Isis, the Wandering Goddess

Visitors to the Herbert Hoover Presidential Library-Museum and the Herbert Hoover National Historic Site who have made the short walk to the Birthplace Cottage will have encountered the seven and a half foot tall statue of Isis

Photo of Isis Statue

Statue of Isis on the grounds of the Hoover National Historic Site.

that overlooks the Cottage and Hoover Creek. The bronze allegorical statue of Isis, the ancient Egyptian goddess of life, was a gift to Herbert Hoover from the Belgian people in gratitude for his work directing the Commission for Relief in Belgium during World War I. The statue was originally located on the campus of Stanford University in California until it was moved to West Branch in 1939 to overlook Mr. Hoover’s newly renovated birthplace.

Documents in the Herbert Hoover Papers reveal that Isis’s journey was more intriguing than the summary suggests. A copy of a memo from Belgian Senator Albert Lejeune explains that the committee that commissioned the statue was formed in England during the war and raised most of their funds from civilian exiles and “practically all the soldiers of the Belgian army then fighting for the liberation of our territory.” After the war, Belgian Foreign Minister Henri Jaspar approached friends of Mrs. Hoover informally to ascertain if Mr. Hoover would accept the statue, and received a friendly reply. In looking for a place to put the statue, Mr. Hoover wrote a personal letter to his friend Ray Lyman Wilbur, the President of Stanford University, that reveals somewhat less enthusiasm:

“The proposition is to dedicate the Lady with great formality to her eternal job of sitting for some centuries in front of something, in this very stolid attitude, hanging onto this lamp – in some place where she will receive constant public regard … Some time in the month of October [1922] it is proposed that various important Belgians will arrive at your University with long speeches – delivered no doubt in French and with appropriate return speeches.”

The unveiling was actually postponed until December 4, and Hoover himself was present to give a gracious reply, without the sarcasm exhibited in his letter to Wilbur.

“It would be impossible to find with the human heart or within the human mind an adequate expression for the tribute I have received today. I feel, however, that the accomplishment of the Commission for Relief in Belgium was not made by one man alone, but by some 200 Americans, of whom the great majority were from this state, and these practically all from these two institutions, Stanford and the University of California. And, therefore, when it was suggested that the Belgian people set a monument of gratitude here, I suggested that it might be placed in charge of our university that it might be a tribute to those who had gone from this institution and our sister institution in that service.”

Isis Statue 1939

The Isis Statue is being positioned near the Hoover Birthplace Cottage, 1939.

When preparations were made to move the statue to West Branch in 1939, the Hoover family explained that the statue was originally intended to be placed at Herbert Hoover’s birthplace, which was actually a polite fiction. Mr. Jaspar’s offer had specified that it could be placed anywhere Mr. Hoover chose. Hoover’s 1922 letter to Wilbur indicated that West Branch had been considered, but there was no means of maintaining the statue there. That problem was solved with the incorporation in 1939 of the Herbert Hoover Birthplace Society, which was created to preserve the newly renovated Birthplace Cottage and could easily care for the statue as well.

In light of Hoover’s comments that the statue was a fitting tribute to Stanford University and the University of California, it seems odd that she would have been moved 2000 miles to rural West Branch, a place with no significant connection to Belgian relief except for Hoover’s birth forty years earlier. One must wonder if the bronze lady was perhaps sent into exile, where she could sit for eternity in a somewhat less prominent place.

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