Desegregating the Commerce Department


Herbert Hoover, ca 1928.

In 1928, Secretary of Commerce Herbert Hoover took action for the civil rights of African Americans that was both momentous and trivial – he desegregated the Commerce Department.

As his assistant, George Akerson pointed out, the official policy of the Coolidge Administration was that segregation was prohibited in Federal employment.  In reality, an “unwritten rule” had held sway for decades, especially in southern cities like Washington DC, whereby African Americans were relegated to the most menial jobs, and whenever possible, were physically segregated from white employees.

In March 1928, Hoover was approached by a group of prominent African American leaders led by Neval Thomas of the NAACP, with a number of suggestions for how the Commerce Department could assist African American communities.  One issue they raised were complaints of segregation in the Census Bureau, a division of the Commerce Department.  As a Quaker, Hoover believed in the fundamental equality of all people, and was uncomfortable with the racial attitudes of the time.  He immediately requested a full report on the matter.

At that time, there were some 3800 employees in the Department of whom 900 were African American, mostly scattered in low-ranking positions throughout the various divisions.  The report Hoover received explained, “The Bureau of the Census in the course of its work developed a division dealing with statistics, particularly affecting colored people, and in a desire to extend employment to colored members of the staff it placed this division in their control, and naturally the whole division was concentrated in one room.”

Further investigation revealed there were actually two segregated offices in the Census Bureau, totaling 23 employees, both tucked away in a basement.  Hoover ordered that the two offices be broken up;  the employees retained their same jobs, but were given workspaces among the white clerks.

Observers on both sides of the issue saw Hoover’s action as a significant departure from the status quo.  Neval Thomas wrote to Hoover, “The colored people of the country are deeply sensible of the highminded statesmanship you showed in your abolition of the humiliation they suffered in the Census Bureau.”  The Washington Eagle, a black newspaper, commented, “Unlike Ogden Mills, under secretary of the Treasury and Hubert Work, secretary of the Interior Department, Mr. Hoover did not vehemently deny the existence of segregation.  He promised to investigate in a few days, which he did with the result that he quickly abolished the segregated area and the clerks who were jim-crowed were assimilated in the bureau among the other clerks.  What Mr. Hoover has done in his department all of the other Cabinet officer could do were they so minded.  The only difference between them and Mr. Hoover is that he has the necessary backbone to do the right things.”

Southern newspapers and politicians were quick to condemn Hoover.  Senator Cole Blease of South Carolina accused Hoover of issuing the order for political purposes, to attract the vote of African Americans in the upcoming Presidential election in which Hoover was the leading Republican candidate.

Hoover sought to downplay his order as a small matter of simple fairness.  When confronted with the laudatory comments published in the African American press, Hoover demurred, “The articles which you mention are in large degree foolish untruths.  If such action as was taken is against the interest of either the white or colored employees, they have a full right to protest the matter to me.  I have received no complaint from either group.”

Senator H. D. Stephens of Mississippi replied, “”…You may have received ‘no complaint’, but your knowledge of human nature and your sense of decency and propriety must cause you to know that the breasts of many of the employees in the bureau are seething with unuttered protests against the condition that you have brought about…  This criticism is not a political one.  It is made in the interest of decency and of the welfare of the Government.  History can not be trifled with.  Whenever there has been a step toward social equality between the races, dire results have followed, and both races have suffered.”

In the end, Hoover’s action did nothing to change the culture of segregation in Washington, and any good will he gained in the African American community soon evaporated.  In the ensuing Presidential campaign, Hoover’s clumsy efforts to attract Southern whites to the Republican Party were widely interpreted as an attempt to sideline blacks.  Even Neval Thomas became disillusioned with Hoover, and suggested that African American voters might be better off in the Democratic Party.  Hoover’s honest desire for a color-blind political system was no match for the realities of Jim Crow.

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Valentine’s Day Cards

Like many men [thousands? millions?], I approach Valentine’s Day with a measure of trepidation.  The weight of choosing the appropriate card grows heavier each year. Perhaps I’m losing strength to carry on the tradition.   Despite the thousands [millions?] of commercially available options, I struggle to find the card with the words that have the right amount of letters and just the right sound to convey my feelings.

Not for the first time, I wonder: ‘What would Herbert Hoover do?’  The archival record here is mute.  We have no evidence that Hoover ever sent a Valentine card to express his thoughts.  On the other hand, we have four folders of Valentine’s cards sent to Hoover while he was President.  These are in box 145 of the Presidential Papers Personal Files.  They are adorable.  Hundreds of Americans, primarily children, felt no compunction in sending cards to the President asking that he be their Valentine.  While we do not know whether these cards comprise the entirety of Valentines sent to Hoover, we do know that all cards in the collection earned a response from Hoover’s secretaries.

A valentine sent to Herbert Hoover, from the archival collection at the Hoover Library.

A valentine sent to Herbert Hoover, from the archival collection at the Hoover Library.

The Valentines sent to President Hoover were varied.  They included home-made cards accompanied by explanatory letters, commercial cards wreaking havoc on the language with tortured puns [fishing being a recurring theme], mass-produced cards almost cloying in the sweetness of their sentiment, and commercial cards of such intricacy and grace that one wonders at the cost.  One such card is shown here.  The photograph only begins to reveal the subtlety of the mechanics which result in the pop-up three dimensionality—all done without damaging the lace or embossing.  Surely Hoover must have appreciated the engineering of such a card.

I wonder if this tradition of sending Valentines to the President continues.  I hope so.  It would be sad to think that such a sincere, innocent enterprise should be consigned to the ash heap of history.

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Assessing Presidents at One Year

March 3, 1930 cartoon from Washington Daily News.

History serves as a reminder that all political times are tempestuous.  Ardent advocates champion their side of the cause no matter the year or the context.  The President’s recent State of the Union message ballyhooed the accomplishments of the first year of his administration—emphasizing successes and downplaying disappointments.  This is par for the course, drawn from chapter one of the playbook.

Not surprisingly, critics of the President focus on the administration’s shortcomings—highlighting areas where actions have fallen short of promises and emphasizing problems which remain unsolved.   Again, this comes as no surprise.  It is the standard response for those out of power, drawn from chapter two of the partisan playbook.  The ensuing political argument seems so strident, so contentious, so incredibly loud and annoyingly close that we forget this behavior has a long history.

I was reminded of this when I came across this political cartoon by H. M. Talburt.  It is a commentary on the woes facing Hoover on March 3, 1930, after his first year in office.  Hoover sits, disconsolate, in his chair beset by troubles near and far.  Hoover looks to be at the end of his rope. It is interesting to note that the woes assailing Hoover include issues that have long since faded into historical obscurity–prohibition, naval arms limitation, business speculation, the farm crisis, tariffs and the red bogey at the Department of Justice—while eliding the Great Depression.  Somehow the roiling turmoil of March 1930 pictured in this cartoon missed the economic crisis that defined a generation.  This leaves one wondering whether the same fate awaits future historians assessing political cartoon commentary on the recent State of the Union message.

Time will tell.

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The Nomadic Henry Family

Lou Henry Hoover’ birthplace, Waterloo, Iowa.

Lou Henry Hoover was born in Waterloo, Iowa in 1874 and lived there for much of her childhood.  Over the years there has been considerable interest in marking or memorializing her childhood home, which has been complicated by the fact that the Henry family lived in a number of different homes.  In many, if not all cases, they rented their accommodations, and very little documentation has survived.

The 1880 Federal census lists the Henry family as boarders residing with a landlord named Samuel J. Sweet.  The address is listed as “Commercial Street between 5th and 6th Street.”  To date, no other public records have been found that document any of the family’s addresses in Waterloo.

When Mr. Hoover was campaigning for President in 1928, Mrs. Hoover made a brief visit to her hometown on August 22, 1928.  Press coverage at the time indicated that she was born in a house at 426 West Fourth Street, which was the northwest corner of the intersection of Fourth and Washington.  The source of this information is not clear, but there were certainly many people alive at the time who remembered the Henry family, and there is no evidence that the fact was disputed.  Subsequently, historical markers and more recently two different statues have been installed near this intersection to commemorate Lou Henry Hoover’s birthplace.

Beginning as early as World War I, when the Hoovers became famous for their relief work in Europe, Mrs. Hoover received letters from people in Waterloo who remembered her from her childhood.  Many of these letters are preserved in our collection of Lou Henry Hoover’s personal papers at the Hoover Library.  The letters and Lou’s replies often refer to places she lived, or provide helpful clues.

Apparently, shortly after Lou was born, the Henry family moved to the East side of the river.  In a 1930 letter to her Aunt Jessie, Lou mentions receiving a letter from a woman who knew the family “when I was a baby and we lived on the East side of the river in Waterloo.”  A 1936 letter from a Mrs. Edith Fancher notes that when Lou was a baby, the Fancher family “had a home on the opposite side of the street — a street that no longer exists,” but does not specify what street that was.  Mrs. Hoover noted in her reply, “I remember the name of your family… In fact, I remember Waterloo very well from the other side of the river but, of course, my memory does not go back far enough for me to know the group in that neighborhood when I was a baby.”  Other letters suggest that the Henrys may have lived in more than one home on the East side of the river.

The homes Lou remembered were all on the West side of the river.  One letter, dated March 20, 1929 from a Mrs. Hila Allbee Clark asks, “Do you remember when you lived on the corner of Commercial and Sixth Streets in Waterloo?”  Another letter, dated March 15, 1930 from a Miss Sophie Wiley, notes that they were neighbors and playmates “on Commercial Street, Waterloo Iowa,” and recounts some of her memories of the young Lou Henry.  Mrs. Hoover’s replies acknowledged that she remembered both women, but did not add any details.  This is undoubtedly the address recorded in the census.

The Commercial Street address was not their only home on the West side.  In 1931, Lou received a letter from Ada Townsend, who noted, “I spent my little girlhood in a house on Fifth Street in Waterloo Iowa, a house afterward occupied by a family named Henry.”  Lou replied, “How interesting to hear that we lived in your house in Waterloo!  It was a nice house to live in, and I remember my years there very happily.  I even had a delightly [sic] little baby sister come to live with us while we were there!  And we always referred to it afterward as the ‘Townsend house.'”  If Lou’s memory was correct, that would mean they were living on Fifth Street in 1882, when her sister Jean was born.

A long letter from Mrs. Carrie Hanover Hill, dated August 12, 1928, recounted, “When your family lived on Park Avenue in Waterloo, Iowa, our people owned #219 – the next house east… You and I were not acquainted, possibly because you did not live there long tho’ I remember you; but our mothers were friendly as neighbors.”

The picture that emerges is of a family that rarely stayed long in any one place.  The Henrys lived in the nearby town of Shell Rock from about 1875 to 1877, and briefly moved to Texas in 1879, but returned to Waterloo.  Concerns for the health of Lou’s mother, Florence, prompted the family to look for a drier climate;  in 1887, the Henrys left Waterloo for good, stopping for a few months in Kansas before settling in Whittier, California.  Like her husband, who was also born in Iowa, Lou would consider herself a Californian for the rest of her life.

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Herbert Hoover and Fishing


Herbert Hoover’s lifelong passion for fishing is well-known.  For no other President has a biographer written a 350-page book subtitled, The Fishing President, as Hal Elliott Wert has done for Hoover. In this book, Wert describes Hoover’s fishing exploits and expeditions from age 8 to age 88.  Young Bert Hoover pulled a ‘record’ twelve inch sucker out of the Wapsinonoc Creek that ran past his birthplace cottage.  At age fourteen, Bert had a memorable afternoon fishing with his uncle and a friend, pulling one hundred trout out of an Oregon stream.  He continued fishing into his 80s, enjoying hours on the waters of the Gulf fishing with guide Calvin Albury of the Key Largo Anglers Club.

On April 3, 1962 Hoover and Albury shared their last fishing trip.  At the end of the day, Hoover gave Albury his watch as a memento.  He then gave Albury his rod and reel saying: “If I ever get back, I use them; if I never get back, it’s yours.”  Hoover never got back to the Key Largo Anglers Club.  Decades later, the heirs of Calvin Albury donated the watch and rod and reel to the Hoover Museum.

Hoover never tired of the piscine pursuit, fishing for trout in freshwater streams, bone fish in saltwater flats, and any fish that would take the bait in deepwater oceans.  Hoover’s passion for fishing led him to wax lyrical in writing–not common for Hoover. As Secretary of Commerce Hoover championed conservation of natural resources, especially fresh water fishing.  His addresses to the Izaak Walton League in the 1920s led to Hoover being named honorary chairman of the league from 1926 to 1932.

As an ex-President Hoover addressed fishing, writing ‘Men are Equal before the Fish’ for a Florida magazine in 1951 and later regaling the Gridiron Club with tales of political auguries of fishing. He compiled his thoughts on fishing in Fishing for Fun–And to Wash Your Soul.  He opens this book with: ‘Fishing is a chance to wash one’s soul with pure air, with the rush of the brook, or with the shimmer of the sun on the blue water….  It is discipline in the equality of man–for all men are equal before fish.’  Hoover offers insights into the mentality of fishermen: he must be of contemplative mind, for it is often a long time between bites; he is by nature an optimist or he would not go fishing.

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Hoover’s November 5, 1938 Address Inspires A Political Cartoon

By Thomas F. Schwartz

In an address delivered to a joint Republican organizations in Spokane, Washington, November 5, 1938, former president Herbert Hoover rebutted President Franklin Roosevelt’s claim of “his success in creating economic stability, prosperity and security for the average man.”  Hoover pointed out that President Roosevelt failed to mention, “the 11,000,000 unemployed or farmers’ prices, and some other instabilities and insecurities.”  Hoover main complaint was a fear that New Deal policies were undermining free enterprise and leading America into a planned economy with all the attendant dangers. “With beguiling phrases,” argued Hoover, “Mr. Roosevelt has mixed some of the working parts of these coercive systems into American life.”     Whether it be “government forced monopolies in the N.R.A.” or government price fixing, restricting production, or government run enterprises such as the Tennessee Valley Authority, Hoover claimed these ideas mirror ones found “along the Berlin-Rome-Moscow axis.”  He ended his speech urging a return to unfettered free enterprise and “trust 130,000,000 free people in the United States to have more sense than a dozen starry-eyed boys in Washington.”


Cartoon drawn by Clarence Hillsmith, November 1938.

Seven days later, Hoover received a fan letter from Clarence Hillsmith commending Hoover on his fine speech of November 5.  The letter included a hand-drawn cartoon by Hilllsmith “suggested by your speech.”  The cartoon is entitled “This Number, The ‘12 Starry-Eyed Boys’ in their Alphabet New-Abun-Dance.”  As coins fall from the sky, figures representing the New Deal alphabet agencies perform a dance line while President Roosevelt serves as a conductor of the pit orchestra playing “silver threads among the gold.”  Applauding are figures representing the socialist/fascist leaders of Stalin, Mussoulini, and Hitler while John Q Public is unimpressed by the show and declares “Aw-Let’s Go Over to Herb Hoover’s and shoot some pool!”

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On the Passing of Lou Henry Hoover

Lou Henry Hoover passed away 01/07/1944 – funeral was held in St. Bartholomew’s Church in New York. Hoover, Herbert Jr., and Allan in the front row

Lou Henry Hoover died on Friday January 7, 1944 at the Waldorf-Astoria suite that she shared with her husband Herbert Hoover.  The following Monday more than 1500 mourners attended her memorial service at St. Bartholomew’s Episcopal Church.  There was no eulogy.  After the service, the Hoover family took the mortal remains of Lou Henry Hoover to Palo Alto for internment near to her home overlooking the Stanford campus and close to the mountain trails that she loved to hike.

While the service for Mrs. Hoover included no eulogy, her lifetime of achievement was not allowed to pass without comment.  Many friends, colleagues, and strangers whose lives felt the impact of Lou Hoover offered testimonials.  Long-time Stanford friend Will Irwin noted that Lou had nearly unlimited tolerance for human frailties in others, but she did not tolerate them in herself.

Secretary and friend Dare Stark McMullin offered moving descriptions of Lou Henry Hoover’s willingness to help others in times of need—during the Boxer Rebellion, in London at the outset of World War I, assisting her husband’s food relief via the Commission for Relief in Belgium, and as First Lady.  Lou never sought public acknowledgment for this assistance, preferring clandestine acts of kindness.  McMullin concluded: ‘The person I’d like most to meet in the middle of an earthquake is Mrs. Hoover.’

Despite her frequent protestations that, ‘Goodness me, I wouldn’t know what to do with a daughter;’ Lou Henry Hoover had, in essence, 840,000 ‘daughters’ in the Girl Scouts at the time of her death.  Her deep involvement with Girl Scouts sparked troops and leaders across the nation to offer tributes and memorials.  One especially apt tribute was the dedication of the Azalea Trails in the San Jacinto Mountains in California.  This was appropriate given Lou’s lifelong habit of hiking California trails.  She kept a child’s love of the outdoors as a place to explore.  Because of this zest, one scout leader described Lou thusly: ‘She died the youngest woman of her years that I have ever known.’

Many more such tributes and testimonials can be found in boxes 138 and 139 of the Subject Files of the Lou Henry Hoover papers.

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Hoover and His Young Advisors

By Thomas F. Schwartz

Presidents receive endless unsolicited advice on what to do and how to do it.  Modern Presidents, even with the most vigilant staff, cannot prevent unsolicited advice from reaching their boss, especially in open public settings.  Hoover tended to be impatient with advice given by adults, especially from the general public.  But he always indulged advice sent by children, perhaps realizing how much encouragement from an adult could mean in their lives.  In two instances, children initiated their own hunger relief efforts to help the less fortunate during the depression.

Anne Warner Burnham, a ten-year-old from Elizabeth, New Jersey enlisted the help of her friends and decided to put on a play in the living room of a friend and also sold fudge and lemonade.  The proceeds from the sale of tickets and food was sent to the Red Cross and the following letter went to President Hoover:

“I am writing to tell you about a play we gave for the benefit of the Red Cross because I think it would be good if you told other little children about it.  If lots of kids everywhere give plays they can get lots of money to help the poor people who need food and clothes.  They don’t need to be very old to do it, because I am only ten….We gave a Punch and Judy show and movies, but the movies didn’t work.  We sold lemonade and fudge.  We charged two cents admission and made $6.31.  Nobody grown up helped us.  We gave the money to the American Red Cross chapter in Elizabeth.”

Another precocious five-year old, Rosemary Ernisse of Webster, New York, was so moved by hearing of plight of people living in drought affected areas, she robbed her piggy bank of a half dollar and sent it to Hoover with the following:

“Dear Mr. Hoover:  Here is a big white penny from my bank.  Will you buy some bread and butter and milk and candy for the little boys and girls who are hungry?”

It is said that good habits developed early in life carry on into adult life.  The caring actions of both Anne Warner Burnham and Rosemary Ermosse reinforced Hoover’s belief in the generosity of average of Americans in addressing the needs of the less fortunate.


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The Oval Office Roasting on a 1929 Christmas Fire

By Thomas F. Schwartz

White House fire, Christmas Eve, 1929.

White House fire, Christmas 1929.

A previous blog described Christmas gifts Lou Henry Hoover gave to people in 1930.  Made from century-old pine beams original to the White House and removed in the 1927 renovation by Calvin Coolidge, some of the oral histories conducted with associates of Herbert Hoover conflate these gifts with the 1929 fire in the Oval Office that occurred on Christmas Eve.  All the information on the 1929 fire are based upon contemporary newspaper accounts which reported information in real time.  It should also be noted that the Oval Office of today is in a different location from that of Hoover.  Hoover used the Oval Office created by William Howard Taft.  After fire destroyed it in 1929, it wasn’t until 1933 that Franklin D. Roosevelt rebuilt an expanded version of the West Wing relocating the office to its current location.

The source of the fire initially was reported as an overheated chimney flue but later was determined likely to have originated from defective wiring in the attic.  Smoke was noticed by a White House telephone operator who sounded the alarm.  The fire was thought to be contained when the first engines arrived.  But flames suddenly appeared in areas outside of the fire zone.  In the end, it became a four alarm fire with dozens of engines and ladder companies working to extinguish the inferno.  Although most of President Hoover’s important papers were saved, the Executive offices were destroyed.  A number of miscellaneous documents littered the White House lawn in the aftermath.  Hoover’s friend and Secretary of Interior, Ray Lyman Wilbur, picked up some of the letters from the lawn as souvenirs.  In 1946, Wilbur sent them to the Hoover Library along with a cover letter indicating their origin.

Fire truck from 1929 on display at the Hoover Presidential Library-Museum

Fire truck from 1929 on display at the Hoover Presidential Library-Museum.

Despite the commotion, Mrs. Hoover continued a party for the children of their good friends in the main portion of the White House which was unaffected by the fire.  Among those in attendance were the three sons of George Akerson, Hoover’s press secretary.  The following year, the Akerson boys were invited to the White House again for a Christmas party.  The following is a memorandum written by Mrs. George Akerson about the gifts the Hoover’s gave their three sons:

To Keep!

Enclosed three fire-engines which the boys received from around the tree in the East Room on Christmas Eve, December 1930, when the President & Mrs. Hoover had their grandchildren, Peggy-Ann, & Peter (Herbert III) as co-hosts with them.

Mrs. Hoover, herself, told the children the fire engines were there in memory of the fire the year before!

Enclosed, also, three brass bells carried by boys on march thru White House after Christmas Eve dinner (& ladies carried candles) & all were in search for “Santa Claus.”

As a mother of two sons, Lou Henry Hoover knew to get three different fire-engines so each of the Akerson boys would be able to distinguish their own.  The fire engines were produced by the Kenton Toy Manufacturing Company of Kenton, Ohio, a popular creator of cast iron toys.

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Tales of the Sea Christmas Exhibit

Reposted from the Declarations Blog

Tales of the Sea Christmas exhibit


On November 18, the Herbert Hoover Presidential Library & Museum kicked off the holiday season with the “Tales of the Sea Christmas” exhibit. The exhibit will run through January 7, 2018.

Since 1990, the Hoover Museum has presented a decorated tree exhibit every year, beginning with “Christmas Around the World,” which featured trees of countries where the Hoovers had either lived or visited.

Assistant curator Melanie Wier spent about a year working on the Christmas tree exhibit. This year, “Tales of the Sea Christmas” honors Hoover’s love of the sea and fishing.

“Each year, I propose themes that can be broken down into 20 sub-themes, since we usually have 20 trees, and present the ideas to the curatorial team,” Wier said. “Then we flesh out ideas and vote on the one we like best. We try to make sure the exhibit has a direct connection to Hoover at least every other year. This year’s theme was born from Herbert Hoover’s love of the sea, his sea journeys, and artifacts we have related to crossing the equator ceremonies that he and his family took part in.”


These three trees represent Lighthouses, Myths & Legends, and Maritime Service.

Jaws tree

Jaws tree.









There are 17 trees in the exhibit this year, including:
The Sea

  • The Sea
    Men of the Sea
  • Myths & Legends
  • Lighthouses
  • Maritime Service
  • Shipwrecks
  • Jaws (image on right)
  • Sea Songs
  • America’s Cup Race
  • King Neptune
  • Pirates
  • Sea Monsters
  • Mermaids
  • Biblical Stories
  • Places of the Sea
  • Vessels
  • Titanic

The curatorial staff offers Hoover Library staff, volunteers, and interns the opportunity to decorate a tree. The Hoover Library also invites the Cedar Valley Chapter of the Embroiderers’ Guild of America to come and decorate a tree each year.

While decorating a tree may sound simple, Wier maintains extensive worksheets in order to keep track of each tree’s ornaments, decorations, lights, and more. Each tree ranges from seven to nine feet tall, and is designed based on the research she collects for each one.

“I reuse ornaments from years past, make some of the ornaments and decor, and order at least one new ornament for each tree. The gift shop also sells a selection of the new ornaments,” Wier explained. “Each tree also has a topper, garland, tree skirt, and five or more strands of lights. There is also an individual label for each tree that tells about the tree topic.”


Sea Monsters

Sea Monsters

Assistant curator Melanie Wier created a number of ornaments and decor for the Tales of the Sea Christmas exhibit. Here is a look at the tentacles on the Sea Monster tree

Wier’s favorite part of working on the exhibit is the opportunity to be creative.

“I love being able to create ornaments and decor for the exhibit,” she said. “I have a studio art background and always enjoy the opportunity to create. For this exhibit, I made tentacles, kelp, coral, shipwrecked masts, sea-themed kids activities, ornaments, and swathed the walls in blue fabrics.”

Outside of the exhibit, museum galleries will feature Hoover family movies from 1928 and a large area of games and activities for children.

“This exhibit is always fun for families over the holidays,” Wier said. “I hope that visitors come away from this exhibit with wonderful memories of visiting the Herbert Hoover Museum and that they are eager to return for their next adventure!

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