Thus did Herbert Hoover describe what his country had allowed him to do. Today we visited the birthplace of this 31st President of the United States in West Branch, Iowa. It is also the site of his presidential library and the burial place of Mr. and Mrs. Hoover.
He loved West Branch, and personally supervised the restoration of his birthplace, very near his father’s blacksmith shop.
The Park Service has conserved part of the area around the birthplace, and it gives you an amazing sense of the wonders of a Midwestern white-picket-fence small town of the 19th century, including his school house and the Quaker Meetinghouse. Bert’s father was the blacksmith, but both he and his wife died around the age of 35, leaving Bert, his brother and sister orphans when he was 10. There were many family members around, but eventually Bert went to Oregon to live with an uncle, and got his education as a geologist at Stanford.
As always, the more you learn about a public figure like Herbert Hoover – who presided over a time of great national crisis – the more you see how his background shaped history. His people were Quakers, and that very much influenced his pacifism and his humanitarianism, which ultimately led to the creation of UNICEF.
His grave site is very touching, next to his wife, whom he met at Stanford, but who was also an Iowa native. Beyond their graves is a restored Iowa prairie, which is magical in its own way. In front of the graves, straight ahead, is the birthplace. All in all, a very touching circle of a life that affected many others, and all started right here.
Another manifestation of the American dream can be found not too far away in the Amana Colonies. Do you know about them?
The Amana Colonies are seven villages built and settled by German Pietists, who were persecuted in their homeland. Calling themselves the Community of True Inspiration, they first settled near Buffalo NY , but that got too crowded. They moved to Iowa in 1856 and lived a communal life until the mid-1930s. Their lives would remind you of the Amish, the Moravians, the Mennonites, and all other groups who just wanted to be separate from the secular and increasingly modernizing world. Reading between the lines, it didn’t work into the 20th century, and the community voted to form a for-profit organization during the Depression, the Amana Society, which included the Amana Corporation, and exists to this day. Bring on the tourists!
It could be much kitchier, but in each of the towns some lovely old buildings are intact. Our luck has held as we arrived there the day after the big October Harvest Festival, which is always the way we plan. We spent most of our time in the village of Amana, where they still make furniture, spin woolens, and make beer. The craftsmanship is obviously there, but the design artistry seems of another era. And no, I did not buy Don lederhosen.
And then there was the Heritage Museum. Loved the old pictures of a communal life long past, along with the painting easily identified as the work of a student of Grant Wood.
We visited Middle Amana, High Amana, West Amana, East Amana, South Amana and Homestead – all spokes radiating Middle Amana. We loved the High Amana General Store, and the Broom and Basket Shop in West Amana, home of Iowa’s largest walnut rocking chair. (Please note all the qualifiers.)
The strangest thing was the Mini-Americana Barn Museum in South Amana. Two generations of one family have dedicated themselves to building miniatures of the surrounding communities and capturing their lifestyle. What can we say? It was important to them. A selection of their work follows.