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Salem: Hooverville

From downcast orphan teenager in Salem, Oregon to President of the United States, Herbert Hoover embodies the American “rags-to-riches” story. Hoover would rise to be at the forefront of the early 20th Century global mining industry, lead the food relief effort in Belgium after the Great War, would be Secretary of Commerce under President Harding and Coolidge, would be president during the Great Depression and would be a vocal opponent against Franklin Roosevelt. “It is so stunning to me how much he packed into his ninety years. There’s so much to talk about with Hoover,” said Kenneth Whyte, Hoover’s biographer.

Born in 1874, Hoover experienced the death of his parents as a young child and was forced to leave his home in West Branch, Iowa. After being bounced between relatives, he eventually ended up living with his uncle, Dr. John Minthorn in 1885. Minthorn was settling the burdening Quaker village of Newberg, Oregon. “Oregon lives in my mind for its gleaming wheat fields, its abundant fruit, its luxuriant forest vegetation and the fish in its mountain streams,” wrote Hoover about Oregon in his biography.

A photograph of Hoover as a teenager. Date unknown
Image courtesy of Willamette Heritage Center 2007.001.0677

“[Dr. Minthorn] was not from here originally; he came here from West Branch, Iowa and he was the brother of Herbert Hoover’s mother,” said Suzanne Brown, a tour guide at Hoover Minthorn House Museum in Newberg. Minthorn was a Quaker, a Civil War veteran, missionary and entrepreneur. By the time Hoover was fourteen in 1888, Minthorn moved the family to Salem to be president of the Oregon Land Company, a business that would peddle fruit orchards to white settlers.

Hoover started working with his uncle in Salem as an office boy on the corner of Chemeketa and Commercial in downtown Salem. Hoover was known to bicycle around Salem, running errands and for pleasure and newspapers prominently displayed advertisements for the Oregon Land Company written by Hoover urging people to buy in the Salem area “Grass grows all winter!”

Oregon Land Company in Downtown Salem
Image courtesy of Willamette Heritage Center 0082.002.0022.032

Hoover was like a specter at the Oregon Land Company. He was quite meek and sometimes was so quiet that he would accidentally sneak up on and surprise employees. Hoover’s future entrepreneurial mind, which would help run the country, took growth in these early experiences. Hoover’s advertisements drew in a steady flow of land buyers, and occasionally rival companies would snag them. Hoover took to waiting at the Salem train station to get them before his rivals could. Among other pursuits, Hoover would attempt to repair and sell discarded typewriters, experimenting with preserving local fruits, took local business courses and befriended Jenny Grey, a relationship that would prove pivotal in his life.

“At Salem, a blessing came my way in the place of a lady of real understanding: Miss Jenny Grey,” wrote Hoover in his autobiography, “She took me to the small library in the town and borrowed for me a copy of Ivanhoe.” This simple gesture would lead to a lifelong love of reading, often at the cost of sleep. Hoover would start taking Sunday school lessons hosted by Grey. Hoover often took to visiting her house for private lessons, and she would become a prominent influence in the young teenager’s life.

Hoover lived in northeast Salem, the house that Hoover lived in Salem no longer exists. Minthorn built the house and it used to be on the corner of Hazel and Highland. The house that they lived in Newberg still exists. It functions as The Hoover Minthorn House Museum. A giant-sized pear tree sits outside the museum. “When he came here, his aunt was making pear butter and she was literally making it from this pear tree,” said Brown. Hoover had never had a pear before and his aunt said that he could have as many as he would like. “He overeats on pears and next thing you know…Hoover said it took him decades to eat pears again,” said Brown

“At one point when he is living in Salem, there comes a recruiter and the recruiter is actively recruiting students for a new university called Stanford University,” Brown said. Hoover would, after failing the math and English entry exam, leave Salem to study at Stanford in California on condition that he improved on geology. “He was the very first student to move into Stanford dormitory,” Whyte said. After this brief, yet formative time in Salem, Hoover wouldn’t return until after his presidency.  

Herbert Hoover visiting Salem in 1955
Image courtesy of Willamette Heritage Center 1998.012.0052

Not every city can claim to have nurtured a U.S. president, and while Oregon does not have a president who was born on its soil, Herbert Hoover is the closest thing our city and state has. Hoover only spent three years in Salem, but these years helped develop the man who would lead the United States during the Great Depression. Hoover’s legacy is mixed in the collective consciousness, but one could argue he is the most prominent Salemite the city has ever seen.

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