Trouble in River City:  Hoover describes Aunt Hannah’s Prophesy

By Thomas F. Schwartz

The Quaker Meeting House on the grounds of the Hoover National Historic Site. Oct. 2018
The Quaker Meeting House on the grounds of the Hoover National Historic Site. Oct. 2018

A classic Broadway musical is Meredith Willson’s Music Man.  Willson, a native of Mason City, Iowa, places the musical in River City, Iowa, a veiled reference to Mason City lying along the Winnebago River.  Con man Professor Harold Hill convinces the townspeople that a boy’s band is a wholesome alternative to the pool hall in town.  Claiming, “Trouble starts with t, which rhymes with p, which stands for pool,” Hill warned of the impending corruption of youth.  Herbert Hoover used a similar example from his past when addressing a group Iowa newspaper editors during a campaign stop in Des Moines on October 4, 1932.  Hoover reminisced about growing up in the Quaker community of West Branch, Iowa, and the town he knew as a child had changed.  Hoover stated:

“As you know the Quakers had an old-fashioned meetinghouse where they were divided as to the sexes.  I have a vivid recollection of an elderly Aunt Hannah who delivered herself one day very emphatically on the subject of increasing wickedness of the world.  Particularly on certain semidoctrinal schisms in the fold, and she prophesied that if these habits were followed the day would come when that meetinghouse would be turned into the mockery of a theatre.  That was the worst thing she could think of.  I went back 25 years later and to my astonishment her prophesy had come true.  The community had become affluent enough to build a better meetinghouse, and they had moved the old one across the street and changed it into a moving-picture house.”

Hoover’s use of Aunt Hannah’s prophesy contained both humor and that change is Janus-faced, looking both forward and backward.  The Quakers in West Branch did have schism between traditionalist who quietly waited for the spirit to move them and modernists who hired a full time pastoral leader and embraced music during the meeting.  The old meetinghouse that served as a movie theatre later became an automobile garage until the Herbert Hoover Birthplace Foundation purchased it, moved it to its current location in the Hoover complex and restored it as the Quaker meetinghouse as Hoover would have known it as a boy.  So this was a part of Aunt Hannah’s prophesy that even she could not foresee.

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