by Spencer Howard
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.