Herbert Hoover, Oregon, Newberg, Belgian relief 

Herbert Hoover, the president best known for breadlines, unemployment and hungry times, actually fed and saved from starvation more people than anyone, anywhere, in the history of the world. about Herbert Hoover | Hoover in Oregon | The Cookie | about me | back to finnjohn.com


Herbert Hoover's tracks in Oregon

The architect of Belgian relief grew up in the Willamette Valley before leaving for Stanford. These are my travels in search of the mark "The Chief" left on the state, as a teenager.

The Hoover paradox first came to my attention in early 2009. I’d started a weekly newspaper column, “Offbeat Oregon History,” and was hunting for little-known historical topics to write about. In one of William Sullivan’s books, I ran across a reference to Hoover as a “mining engineer from Newburg.”

"Aw, why'd it have to be Hoover?"

I was intrigued. I was also disappointed. Any president was better than none, but why couldn’t Oregon have been home to a more interesting president? Like one of the Roosevelts, or maybe Truman, or even Nixon?

My reaction, I later learned, was a very common one. Common, and dead wrong.
As I dug further into the available history of Hoover, I learned that he did indeed grow up in the Willamette Valley, having arrived at age 11 and left at age 17 – all this in the late 1880s and early 1890s. I also learned about what he did after he left: Made a giant pile as a mining engineer, then threw his career over when World War I broke out so he could engineer an organization to feed the entire nation of Belgium. That’s 7.5 million hungry people, who would have starved to death otherwise. He spent the first three years of the war defending the program from hard-core military strategists in Britain, who thought a starving population just behind enemy lines would be a big advantage, and from others in Germany, who thought it unfair that Belgians should be fed while they were running short. The general consensus was that no one else alive at the time had the combination of strength, stubbornness and flexibility to do this.

All this was long before anyone even knew Hoover was a Republican. In fact, he was one of the most influential members of Democrat Woodrow Wilson’s cabinet after the U.S. joined the war effort.

I quickly realized that Oregon should be very proud of its adopted-native son. I also found myself wanting to know more. So I set out to find the traces of Hoover’s brief presence in my state.

Hoover at Thompson's Flour Mill, in Shedd, Ore., 1891

My first field excursion was to the Thompson’s Flour Mill in Shedd. This was easy – the place is just a dozen miles up the Calapooia River from my house. I had heard that Hoover had something to do with it, back in the 1890s.

The mill is a very old building straddling the Calapooia River, between Shedd and Interstate 5. It’s painted white, and looks like a small grain elevator. It was taken out of service in 2002, and is now a state park.

Curt Browning is the caretaker there – a lean fellow just getting into his retirement years, sandy-blond haired, mustached and cheerful, sporting a set of olive-green Dickies coveralls with an Oregon Parks Department patch on the shoulder. He and his wife live in the medium-sized fifth-wheel parked nearby, but on this, his sixth year at the mill, the parks service is letting him stay in the mill operator’s house.

Browning took me immediately to a document hanging on the wall. “It’s a very limited association, and they probably didn’t even introduce themselves to each other,” he told me, by way of a disclaimer, before going on to explain that when Martin and Sophia Thompson bought a 50-percent share in the mil in 1891, the transaction was handled by Oregon Land Co., out of Salem – and one of the witnesses who signed the sales agreement was Oregon Land Co.’s office-boy-slash-carriage-driver, young Bert Hoover.

The mill’s only other connection to Hoover came after World War I started, when it was operating 24-seven grinding flour to feed Belgium and, later, most of eastern Europe. It switched to making animal feed after World War II.

So now I knew Hoover had been in Salem. I planned a visit to the Marion County Historical Society to learn more about what he did there.

Hoover in Salem

The Marion County Historical Museum is headquartered in a modest building to one side of another 1800s-vintage water-powered mill – this one the Mission Mill, where clothing was manufactured. Here, I met Kathleen Schulte, a highly poised woman with snow-white hair, somewhere in her mid- to late-40s. She guided me to a set of vertical files, painstakingly put together in filing cabinets years before, and while I was exploring them she found a couple published articles for me. Hoover had returned to visit Oregon, I saw, after his presidency. I wondered what he’d thought of the changes there. But then, this man’s life straddled so much of the Industrial Revolution – born just after the transatlantic cables, he’d gone from horses and wagons to cars from the golden age of American auto design, from a 400-square-foot frontier cottage to the White House. I bet nothing could surprise him.

Of all the places he lived, Hoover seems to have left the smallest mark on Salem. His former Oregon Land Co. office is now part of the Union Gospel Mission downtown. The house he lived in has been remodeled to unrecognizability and is still a private residence, occupied by someone who likely doesn’t even know it’s a former president’s residence. Even the Quaker meetinghouse he attended is gone – it was torn down and replaced with a bigger building in the 1920s, which today is no longer a Quaker church.

But he did leave a mark in Salem – on the former director of the Historical Society there, Kyle Jansson.

Jansson now works for the Oregon Heritage Commission. I called him up to see if he might be up for a cup of coffee and a Hoover talk. Oddly enough, he was in Eugene at the time, so he met up with me in the little café in the basement of the Knight Library on the University of Oregon campus.

Kyle Jansson on Hoover

I arrived early and settled in with a giant cup of caustic brown liquid – they make their coffee strong there, the better to prop bleary-eyed undergraduates up for their all-night exam crammings. I sipped at it tentatively and watched the door. Presently a scholarly looking sixty-something man in a maroon shirt, with biggish plastic-rimmed glasses and  wispy white hair, came through it.

Jansson is the kind of man who sits there and smiles at you when he doesn’t have anything immediately to say. This is a bit disconcerting, and probably makes a great questioning technique for Jansson, a former newspaper reporter; it builds pressure to fill the silence by talking about something, and yet the smile makes the process friendly.

Jansson is also an unabashed Hoover fan. By this time, I was starting to think that in order to think ill of Herbert Hoover, one must know almost nothing about him. (I was disabused of this impression later; Hoover had, and has, plenty of enemies who know all about his early lifesaving work.) Like me, Jansson grew up in a strongly Democratic, pro-Roosevelt family, in which Hoover was chiefly known as the top enemy of the New Deal.

“I got past the political curtain and really got to know him based on the stories,” Jansson told me. “He was a bright, caring man – who did not know how to deal with large groups.”

Jansson compared Hoover to Bill Gates – a man who came up from almost nothing and had a huge fortune by age 40, then turned around and used that position of security as a base from which to make the world a better place.

Most of the information about Hoover’s time in Salem, Jansson said, centers around work. Hoover at the time was working tirelessly, trying to make something of himself so he could stop being dependent on others.

“Sometimes he went to class at business school at night and slept at the office,” he said. “Sounds like a kid with his nose to the grindstone. Even his friends say he was a serious dude.”

At the end of our meeting, Jansson made one other observation – a personal one. The office of the Oregon Land Co. was in a building that today houses the Salem Mission – an organization that gives the desperate and the down-and-out a place of refuge and a source of food.

“It seems appropriate,” he said. “I think Hoover would have approved.”

The Hoover-Minthorn House, in Newburg

My next outing was a bit farther afield, and a bit deeper into the past. It was a trip to Newburg to visit the Hoover-Minthorn House, where Hoover lived when he first came out west from Iowa.

This house is a large two-story job near downtown Newburg. It’s sided with vertical-drop shiplap and has a fairly steep roof pitch, a lush and manicured yard and a white picket fence. Across the street is a city park named after the ex-president, consisting of a canyon of sorts with a creek running through the bottom. A playground full of complicated equipment – stuff that rotates on bearings, bobs on springs and slides on rails, to the delight of the little ones – is at the top, by the road. I couldn’t help thinking Hoover, the engineer, would approve of this high-tech approach to entertaining children.

In the house, I met a man in his 60s, medium height, trim and alert. He was wearing oval wire-framed glasses and one of those plaid shirts with a simple strip collar, buttoned all the way to the top, with a vest; he looked, for all the world, like a prosperous shopkeeper from the 1920s. An Irish flag lapel pin proclaimed not his heritage, but his hobby: He was a fiddle player in an Irish-music band.

He introduced himself as Gordon Hall, and immediately started in apologizing: Throughout the month of May, the whole house was taken over by a quilt show organized by his wife, who was the curator of the museum.

Hall is another late convert to Hoover appreciation: “I was a history buff, but not Hoover – Civil War, Revolutionary War,” he told me. “I learned on the job.”

Hall told me he believes, based on what he knows of both men, that when Hoover came to Oregon he found Minthorn to be a bit of a shock.

“I suspect that after his mother died, Hoover managed to kind of disappear,” he said. “He was not pushed … Letters from that time that mention him call him ‘Poor little Bertie.’”

By contrast, once in Oregon, Hall thinks Hoover found in his uncle John something of a slave driver and a personality that a later generation would call “classic Type A.” Hoover seems not to have enjoyed it very much – it’s well known that his relationship with Minthorn was characterized more by respect than by affection – but Hall thinks it gave him the motivation to do whatever he could to earn a ticket out of town, a quest that was crowned with success when he earned a place in the pioneer class at Stanford University.

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IMAGE SOURCES: Illustration used in page header is from a thank-you letter from a Belgian child. It's from the Herbert Hoover Presidential Library in West Branch, Iowa. The picket fence used in the footer is in front of the Hoover-Minthorn House in Newburg, Ore.
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