Few Americans have known greater acclaim or more bitter criticism than Herbert Hoover. The son of a Quaker blacksmith, orphaned at an early age, Hoover achieved international success as a mining engineer and world-wide gratitude as "The Great Humanitarian" who fed war torn Europe during and after World War I. In the process he developed a unique philosophy - one balancing responsibility for the welfare of others with an unshakable faith in free enterprise and dynamic individualism. In time this would lead him to feed a billion people in 57 countries.
Elected 31st President of the United States in a 1928 landslide, within a few short months the global hero had become a scapegoat in his own land. Even today, Hoover remains indelibly linked with the Great Depression that put millions of his countrymen out of work in the 1930's. His 1932 defeat at the hands of Franklin D. Roosevelt left Hoover's once bright reputation in shambles.
Yet he refused to fade away. In one of history's most remarkable comebacks Hoover returned at Harry Truman's behest to avert global famine at the end of the Second World War and to reorganize the executive branch of government. By the time of his death in October, 1964, Hoover had regained much of the luster once attached to his name. The Quaker theologian who eulogized him at his funeral did not exaggerate when he said of Herbert Hoover, "The story is a good one and a great one...It is essentially triumphant."
|1877-2: Herbert Hoover at age three, West Branch, 1877. (unknown copyright)|
I carry the brand of Iowa," said Herbert Hoover, recalling the experience of a five-year-old, barefoot boy stepping on a hot iron in his father's blacksmith shop. In many ways Hoover never shed the stamp of his Quaker upbringing in West Branch, Iowa, where he was born August 10, 1874. His father, Jesse, combined Quaker piety with a very American desire to get ahead in the world. Jesse's wife Hulda was a sweet-faced, devout woman who took Herbert, his brother Theodore and sister May to the unheated Meetinghouse, where Bert sat quietly, sometimes for hours, as his elders waited for the Quaker Inner Light to move them to speak.
The boy's early reading was limited to the Bible, schoolbooks, "certain novels showing the huge danger of Demon Rum" and a pirated copy of the "Youth's Companion." Young Bert enjoyed sledding on frosty winter nights, an activity his Aunt Hannah thought Godless. In the summer, he picked potato bugs to earn money for Fourth of July firecrackers.
The fields around West Branch held prairie chickens and rabbits to hunt; the Wapsinonoc Creek yielded fish to anyone with a willow pole, butcher string line, and the patience instilled by Quaker discipline.
Fishing became a lifelong passion for Hoover. So did the Quaker tenets of emotional self-containment and a commitment to worldly success matched by obligations of service to others. These survived the death of Jesse Hoover in 1880 and Hulda four years later.
|1955-A91A: Hoover lived with his Uncle John Minthorn in this Newberg, Oregon house from 1885-91. (public domain)|
In the summer of 1885 eleven-year-old Bert Hoover boarded a Union Pacific train headed west to Oregon. Sewn into his clothes were two dimes; he also carried a hamper of his Aunt Hannah's homemade delicacies. Waiting for him on the other end of the continent was his Uncle John Minthorn, a doctor and school superintendent who Hoover recalled as "a severe man on the surface, but like all Quakers kindly at the bottom."
Hoover's six years in Oregon taught him self-reliance. "My boyhood ambition was to be able to earn my own living, without the help of anybody, anywhere." As an office boy in his uncle's Oregon Land Company he mastered bookkeeping and typing, while attending business school in the evening. Thanks to a local schoolteacher, Miss Jane Gray, the boy's eyes were opened to the novels of Charles Dickens and Sir Walter Scott. "David Copperfield," the story of another orphan cast into the world to live by his wits, would remain a lifelong favorite.
|1893-7: Hoover (seated, left) and other members of the Stanford surveying squad, 1893. (unknown copyright)|
In the fall of 1891 Hoover entered the new Leland Stanford, Junior, University at Palo Alto, California. Cutting a wider swath outside the classroom than in, Hoover managed the baseball and football teams, started a laundry and ran a lecture agency. Teaming up with other poor boys against campus swells, the reluctant candidate was elected student body treasurer on the "Barbarian" slate, then wiped out a student government debt of $2,000.
Hoover earned his way through school by doing typing chores for Professor John Caspar Branner, who also got him a summer job mapping the terrain in Arkansas' Ozark Mountains. It was in Branner's geology lab that he met Miss Lou Henry, a banker's daughter born in Waterloo, Iowa in 1874. Lou shared her fellow Iowan's love of the outdoors and self-reliant nature. "It isn't so important what others think of you as what you feel inside yourself," she told college friends.
Hoover graduated three months before his 21st birthday. He left Stanford with $40 in his pocket and no prospects for employment. But from this college in a hayfield he had derived much more than a degree in geology. Stanford gave Hoover an identity, a profession, and a future bride. Most of all, Stanford became for the orphan from West Branch a surrogate family --a place to belong.
Hoover's first job out of college was shoveling ore in a Nevada City, California mine. His pay? Two dollars per ten-hour shift. By the spring of 1897 the London firm of Bewick, Moreing was looking for a geologist at least 35 years old and with "a lifetime of experience." Hoover fudged his age and bought a tweed dress suit to look older. Soon he found himself in the vast, arid Australian Outback, where there was more gold than water and the temperature often topped one hundred degrees at midnight. He put away the dress suit.
Instead, in roughhewn settlements like Coolgardie, Kalgoorlie, and Leonora, the 23 year old Yankee nicknamed "Hail Columbia" Hoover won the trust of rowdy Aussies by his take charge ways and democratic habits. Bathing in beer instead of water, living on a diet of sardines and cocoa, Hoover road a camel through the sprawling wastes of Western Australia looking for gold. One day he scouted out a rich vein which he persuaded his London employers to purchase for a million dollars. In time the famed Sons of Gwalia mine would return $65 million to Bewick, Moreing.
In the spring of 1898 Hoover's salary was raised to $10,000 a year. His men bestowed a new title on the youthful American-- "The Chief." It stuck to Hoover for the rest of his life. So did memories of wild and wooly Australian, a land of "red dust, black flies and white heat."
At the ripe age of 24, Herbert Hoover went to China to develop coal mines and build port facilities. On his arrival, however, Chinese officials told him to find gold--fast. Hoo-Yah and Hoo-Lou (Bert and Lou's Chinese names) found themselves in a land only reluctantly opening its doors to Western technology, expertise--and arrogance. Hoover's exalted status forced him to travel in state with hundreds of mules, ponies, soldiers, and a translator whose fractured English led him to announce each bit of bad news with the phrase that soon became his nickname --"Really Damn."
Rumors soon spread of a great foreign mandarin whose green eyes allowed him to see through the ground to find gold.
Hoover did battle with bedbugs and a manager who smoked opium until he was pale. He met a living Buddha who rode a bicycle around a Tibetan Lamasery. One Christmas Day he taught the game of football to a crowd of barefooted children.
Early in 1900 a wave of anti-western feeling swept China. Peking reformers were overthrown and a nativist group calling itself "I Ho Tuan," or the Boxers, laid siege to the western colony in Tientsen.
|1900-8: Lou Henry Hoover during the siege of Tientsin, China, 1900. (unknown copyright)|
The Hoovers were trapped along with other westerners. Hoo-Yah built barricades of rice and grain sacks; Hoo-Loo rode her bicycle close to walls to avoid bullets one of which punctured her tire. One afternoon while playing solitaire, an artillery shell crashed into the front hall, destroying a portion of the staircase. She went on playing as if nothing had happened. Another morning she read her obituary in a California newspaper.
Ten weeks after the siege began, help arrived in dramatic fashion. Said Hoover, "I do not remember a more satisfying musical performance than the bugles of the American Marines entering the settlement playing 'There'll Be a Hot Time in the Old Town Tonight.' "
As a boy, Herbert Hoover traveled in search of family and friends. As a young man, his travels as an international "doctor of sick mines" brought him worldwide renown and prosperity to match his prestige. Between 1901 and 1914 Hoover became a familiar figure on four continents. He saw the world of Rudyard Kipling and Somerset Maugham, crept through London fogs, contracted malaria in an Asian rice paddy and once backed out of a Burmese mine after discovering fresh tiger tracks.
After 1907 the "Great Engineer" and his family were based in London. Together with Lou, he spent three years on board ships bound for nearly forty nations. Putting their time on the sea to good use, the couple jointly translated "De Re Metallica," a classic work by the 16th-century Latin mining scholar Georgias Agricola. Hoover also digested thick volumes of history, sociology, economics and philosophy, trying to make up for his early educational deficiencies.
Hoover's reputation grew throughout the period, and not just in mining circles. When a dishonest partner at Bewick, Moreing embezzled half a million dollars from the firm, the American insisted on paying back much of the loss from his own pocket. In 1908 Hoover left Bewick, Moreing to launch his own international consulting firm employing 175,000 workers from Siberia to Peru. Soon after, he joined Stanford's Board of Trustees. A colleague said more was accomplished during Hoover's first hour on the board than in the three preceding years.