Hoover’s Oregon Boyhood
Herbert Hoover was born on August 10, 1874 in West Branch, Iowa to a Quaker family. His father, Jesse Hoover, was a blacksmith and later owned a farm implements store. His mother, Hulda Randall Minthorn Hoover, was born in Canada. Her family moved to West Branch, Iowa when she was 11. She was a school teacher from 1867 until she married in 1870. She and Jesse had three children: Theodore, Herbert, and Mary. Her husband, Jesse, died in 1880. Hulda took in sewing and renters to make ends meet. She saved Jesse’s insurance policy to provide for her children’s education. She also became a Quaker minister and traveled several times a year to attend meetings. On one such trip, she became ill and developed typhoid fever. She died on February 24, 1884.
The three children were separated and sent to live with different relatives. Herbert, known as Bert, lived with his uncle Allen Hoover for part of the time. He also spent several months living with his Uncle Laban Miles on the Osage Indian reservation in Oklahoma. In 1885, Dr. Henry John Minthorn, Bert’s uncle, asked the relatives to send Bert to Oregon where he could attend the Friends Pacific Academy and be a help with chores. Bert took the train across the country, bringing all his belongings and enough food for the trip. His relatives sent him with so much food that he had enough to share with the family that had been asked to look out for him. Bert brought with him a prayer card that his mother gave him before she died. It read: “Leave me not nor forsake me, O God of my salvation. Psalms 27:9. I will never leave thee, nor forsake thee. Hebrews 13:5.” He put the prayer card on the wall in his room in Newberg.
Children who grew up in the nineteenth century were expected to work. Their help was needed. Bert Hoover would have expected to perform chores when he moved to Newberg from Iowa in 1885. Hoover lived with Dr. Henry John Minthorn and his family and attended the Friends Pacific Academy. “During Hoover’s three years in Newberg his uncle boarded, clothed, and educated Bert without charge – evidently making no claim, as others might have done, on Hoover’s Iowa inheritance,” stated his biographer George Nash. When Bert attended Pacific Academy, tuition was $110 per year. As a family member of the superintendent, Hoover may have received a waiver, but the Minthorns did expect Hoover to contribute to the family by working while he lived with them.
Making Pear Butter for Aunt Laura
Hoover remembered arriving in Newberg:
“When I arrived at Newberg, Aunt Laura Minthorn and her … daughters … were making pear-butter … in a wash-boiler over a fire in the yard. I had never eaten a pear before. I was asked to stir the butter and urged to eat as many pears as I liked. I liked them. But after two days of an almost exclusively pear diet I did not eat pears again for years.”
As a boy, Hoover felt the tension between work and play: “I was at once put to school and the chores. These included feeding the doctor’s team of ponies twice a day, hitching them up periodically, milking the cow and splitting the wood. All this routine, plus the abundant religious occasions, somewhat interrupted the constant call for exploration of the Oregon forests and streams.”
Some tasks that Hoover were given were very hard work:
“As time went on I was introduced to harder tasks. … At odd times the doctor would get a fir tree down – sometimes four feet in diameter. My job was to help burn it up. This was done by boring two holes in the stump of the logs at such angles that they would meet at about a foot deep. Into the top hole we pushed burning charcoal and by blowing into the lower hole would start an internal fire. It was sport the first few times. Grubbing stumps seemed interminable. Every night after school and all day Saturdays I had to bore holes in stumps [prior to burning them] …I came to look upon a fir tree as a public enemy.”
During vacations from school, Bert found work on the surrounding farms. Sometimes, he found work among Quaker families whom he knew. On at least one occasion, he found a job over five miles from the Minthorn’s house in Newberg. He put in long hours and found room and board close to the fields where he was working.
About six miles north of the Hoover-Minthorn House Museum is an area called Middleton where a Quaker family was living in 1887. As an old man, Alva Cook, who lived in Middleton and knew Bert as a boy, remembered weeding onions with him:
“My father and I leased a piece of beaver dam land near Sherwood, Oregon and tried to get rich raising onions. Father furnished the brains and I was to do the work. We were getting along pretty well, but the weeds were also prospering and were just about to get the best of me when Bert Hoover came riding up on a calico pony and asked if we needed any help. I told him yes, that the weeds were getting the best of me but that we hadn’t much money and could not pay big wages. Well, he replied, I just must make some money during my vacation and this is work that I can do, not being old enough to cut cord wood, so we agreed on a wage of 50 cents a day and board.
“We would put leather pads on our knees to keep the dampness out and, crawling on our hands and knees all day up and down the rows, we would strip out the weeds and take turns at whistling and singing. We were only boys and I think we were as happy as any boys could be.”
They worked about ten hours a day. Alva remembered that their food and sleeping accommodations were rough. Bert remembered it as lucrative for the time: “The job lasted about two months and I returned with some $30. It was a great sum and I kept it or part of it for a long time.”
Hoover’s brother Theodore, called Tad, came to Newberg from Iowa in 1887. Bert and Tad drove the livestock to Salem when the Minthorns moved in 1888. They probably crossed the Willamette River at the Gearin Ferry, southeast of Rogers Landing, about 2.7 miles from the Minthorn’s house. From the east side of the river, they walked the horses and cows about 25 miles further to Salem.
It has been reported that Bert spent one vacation picking potato bugs off plants on the east side of the Willamette River for 20 cents a day. If so, it would not have been the first time that he killed potato bugs. Fred Lockley, who knew Hoover as a youth in Iowa, reported that he remembered that Bert worked to kill potato bugs at the rate of one cent per hundred. A sign at the west side site of the ferry landing memorializes similar work that Hoover may have done outside of Newberg.
An Office Boy in Salem
When Hoover was 14 and living in Salem, Dr. Minthorn started a land settlement business with several other Quakers. They included Ben Cook (Alva Cook’s father) and Charles Moore, among others.
“I was offered the distinguished position of office-boy. …Sometimes I slept in the back office after night school. … The bookkeeper of the firm used some of my odd time and in return I received early instruction in bookkeeping. …With the aid of [Miss Louise Heulat] the stenographer, I learned to use a typewriter fairly well.”
Miss Heulat, later Mrs. Bickford, remembered that Bert’s help was invaluable to the business: “Bert was a wonder at remembering the contents of letters and where they were filed. … He helped in mailing out thousands of circulars, made frequent trips to the Portland office to help straighten out mail, and even sold land.”
Despite distaste for horses, Bert took care of the stable and drove potential customers in buggies to lots that were for sale. His salary started at $15 to $20 a month, but by 1890, he was earning $35 a month. “For all the vicissitudes of his boyhood and adolescence, one suspects that Bert was happier now,” biographer Nash concluded. His efficiency must have impressed the owners because Charles Moore and Mrs. Louise Heulat Bickford, as well as Bill Hindricks, the reporter for the Oregon Statesman, later formed the committee that launched the Oregon campaign for Hoover’s candidacy for President of the United States.
Off to Stanford and the World
While Bert was living in Salem, he decided to become a mining engineer. In 1891, he entered the first class at Stanford University where he majored in Geology. By 1914, he had acquired sufficient wealth so that he stopped working. At the outbreak of World War I, he assisted Americans to return to the United States. He engaged in an enormous humanitarian effort through the Commission for Relief of Belgians which led to his appointment as Food Administrator, then Secretary of Commerce. In 1928, Hoover was elected the 31st president of the United States.
“Mr. Hoover was ‘Bert’ to all of us then and can never be anything else. I have watched his career ever since and it seems that it has been just one big job after another that has been piled on him, but he has been equal to every one and now that he is being called to the largest of all I am confident that he will be as equally successful in handling the presidency of the United States.” — Alva Cook
However, Hoover’s failure to rescue America from The Great Depression led to his defeat for a second term and a loss of popularity. In 1947, President Harry Truman called on Hoover to reorganize the executive branch of the government. He wrote over forty books and was still working in 1964 when he died at the age of ninety.
Oregon provided the environment to solidify Hoover’s Quaker values and deep work ethic. Hoover is the only president to have spent his boyhood in Oregon.
The Children’s Charter
Hoover was a firm believer in children’s rights. When he was president, he called a White House Conference on Child Health and Protection that adopted The Children’s Charter. One of the provisions addressed child labor:
“For every child protection against labor that stunts growth, either physical or mental, that limits education, that deprives children of the right of comradeship, of play, and of joy.”
The Charter provided, in addition, basic rights that should be the birthright of all children. The Charter caused a stir and increased awareness of children’s conditions. However, the rights were not put into wide effect even though renewed interest in the provisions has arisen from time to time.
“Remembering Herbert Hoover”
Excerpts from: “Remembering Herbert Hoover,” by David Shipley, published in the New York Times, August 10, 1992.
“According to Richard Norton Smith, director of the Hoover Presidential Library, “‘Herbert Hoover saved more lives through his various relief efforts than all the dictators of the 20th century together could snuff out. Seventy years before politicians discovered children, he founded the American Child Health Association. The problem is Hoover defies easy labeling. How can you categorize a ‘rugged individualist’ who once said, ‘The trouble with capitalism is capitalists; they’re too … greedy.’
“Bradley D. Nash was Hoover’s special assistant from 1927 to 1929, when the Iowan was Secretary of Commerce under Calvin Coolidge. For Mr. Nash, the Reconstruction Finance Corporation, an agency created in 1932 to save the banking system, was Hoover’s greatest triumph as President.
“Loans offered under the program made possible public works projects around the country, including Jones Beach and Manhattan’s Knickerbocker Village, the country’s first federally supported housing project.”
- Herbert Hoover, The Memoirs of Hebert Hoover: Years of Adventure 1874-1920 (New York: MacMillan, 1951).
- George H. Nash, The Life of Herbert Hoover, Volume 1: The Engineer, 1874-1914 (New York: W. W. Norton & Company, 1983).
- David Shipley, “Remembering Herbert Hoover,” New York Times, August 10, 1992.
- Papers in the Hoover-Minthorn House Museum Archive.