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Touring Iowa's presidential history

Campaign buttons and photographs are on display at the Herbert Hoover Presidential Library and Museum in West Branch, honoring the life of the 31st president.
Campaign buttons and photographs are on display at the Herbert Hoover Presidential Library and Museum in West Branch, honoring the life of the 31st president.

Every four years, Americans of all walks of life are able to participate in elections that determine who the next president of the United States will be.  

Iowans also have an interesting front-row seat every four years, given the visible role the state’s caucuses play in presidential elections.  The State Historical Museum of Iowa in Des Moines is currently featuring an exhibit highlighting Iowa’s first-in-the-nation status, where visitors can get a look at the many different things candidates must go through as a part of this unique process.  

Entitled “First in the Nation: Shaping Presidential Politics Since 1972,” the exhibit recently received a Leadership in History Award from the American Association for State and Local History and will be on display through the rest of this year.

The Iowa Caucuses are certainly a timely, present-day connection to presidential elections. However, there are a number of other interesting places around the state where you can learn about Iowa’s historical ties to the highest elected office in the United States.

Herbert Hoover was the first president born west of the Mississippi River and so far is the only native Iowan elected president of United States. This is why visiting the Herbert Hoover Presidential Library and Museum and the Herbert Hoover National Historic Site in West Branch is the best place to learn about the life and accomplishments of our nation’s 31st president.

Hoover was born in West Branch and lived there until he was 10 years old. Visitors to the national historic site, operated by the National Park Service, can tour his modest, two-room birthplace home, as well as the Quaker Meeting House his family attended and a reconstructed version of his father’s blacksmith shop. The gravesites of Hoover and his wife, Lou, are also located onsite. All of these attractions are adjacent to the library-museum building, which is one of 13 similar facilities operated around the country by the National Archives and Records Administration.     

“The Herbert Hoover Presidential Library-Museum is located be­­tween the birthplace and the gravesite, so visitors can get the full story of Hoover’s life and times, from cradle to grave,” says Thomas Schwartz, the museum’s director.  “The museum has permanent galleries that provide a detailed overview of the lives of Herbert and Lou Hoover, while the library contains Hoover’s personal and presidential papers, as well as those of his wife, staff and other professional and professional associates.”

An Iowan who held the office of vice president is Henry A. Wallace.Born on a farm near Orient, Wallace lived in a number of Iowa communities while growing up, but his family is well represented in the annals of history. His grandfather, Henry B. “Uncle Henry” Wallace, founded Wallaces Farmer magazine, which is still in production today.

In keeping with family tradition, Henry A. Wallace was the editor of Wallaces Farmer, but also served as U.S. secretary of agriculture, U.S. secretary of commerce and founded Pioneer Hi-Bred International (now called DuPont Pioneer).

To learn more about the life and accomplishments of Henry A. Wallace and other Wallace family members, take time to visit the Henry A. Wallace Country Life Center near Orient, or the Wallace House, which is located in Des Moines’ historic Sherman Hills Neighborhood.  

“At the farm, people experience Henry A. Wallace’s legacy by an interaction with the land, the food grown there and the historic space that marked his humble beginnings.  At the Wallace House, there are more artifacts, photographs and papers to see and read. So each place offers its own unique experience with history,” explains Diane Weiland, CEO and program developer for the Wallace Centers of Iowa.

There is also something to to be said about the spouses of those elected to the highest offices.  Given this, Iowa boasts some interesting First Lady connections, like Mamie Doud Eisenhower, who was the wife of Dwight D. Eisenhower, the 34th president of the United States.

Mamie Geneva Doud was born in Boone in 1896, thus making her the second First Lady born west of the Mississippi River and the last one to be born in the nineteenth century.

Mamie only lived in Boone for a short while because her father was in the meat-packing business and was dispatched to a number of different communities during her childhood. However, some of her family remained in Boone, so it was a place she visited frequently during her lifetime.

Today, visitors to the Mamie Doud Eisenhower Birthplace can get a glimpse of her early life thanks to a nicely restored home filled with period furnishings and family items, including the bed in which Mamie was born and a set of chairs Mamie and Dwight received as a wedding gift in 1916. Museum displays in the basement also offer a good overview of Mamie’s life, including information about her role as First Lady.  

Enjoy exploring Iowa’s presidential attractions . . . and don’t forget to vote!

Yontz is a freelance writer from Urbandale.