a Geologist!’ and filled with crystals, prints of the Grant Wood painting of Herbert Hoover’s Birthplace, Iowa history books and presidential history books. The bookstore caters well to both the casual tourist and the serious Hoover enthusiast. The only negative was that the gift center closed at 4:30, a half hour prior to the museum itself.
COSTS (4/5) The Site costs $4 per person, $2 with a National Parks Pass. The charge is due to the Presidential Library and Museum, which is not administered by the National Park Service.
The National Parks Visitor Center provides the tourist with a nice gift. We gladly accepted a pen and ink drawing, on nice paper to boot, of the charming Hoover Birthplace Cottage.
RANGER/GUIDE TO TOURIST RATIO (3/5) A few Rangers staff the Visitor Center and the restored village. The Presidential Library and Museum has no Rangers but is fully self-guided. We left the Site with a few questions unanswered, more Ranger could have helped.
TOURS/CLASSES (7/10) The Presidential Museum does not shy away from Hoover’s misgivings and mismanagement. The Site not only describes what happened during Hoover’s life, it aims to show why decisions were made and why Hoover failed to act more decisively during the Depression. The Museum is rare in that it puts its subject’s life in a broad context, dedicating rooms solely to the political and cultural history of America.
History has largely forgotten Hoover’s extraordinary life pre-Presidency. The Herbert Hoover NHS has not. We entered the Presidential Museum at 3:00 p.m. By 5:00 p.m., we had seen only about 2/3 of the Hoover exhibits when we the museum guards asked us to leave. We wished we had gotten to the Site earlier. The Museum is terrific.
The Visitor Center film is well done. It focuses primarily on Herbert’s life in Iowa and raises lots of questions; most of which are thoroughly addressed at the nearby museum. The restored buildings in the Site’s West Branch neighborhood are well marked and staffed by rotating Rangers. Official Ranger-led tours take place a few times a day,
FUN (6/10) Surprisingly, we did enjoy our visit. We wished we had more time. More Rangers posted at the buildings would have helped, but the Rangers we did encounter were friendly and knowledgeable, particularly the young Ranger stuck without air conditioning in the hot birthplace cottage.
We took a lovely stroll through the grounds and had there been more time, probably could have spent two more hours in the Library and another hour walking through the tall grass prairie. Once again, a site that we thought would take an hour to visit filled our afternoon and left us wanting more.
WOULD WE RECOMMEND? (4/10) We arrived at the Site expecting to be alone and were surprised to find a half-full parking lot. As our visit stretched over the three-hour mark, we understood why: The site welcomes visitors to wander the grounds at their own pace. Shaded pavilions and an ample number of benches and tables make picnicking here a real possibility, not just an afterthought mentioned in a tour book. The tall grass prairie trail, not mentioned in the park pamphlet, invites visitors not only to look but to walk through the park’s efforts to restore the land to its natural state.
We were touched at the gift of the pen and ink drawing of Hoover’s home. We probably won’t frame it, but one could. It is not a shoddy souvenir.
The Presidential Library, although not officially part of the National Historic Site, does add tremendous value to the visit, particularly if you are interested in learning more about a president who often does not receive more than a few disparaging sentences in the history books.
If you have no interest in Herbert Hoover, the Library may still add some insight to the 1920s and 30s in America. If the history of this period is not your cup of tea either, you can skip this site with no remorse.
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