Lou Hoover: Iowa’s remarkable first lady

by Jessica Lowe

Each year, thousands of Iowa school children get on busses and head to West Branch, in eastern Iowa, to learn about the state’s only president, Herbert Hoover.

Born in West Branch, Iowa, in 1874, Hoover went on to be elected president of the United States of America in 1928. But when visiting the Hoover Presidential Museum, visitors will not only learn about the first president born west of the Mississippi River, they’ll also learn about the extraordinary woman who stood by his side – his wife, Lou Henry Hoover.

Lou Henry also hailed from Iowa and led a remarkable life, one full of adventure and accomplishments, before and after meeting Herbert Hoover. Born in Waterloo on March 29, 1874, to Charles and Florence Henry, Lou was the older of two children. After the future first lady lived in Waterloo for nearly five years, her father moved the family across the country to Texas in 1879 looking for work. He soon returned to Waterloo, where his children would attend school for nearly seven years.

While growing up, Lou Henry attended kindergarten in Waterloo and then elementary school at Intermittent Public Grammar School from 1882-1887. She loved the outdoors and was something of a tomboy, engaging in various sports, learning to ride a horse and often camping out with her father. The family continued to move around as Charles sought his fortune in the banking business, finally settling in California.

Lou graduated from high school in Los Angeles and enrolled at the prestigious Stanford University, graduating with a Bachelor of Arts degree in geology – the first woman to receive such a degree from the college. She received a teaching certificate and planned to follow in her mother’s footsteps.

Not only did Lou receive her B.A. from Stanford she also managed to get her Mrs. degree. She met her future husband, Herbert Hoover, during her freshman year at the college. The two shared not only Iowa roots but a deep love of geology and fishing and began a relationship that would carry them to the highest levels of success.

When Hoover left the country to become a professional geologist and, soon, a millionaire, he sent his love a telegram from Australia asking Lou to marry him. She responded by cable with a “yes”; the union would last more than 44 years and produce two sons – Herbert Charles Hoover (1903-1969) and Allan Henry Hoover (1907-1993).

Just one day after the Hoovers tied the knot at her parent’s home in Monterey, California, on February 10, 1899, they left for his new job in China. His work took Herbert into the remote areas of a dangerous land, and soon the infamous Boxer Rebellion broke out, throwing the country into turmoil. Lou exhibited tremendous courage during the time, offering assistance to other Americans whenever possible, learning the Chinese language and even carrying a pistol for protection.

They stayed in China little over a year but it was the beginning of the pair traveling the world for Herbert’s work in the mining industry. They journeyed across Europe, India, Egypt, Australia, New Zealand, Russia, Siberia, Ceylon, Burma and Japan. During their travels, the Hoovers learned much about the world and the issues that were affecting people of all nationalities. The Hoovers would become famous for their relief work.