Guest Column: As a child in school, Hoover bored me. Now in college, I see his bigger impact
by Maria Kyllingstad · Op-Ed · July 27, 2017

Editor’s note: Maria Kyllingstad is a member of West Branch High School’s Class of 2014 and is a 21-year resident of the city. She recently wrote this essay as an assignment for class at the University of Iowa. The essay was entitled “Small Town, Big History.”

West Branch is one of many small towns in the state of Iowa. With a population of less than 2,500, this town boasts more history than people would think.

It was home to the United States of America’s 31st president, Herbert Hoover. Nicknamed “The Great Humanitarian,” Hoover was known for his generosity and helpfulness toward struggling civilians during World War I.

He was dealt an unlucky set of cards when he took office in 1929, just as the United States was spiraling into the Great Depression. Many Americans saw him as the one to blame for the crisis, and thus he was defeated in the 1932 election by Franklin D. Roosevelt.

Like Herbert Hoover, I also grew up in the small town of West Branch, Iowa. Growing up, I had the pleasure of learning all about the former President, a man who walked the same soil as me almost a century ago. I did not recognize this as a pleasure when I was a kid, however. In Elementary school, our entire class would take frequent “field trips” (if you would even call it that, considering it was a 5-minute walk down the road) to West Branch’s National Historic Site where the Herbert Hoover Presidential Museum and Library is located. As children, many of my classmates and I would groan at the announcement that we would be taking a tour for what seemed like the millionth time. The site, just under 3 million square feet in area, includes the museum and library, a preserved version of what West Branch looked like while Hoover was growing up, as well as Hoover and his wife’s gravesite.

In the museum and library, you will find a small auditorium/lecture room. This is where videos can be watched about Hoover and the museum’s history, as well as where a speaker might lecture about the same thing.

Back in the archives of the library, you will find many well-preserved documents that can be used as a wide range of research material. The interactive part of the museum includes photos, videos, and informational audio that are used to really make this exhibit come to life.

You get to follow Hoover through childhood, and his becoming an orphan at age 9, through his humanitarian years, where he earned his nickname, and join him on his unfortunate and difficult journey through presidency, where you cannot help but admire his efforts. The museum also has a rotating exhibit that is different every year, as well as an annual exhibit displaying Christmas trees in the winter time.

At the end of your tour, you can also visit the gift shop.

You can see how this would be boring for a child, as it is hard for children to pay attention for long periods of time especially when they do not really understand the history, as well as its significance.

However, there were some aspects that I always liked, and did not take for granted. The Christmas tree display was one of my favorite things to see growing up. The museum would pick a theme, and there would be around 10-15 trees decorated to fit that theme. It was always fun amongst friends to pick which one was our favorite.

The museum also put on a play during holidays, with the actors and actresses being kids just like I was. This was another fun thing to see because I always admired their courage and wished I was brave enough to go up there. Christmas time was about the only time I really enjoyed visiting the museum as a child, even though I should have enjoyed it in every time of the year.

Now that I am older, I can appreciate the museum and its value in my education a lot more.

As I take a walk through the park, I try to picture the town as it once was, back in the 1870’s when Hoover was a child. As I walk down the gravel path (which I assume was once dirt) I can picture it all: Horses tied to their hitching posts that line the street as groups of people filed into the old meeting house for worship; I can see children running out of their one room schoolhouse, where Hoover’s mother served as their teacher; I hear the clanking of metal as I pass the blacksmith shop where Hoover’s father once worked.

As I make my way to the two room family home where Hoover lived (with his parents and two other siblings), I cannot believe how small it is. I glance to the backyard where a garden and outhouse sit and I think about how simple things used to be, how little you could get by with, and I admire it.

Lastly, I walk to the top of a hill where Herbert Hoover and his wife Lou Henry Hoover are buried. I appreciate the planted trees and the beautiful surrounding prairie that the park rangers worked so hard to preserve.

As I reach the top, I can see the whole historic site right before my eyes. I cannot believe that this tiny town that I call home used to be even smaller.

The gravesite consists just of two marble slabs, but underneath so much more. I want to thank Mr. Hoover for his helpfulness in times of trouble, for his efforts in office. I want to thank his wife for being by his side through it all. I want to tell them I am sorry for having once taken this aspect of my town for granted. I want Hoover to know that I am proud of where I am from, and that I now know how fortunate I am to share this characteristic with him, us both having grown up in West Branch, Iowa.

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