by Lynn Smith, Archivist
The election of Herbert Hoover to the presidency on November 6, 1928, put West Branch, Iowa on the map. The small town was proud of their native son. Soon after the election, town leaders formed the Hoover Birthplace Committee who started planning celebrations and arranged a train trip to Washington, D.C. to attend Hoover’s inauguration. Less than a month later, the “Hoover Birthplace Special” train was set up and invitations were sent to state VIPs including Governor, John Hammill and the Coe College ROTC Band. University of Iowa student, Floyd Barber, was selected from drum majors across Iowa to lead the Coe College ROTC Band in Washington.
The “Hoover Birthplace Special” railroad trip left Iowa the afternoon of Sunday March 2nd with approximately 275 people. West Branch residents were not the only Iowans on the train going to Washington, D.C. Other Iowa towns represented included Atlantic, Des Moines, Estherville, Iowa Falls, Waterloo, Cedar Rapids, Iowa City, West Liberty, Wilton, and Davenport. At the stop in Wilton, the manager of radio station KTNT in Muscatine boarded with a calliope for musical entertainment.
Once all were on board the train, people received an Iowa corn cane and custom-made badges to identify members of the group. After dinner, they mingled and chatted with Governor Hammill and his wife in the observation car. The next morning the train rolled through Akron, Ohio as the happy Iowans ate breakfast. By lunchtime, the train had passed Pittsburgh and was in the Allegheny Mountains. During a 40-minute stop in Cumberland, Maryland, the Coe College band marched and played. According to 19-year-old Bernice Schiele, who kept a diary of the trip, the band gathered on the steps of the Maryland Hotel where shocks of corn were sent up. Governor Hammill gave a speech, and the band played again. Schiele wrote that, “The Iowa Corn song seemed to rate very highly on the trip.” Several locals asked to buy the Iowa corn canes. The train made a brief stop in Harpers Ferry, West Virginia and reached Washington, D.C. at 8:30 p.m. The Pullman train cars used for travel were parked and were used as sleeping quarters by the Iowans.
The delegation began the overcast inauguration day with group photos, then headed to a café for breakfast. After eating they visited the Library of Congress where they saw the Declaration of Independence. Prior to December 1952, the Declaration was on display at the Library of Congress. In 1952, it was transferred to the National Archives where it remains on exhibit to this day. The group then moved to the east front of the Capitol building and watched Mr. Hoover take the Oath of Office. By that time, it started to rain. To watch the inaugural parade, the group took cover in the doorways of various buildings along the route. A trio from West Branch carried an Iowa banner leading the car with Governor Hammill and the Coe College ROTC Band who played the “Iowa Corn Song” in the parade. Two members of the Iowa delegation were special guests of Hoover, Mollie Carran, Hoover’s grade school teacher, and her husband. They joined the Hoovers on the platform for the inauguration and watched the parade with them from the covered reviewing stand.
Schiele described the parade: “It would have been the most wonderful sight of the trip had the sun been shining, as it was the gorgeous uniforms of the people in the parade were wet and dull looking.” After the parade, the group was on their own. Bernice and her mother attended a vaudeville show at the Fox Theater on F Street two blocks east of the White House. That evening, the Iowans attended a charity ball.
The next day the Iowa group took a bus tour of Washington, D.C. with stops at the National Zoo, the Washington Cathedral, Arlington Cemetery, and the Lincoln Memorial. The highlight of the day was meeting President Hoover and touring the White House. After the tour, Bernice, her mother and two others took a taxi to visit some of the facilities of the Smithsonian Institution. According to Bernice, “Gladys and I had more fun laughing over the crazy little hats and clothes that were in style in the early days of our nation’s history.” That night the group attended a ball with some of the music provided by the Coe College ROTC Band. On their third and final day, the group visited Alexandria, Virginia and Mount Vernon and then returned to the White House for a special photo opportunity with the President and only the West Branch members of the group. After a visit to the top of the Washington Monument, the Iowa delegation returned to Union Station to depart Washington, D.C. at 3:00 p.m.
Schiele, and no doubt all the Iowans, were sad to leave Washington after such a grand adventure. She wrote, “It was a rather sad and lonely feeling to be pulling away from the beautiful city of Washington, realizing that in a few hours time we would be miles away from the city. In my memories I would always cherish and remember the few fun filled days, the wonderful sights and everything wonderful about the inauguration of Herbert Hoover.” She closed her journal of the trip with this thought, “So ended the most wonderful trip of my young life. As I look into the future I wonder if I will ever make another trip so wonderful, I wonder???”
The cost of the trip from Iowa varied based on where people boarded. Tickets from Atlantic, in western Iowa were $109, from Des Moines, the state capital: $105, Waterloo: $97, with Iowa City, West Branch, and stops further east just $95. The ticket price included a berth in a standard Pullman car, meals on the train, and the sightseeing tours in Washington, D.C. A total of 14 coaches were part of the “Hoover Birthplace Special.” The train traveled the Rock Island Lines and the Baltimore & Ohio Railroad from Iowa to Washington. Incidentally, West Branch was not alone in sponsoring special trains to Mr. Hoover’s inauguration. The Palo Alto, California Chamber of Commerce sponsored a trip on the Southern Pacific rail line for $162 round trip.