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Offbeat Oregon History: Album cover art

Oregon years — and Oregon flour mills — helped Hoover prevent mass starvation

One of 20th Century's most reviled presidents, he saved millions from starving — and grew up in Oregon; his name is on the title deed for Boston Flouring Mills

Between the tiny Oregon town of Shedd and the Interstate 5 freeway is an old flour mill – the oldest water-powered grist mill in the state and one of only four remaining. It’s called Boston Flouring Mills, also known as Thompson’s Mills after a former owner.

Should you visit the mill, staff members there will proudly call your attention to a signature on a land-sale deed dating from 1891. It’s the signature of one of the two witnesses required for the sale, and its legality is a bit questionable because the signer was still a minor. It was a 17-year old office boy at the Oregon Land Co., which sold the mill.

He signed his name “Bert Hoover.”

Not many people know it, but Bert — known when he was younger as “Bertie Hoover” and when older, as “Herbert Hoover” — spent most of his teenage years in the Willamette Valley. After the death of his parents, he arrived when he was 11 to live with his uncle, John Minthorn, in Newberg; a few years later, the Minthorns moved to Salem to launch the Oregon Land Co.

Hoover was 17 when he went off to college, becoming a member of the first class at Stanford. A few years later, he participated in that famous college’s first-ever graduation ceremony and set out into the world armed with a geology degree and a net worth of $40, looking every inch the world-beater that he was. He’d never again sign his name “Bert” on any legal document, and he’d never come back to Oregon to live, either.

Twenty years later, Hoover played an even bigger role in Boston Mill: He brought it business. Lots of it. The place was running 24 hours a day.

The reason: People were starving in war-torn Europe.

By this time, Hoover had taken his $40 and turned it into millions. He was the most highly paid engineer in the world and he was at the peak of his career.

But when the war broke out, Hoover dropped his career and launched himself on a mission to feed the hungry in the war zones of Belgium and northern France — where millions would have starved without his intervention, because the warring parties were squabbling over whose responsibility it was to feed them.

When the U.S. entered the war, he took over as a sort of domestic “food czar,” using public-relations tools to get folks to substitute corn, oats and barley for more nutrient-dense foods like wheat and beef so that more could be sent overseas.

And after the war he spearheaded efforts that saved millions, all over Europe but especially in the defeated German and Austrian lands and in Russia, from starving.

Throughout that time, of course, Hoover needed the Boston Mill to produce as much flour as it possibly could. And that’s just what it — and virtually every other mill like it across the country — did.

By the end of it all, Hoover had prevented the miserable death of hundreds of millions of people. It was this success that would propel him to his ill-starred term as president a decade later — which, unfortunately, is what he’s chiefly remembered for today.

But it’s worth remembering that had Hoover not grown up in Oregon, he probably would not have gone to Stanford. Without going to Stanford, he probably wouldn’t have become an engineer. And without engineering skills, he would not have been able to direct the biggest humanitarian relief effort in human history.

(Sources:  Nash, Lee. Understanding Herbert Hoover. Stanford: Hoover Institution, 1987; Hoover, H.C. The Memoirs of Herbert Hoover, Vol. 1. New York: MacMillan, 1954; May 2009 visit to Boston Flouring Mills)