From Waterloo to Whittier to the White House: First Lady Lou Henry Hoover in “TIME” Magazine, May 1929

by Paul R. Spitzzeri

Few presidents came to office with as storied a public service pedigree as Herbert C. Hoover (1874-1964) did when he became the nation’s chief executive in March 1929. Prior to winning election the previous fall, he was the Secretary of Commerce under presidents Warren G. Harding and Calvin Coolidge and with the economy roaring during the Roaring Twenties, there was every expectation that his long experience in that department would serve the country well.

During the First World War, even though he was a Republican, President Woodrow Wilson appointed him the head of the U.S. Food Administration to ration supplies needed for the war effort as well as to provide food for American allies. This was followed by a postwar stint overseeing European relief efforts, which burnished Hoover’s administrative credentials.

So, with the G.O.P. utterly dominant in national politics during the decade and with his impressive resume, Hoover began his term on a generally high note. As for the First Lady, Lou Henry Hoover (1874-1944) was featured on the cover and profiled in the National Affairs section of the 13 May 1929 issue of TIME, “the weekly newsmagazine,” that was such a prominent publication that securing a cover was quite an honor.

Los Angeles Herald, 10 April 1887.

Like the president, who was from West Branch near Iowa City, the First Lady was a native of the Hawkeye State, being born and raised in Waterloo in Black Hawk County, northeast of Des Moines. While he was a Quaker, she was an Episcopalian and the daughter of Florence Weed and Charles D. Henry, the latter having a background as the operator of a woolen mill and a miner, as well as a bank bookkeeper.

When she was thirteen years old, the Henry family uprooted and headed west because of Florence’s delicate healt involving asthma as well as an opportunity presented by Charles W. Harvey and Moses Ricker, formerly of Waterloo and prominent figures in the establishment of a new “Colony of Quakers” near Los Angeles called Whittier.

It was 1887 and greater Los Angeles was in the throes of the famous Boom of the Eighties with real estate development at a frenzied pace throughout the region. Moreover, there were many “health-seekers” like the Henrys looking hopefully for respite thanks to the salubrious climate of our region.

Herald, 20 November 1887.

The Pickering Land and Water Development Company was formed in April by figures with familiar Whittier names like Bailey, Newlin, Painter and Pickering, along with Hervey Lindley, a prominent Los Angeles-area figure of the time and whose son, Dr. Walter Lindley, was also a notable individual in the region during the late 19th and early 20th century. The company acquired a ranch of over 1,700 acres at the base of and including parts of the Puente Hills (one of its major sales was to Robert Turnbull, namesake of the local canyon) and named its Quaker-identified town after the poet John Greenleaf Whittier.

Charles Henry was brought out to help form the bank of Tillinghast, Henry and Company and, by the end of 1887, the family settled in town, first living with another family and then occupying quarters in the bank building. The 20 November 1887 edition of the Los Angeles Herald included a lengthy article about the new community by a Belle Meade Smith, editor of the paper’s Woman’s Department.

Smith wrote of the trip out through Boyle Heights, past the Chinese cemetery and a nearby brickyard where many Chinese worked and then “on the banks of the San Gabriel river . . . stands the time-honored adobe of Governor Pico, the last governor under Mexican rule, and who is now a well-preserved and intelligent bachelor of 88 [though soon to be swindled out of his property and forced to leave his Ranchito].

Early mention of Lou Henry at a “Spanish-American Fair” at Whittier, Herald, 17 November 1889.

Arriving at Whittier, she noted the home of Jonathan Bailey, there before the establishment of the town, and added that it was around Independence Day that construction began on the first house. In the downtown area, she mentioned stores, a stable, a restaurant, a Chinese laundry “conducted by a smiling celestial, who to all inquiries states that all washing is done on Tuesday.” While a couple dozen families resided in tents as their houses were being built, she added that two hotels “and a substantial brick bank” were in the course of construction.

As to the latter, “over the bank there is a suite of rooms prepared for the occupancy of Mr. Charles Henry and wife [and Lou and her sister Jean]. Mr. Henry will be the most prominent officer in the bank, and Mrs. Henry, who has just arrived from Waterloo, Iowa, and who is a lady of decided culture, will shed a pleasing lustre over the society of Whittier.”

Lou and her sister attended the Bailey Street Elementary School and then whatever high school served the new town and much was late made about the love of the outdoors she shared with her father, including frequent rambles in the Puente Hills.

Whittier Register, 7 April 1892.

Just prior to the TIME piece, a syndicated newspaper article titled “Our New First Lady” provided reminiscenses of a 92-year old early Whittier settler named William P. Briggs, who stated,

When the [Henry] family first came to Whittier, they stopped at my house there being no hotels here then. Later they moved into quarters over the bank that Mr. Henry started, and remained there until they bought a home on what is now South Painter avenue. But there were no real streets then—just paths through the mustard fields, with the mustard in some place[s] so high that a person could hardly see over it . . .

Lou Henry was as accurate with her rifle as with her arithmetic . . . almost every afternoon, gun in hand, they [she and her father] ranged the Puente Hills after game. The daughter was such a good marksman that frequently, I recall, her bag contained more rabbits than her father’s.

Briggs added that the father and daughter would take walks of several miles nearly every day and he made a reference to her taking a physiology class, which obviously referred to whatever high school she attended (Whittier High did not open until 1900). As for Lou’s hunting skills, it was asserted that she put those to good use while she and Herbert were in China during the Boxer Rebellion at the turn of the 20th century just after their 1899 marriage. This led Briggs to remark, “Lou Henry wasn’t raised to quit under fire.”

Whittier News, 18 July 1928.

Speaking of quitting under fire, though, her father’s banking enterprise did not survive as the Boom of the 1880s went bust before the decade was over and, as Whittier’s growth sputtered, stalled and stagnated, the family relocated to Los Angeles. Just prior to their departure, though, Hervey Lindley and other Whittier figures petitioned the state to build its new reform school (later the Fred C. Nelles facility, with the site recently redeveloped) in the town, clearly hoping it would help in the community’s nascent development.

While Charles Henry played a role in the creation of the school, being part of a food committee for the cornerstone dedication event as well as with his institution being the bank of record, an investigation was launched over concerns that there was over-lavish spending and, perhaps, illegalities with the finances.

East Liverpool Ohio Review, 25 February 1929.

In a report, it was noted that Charles sold a team of horses to the trustees, but also charged the state for use of the animals. Moreover, he opened an insurance agency and wrote a policy for one of the buildings, while also serving as a notary public for transactions involving the school. It was not claimed that he did anything wrong, but the Herald thought “these questions [about his involvement] will bear investigation.

By the time the report was published early in 1892, the Henrys were living in the Angel City and Lou was a student at the southern California branch of the state Normal School for teacher education (Mary Julia Workman, grand-niece of Homestead founders William and Nicolasa Workman attended later in the decade), the forerunner of U.C.L.A. and located on a hill overlooking Central Park (now Pershing Square) and where the Central Public Library is today. Hearkening to his earlier career, Charles, in November 1890, formed the Union Mine and Milling Company with partners including Whittier resident Alva Starbuck and which worked a claim near Acton, northeast of Santa Clarita and near Palmdale.

Charles, though, moved to Monterey in northern California where he continued banking with the Bank of Monterey and, while Lou finished out the school year at the Los Angeles Normal School, she transferred to the main branch of that institution at San Jose. In 1894, she enrolled as a geology student at Stanford University, which is where she met the future president. They deferred marriage until she earned her degree and then began the thirty-year road to the highest political office in the land.

As to that TIME article, it was headed “Open Doors” and it referred to the fact that the front doors of the White House, which “for years . . . have been guarded by two tall liveried Negroes,” had, since the Hoovers moved in two months prior, been “swinging to and fro with a brisk new freedom.” This was because tourists, who used to enter and exit through the basement, were able “to issue grandly forth from the main entrance after staring their way through state chambers.” It was added,

The Open Door policy is the most tangible change which Mrs. Hoover has wrought as First Lady, but there are other subtle changes. The atmosphere of the President’s House is larger, more free. Its hospitality is more casual, for-granted.

For example it was noted that at a diplomatic corps reception, at which previous versions meant “guests had filed stiffly past the President and First Lady,” the Hoovers “mingled informally with their guests, passing from group to group.” Not only that, the couple had two small grandchildren to transform the atmosphere, as little Herbert Hoover III, who was all of one-and-a-half, “romped and played and chortled up and down its long upstairs corridor,” scenes not seen since the Theodore Roosevelt years.

This change in attitude, it was stated was “the product of wide education, travel, association with big-calibre people in many lands” while previous first ladies, comprising “a small-town publisher’s wife [Florence Harding] and a small-town lawyer’s wife [Grace Coolidge]” who “have been succeeded by a cosmopolite’s wife.” With regard to Lou Henry Hoover’s local past, all that was said was “when she was still in short dresses, her family moved to Whittier, Calif., opened a a bank, weathered the 1890 slump” and then headed north.

There was mention of the many happy hours spent in outdoor excursions with her father, leading the First Lady to wistfully comment, “those days went by like a dream.” It was also observed that Charles Henry died the past summer as Hoover’s campaign was readying for the Republican National Convention and his nomination. On 18 July 1928, the 84-year old, still hale and hearty into those later years, was camping with his other daughter and fell ill on an Independence Day hike. Even as he suffered a stroke, it was thought he would recover, but he took a turn and passed after two weeks in a sanitarium.

In its obituary, the Whittier News mentioned Henry opening the first bank in town with Lindley, Harvey, Ricker and Donald F. Tillinghast and under the name of Tillinghast, Henry and Company. Notably, it was added that the bank moved in 1891 to Monterey “because the owners felt that Whittier was not ‘deserving of a bank of any kind.” The safe, however, remained and was still at the same site in the quarters of the First National Trust and Savings Bank. It was also stated that the Henrys resided in a home built by the Evans family in the 300 block of South Painter and that the dwelling still stood.

Returning to the TIME article, it reviewed the First Lady’s history, including her studies at Stanford, the fateful meeting with the future president when she was meeting with a geology professor and “Bert” Hoover walked in, and their years in China, Australia and England as well as in Washington. It was asserted that, “during the presidential campaign and after, Mrs. Hoover was of silent, though invaluable, assistance to her husband” and that she was growing into her public role.

The magazine noted

Quiet, gracious, Mrs. Hoover is friendly rather than amiable. She can still do things “just for fun.” In the White House she still knits, makes needlepoint tapestries, decorates the centre of her table with oranges, apples, eggplants and peppers. Her voice, from her well-cut generous mouth, is low, deliberative, devoid of geographical accent. Her conversation is not of the small-talk question-and-answer variety. She has a full mind to draw from and would rather discuss subjects than people.

The artifices of the beauty parlor are not for her. Her hair, prematurely white, never gets crimped. On her clear skin go no cosmetics. She wears little or no jewelry, except a woven silver chain about her neck.

Her costumes are simple—hats small, round, tight-fitting; clothes black, white, grey, dark brown; shoes low-heeled . . .

The lady whose home is now the White House has defined a home as follows: “A place where people who love each other can spend their leisure hours, and a certain number of working hours, happily together.”

Unfortunately, the White House proved to be a very challenging dwelling by that definition, as seven months after the Hoover Administration began the crash of the stock market in New York City ushered in the Great Depression. Generally, the president’s response was seen as predictably conservative as he believed in limited government and the ability of the market to correct itself.

As the situation worsened, however, especially during the 1932 election year and its massive waves of bank failures, Hoover, fairly or not, was blamed for the deteriorating situation and was badly beaten by Democrat Franklin D. Roosevelt, New York’s governor, in the fall campaign, marking the first G.O.P. defeat in sixteen years (it would be another twenty before the Republicans recaptured the White House.)

As was standard with most First Ladies, Lou Henry Hoover generally kept a low profile, though she was the first to give speeches via the radio. She also worked on a presidential retreat, Camp Rapidan in Virginia, later replaced by Camp David. The First Lady also helped organize a school for impoverished children in the Appalachia region, was involved in the Girl Scouts as honorary president during her husband’s term of office, and worked on women’s issues. A month after the TIME article was published, she was attacked for welcoming Jessie DePriest, the wife of a member of the House of Representatives, to a White House tea and three southern states (Florida, Georgia and Texas) voted to censure her.

Just after leaving the White House in spring 1933, Lou Henry Hoover delivered the commencement speech at Whittier College (a young student from Yorba Linda named Richard Nixon later became president) and joined its Board of Trustees shortly afterward. Five years, later an elementary school was opened and named in her honor. She worked with the League of Women Voters, a national nurses association, and continued her deep support of the Girl Scouts. When the former president took up relief efforts for Allied countries in Europe during World War II, the Hoovers moved to a New York City apartment, where she died suddenly of a heart attack in 1944 at age 69.

Lou Henry Hoover’s time in Whittier was short, just a matter of a few years in the Quaker City’s infancy and it ended with her father’s bank failing, but her connection to our area is commemorated through her namesake elementary school and other forms of remembrance. This TIME magazine cover and article are interesting artifacts of the First Lady in the early days of her husband’s term, before the dark days of the Depression descended.

Leave a Reply