by Lynn Smith
March 26, 1931 started as a lovely 60 degree spring day on the eastern plains of Colorado between the small farming communities of Towner and Holly. Twenty local children, dressed for spring, set out for Pleasant Hill School near the Kansas border in a makeshift bus fashioned from a 1929 truck with a wooden cover, wood benches for seats, and cardboard over two broken windows. When the bus arrived at the school, snow was falling. It was decided that the bus should take the children back to their homes. Soon, a blizzard engulfed the area. The bus driver was quickly disoriented in the blowing snow and by 9:30 a.m. the bus got stuck in a ditch, the engine stalled, and wouldn’t restart. The children were trapped on the bus for over 30 hours in subzero temperatures before being found. In the end, five children, and the bus driver, who left the bus to search for help, perished. The tragedy made national news, and the Denver Post newspaper made one survivor, twelve year old Bryan Untiedt, a hero and netted him an invitation to visit to the White House from President Hoover.
The Hoover Library contains eight files of correspondence and newspaper clippings related to Pleasant Hill School student Bryan Untiedt. While none of the files contains an itinerary for his White House visit, contemporary news reports identify his adventures during his three day stay (April 30-May 2, 1931). Bryan’s visit included stops at the Smithsonian, the Washington Monument, the Bureau of Engraving and Printing, and the National Zoo. A trip to Mount Vernon concluded with a cruise up the Potomac River on the presidential yacht, U.S.S. Sequoia. He watched morning Hooverball games from the Blue Bedroom and had at least one visit alone with Mr. Hoover. He frequently dined with Mr. and Mrs. Hoover, their son Herbert, Jr., his wife and their two children, Peggy Ann and Herbert, III (aka “Pete”) who were visiting from North Carolina. Bryan entertained the Hoover grandchildren with his harmonica playing. At the same time as Bryan’s visit, the President and Mrs. Hoover welcomed the King and Queen of Siam to the White House. It is unlikely that Bryan formally met the royal couple, but he watched as they arrived at the White House and saw the Queen touring Mount Vernon with Mrs. Hoover.
White House staff kept Bryan’s visit fairly well shielded from the press. It was thought best to keep the lad from extensive media coverage, requests for interviews etc. while in Washington. When word of Bryan’s passion for harmonicas got out, the White House received several from the Philadelphia Harmonica Band to give to Bryan. He also received one from Florida Representative Ruth Bryan Owen who was eager to give one to her “namesake.” Our photograph collection contains one image of Mr. Hoover with Bryan in front of the White House. It was published in dozens of newspapers across the country.
Following his visit, Mr. and Mrs. Hoover kept in touch with Bryan and his parents for the next eleven years. During that that time, the Hoovers corresponded with the family and offered financial help for Bryan to attend college when the time came. Bryan opted to go to work to help with the family’s needs rather than attending college. Mrs. Hoover used a family friend in Denver, Colorado to keep an eye out for the Untiedt family and assist as possible when drought and other misfortunes struck. The last correspondence Mrs. Hoover received from Bryan was a card announcing the birth of his son, Jon Michael Untiedt, in May 1942.