For my family and me, moving to Iowa in 2012 was, in many respects, like moving to a new country. Shoveling snow, combating gnats, and acquiring snow pants were all new to us. Over the past three years my quest to better understand Iowa and its people has led me to regularly pack up my children on family field trips to experience the sweet corn, the festivals, and the historical sites near our Iowa City home. This is how I ended up taking my four children (ages 9, 7, 4 and 20 months) on repeated visits to the Herbert Hoover Presidential Library & Museum and the Herbert Hoover National Historic Site. It was here that I discovered “Iowa Nice.”
If the words “children” plus “museum” fill your parental heart with dread, here’s the most basic pro tip:
If you need a free, outdoor adventure, go to the Herbert Hoover National Historic Site.
If you need a low-cost, indoor activity, visit the Herbert Hoover Presidential Library & Museum.
The Herbert Hoover Presidential Library & Museum is situated in the middle of the Herbert Hoover National Historic Site and the only difference between the two is which parking lot you use. Both locations are only closed three days a year – Thanksgiving, Christmas and New Years Day – which makes them the perfect place to go when everything else is closed.
Herbert Hoover National Historic Site:
On beautiful days, I recommend starting with the Hoover National Historic Site Visitors Center. The site has a 12-minute biographical video of Herbert Hoover, and the Park Ranger on site has a great Junior Ranger activity book with a scavenger hunt and other activities available that is great for engaging a school-age child. The grounds include Hoover’s birthplace cottage, a Quaker meeting house, a schoolhouse, a blacksmith shop with a friendly and informative blacksmith toiling away, and Hoover’s gravesite. Once your child has completed a certain number of Junior Ranger activities (the number required is based on age), he or she will receive a Junior Ranger badge after the Park Ranger administers the Junior Ranger Pledge (those Park Rangers do not mess around).
My kids enjoyed comparing Hoover’s early childhood home with their own (“Where’s the bathroom?,” “Where’s the TV?,” “What do you mean he was born in the house?”). For me, walking the grounds was the first time I truly appreciated the beauty of the Iowa landscape. It was my first experience with windswept prairie grasses – the Park Rangers offer guided snowshoeing in the winter and prairie walks in warmer weather.
The Herbert Hoover Historic Site is great for kids of all ages with energy to burn. There are benches scattered around the grounds that nursing mothers can use, and a large covered picnic area if you bring a lunch. West Branch’s Main Street is not far away, so you can walk a couple of blocks for a cup of hot coffee or cold lemonade at Reid’s Beans Coffee Shoppe Café.
Herbert Hoover Presidential Library & Museum:
My first trip to the Herbert Hoover Presidential Library & Museum was on a day when the kids were out of school on spring break and the wind chill was -3°, which made indoor activities a must. Herbert Hoover had a long, diverse career beyond being president, so if your child is even moderately interested in geology, World War I or II history, crisis relief, Girl Scouts, Boys Club, presidential history, or economic policy, he or she will find something to enjoy and comment on. In the museum’s permanent exhibit, my fourth and second graders were most fascinated by trying to figure out what a typewriter, washing machine, and a dress made from a flour sack were.
Hoover was instrumental in six major humanitarian crises during his life – perhaps he is most famous for organizing food relief for the entire nation of Belgium during World War I. Because of this, many of the themes of the displays, such as starvation and war, are quite mature. As a parent to privileged children whose greatest deprivation is not owning their own iPhone, seeing a child’s dress made out of a flour sack and watching parts of a video of Belgian people describing their hunger before food relief … honestly didn’t seem to phase them. At least it made me feel more grateful.
The small section of the museum dedicated to Lou Henry Hoover, Herbert Hoover’s wife also touched me. When she died, it was discovered she had a sizable stash of un-cashed checks from people trying to pay her back for small loans she’d given over the years. A native of Waterloo, Iowa, Lou Hoover was a national president of the Girl Scouts, conversant in Mandarin, and met Herbert Hoover when she was the only female geology student at Stanford.
I found the staff at the museum to be very accommodating to parents and children. On one visit when we were the only people at the museum, the staff offered us a private showing of their 20-minute video biography outside the typical schedule so we wouldn’t have to wait. Another time, I bought a Presidential Library Passport (a small, $5 booklet for collecting stamps from other presidential libraries) and accidentally left it on top of the coat rack when I left, probably because I was a little frazzled from wrangling everyone back into their winter gear. A few months later, I popped back into the museum gift shop to buy another passport and mentioned I had left the first one behind earlier in the year.
“What is your name? I think we still have it!” said the clerk.
I was shocked when she handed me my lost item in the original gift bag with my name at the top and a note about how I had been interested in the Museum’s Laura Ingalls Wilder collection.
Regular special events like Kites Over Hoover Park and temporary exhibits that change three times a year make the Hoover Library & Museum and Hoover National Historic Site worth repeat visits. On our most recent family adventure to the museum, I bribed my kids with promises of a McDonald’s lunch at the West Branch McDonald’s on the I-80 exit if they could manage “WALKING FEET” and “INSIDE VOICES” in the museum. My vague feelings of Mommy Failure evaporated when I walked in the door of McDonald’s and discovered it, too, was a tribute to Herbert Hoover. It was the kind of McDonald’s full of local West Branch folks enjoying a leisurely cup of coffee and observant enough to kindly point the way to the high chairs. A McDonald’s employee sweetly wiped out non-existent crumbs from the high chair and wordlessly brought a fifth chair to our table so I didn’t have to eat yet another lunch standing up.
Herbert Hoover’s humanitarianism, Lou Hoover’s quiet generosity, a museum employee’s thoughtfulness, and a McDonald’s employee’s kindness were my first illustrations of what it is to be “Iowa Nice.” It’s what keeps me bringing my Iowa-transplant kids back to West Branch time after time in hopes that ethos will rub off on them. And me as well.
What to Know Before You Go:
School-age children on up through adult, plus some mature preschoolers
- Changing tables in both museum bathrooms
- No food on site except for special events
- Herbert Hoover National Historic Site: Free
- Herbert Hoover Presidential Library & Museum:
Ages 5 and under – free
Ages 6-15 – $3
Ages 16-61 – $10,
Ages 62+, military, and college students – $5,
9 a.m. to 5 p.m., 7 days a week
Thanksgiving, Christmas, and New Years Day
West Branch is a small town of about 2200 located 10 miles east of Iowa City on Interstate 80. The Library and Historic Site are immediately north of Exit 254.
210 Parkside Drive
West Branch, Iowa 52358 (Open in Google Maps)
Special thanks to our Guest Blogger, Rebekah Tilley.
About Rebekah: Rebekah Tilley is a higher education freelance writer and coauthor of four children with husband Michael. She enjoys scavenging Artifact and ReStore for midcentury decor, building LEGOs with her kids, and is currently obsessed with the Hamilton: The Musical soundtrack. She tweets at @rebekah_tilley.