Thursday, April 19, 2018

Herbert Hoover's Mystery Cow

A lot of people know the story contained in W. P. Kinsella's book Shoeless Joe, either because they've read the book or have seen the movie based on it: Field of Dreams. A less-known but possibly even better book of Kinsella's is The Iowa Baseball Confederacy, about a man who devotes his life to proving (despite a lack of evidence or anyone else's recollection) that the Chicago Cubs played a bizarre exhibition game against a local Iowa team in 1908. I can relate to that guy, because I know of the existence of another Iowan thing that no one else remembers: a cow.

The Herbert Hoover Presidential Library and Museum just opened a new temporary exhibit about farming. One of the features is a fake cow that visitors can milk. Because my 6-year-old is a wee bit obsessed with cows right now (and because he also loves Iowa and Herbert Hoover), I'm definitely going to try to make it there.

But learning about this new exhibit also reminded me of another Hoover-cow experience, the one that has turned into a bit of a mystery.

Many, many years ago, just after graduating from high school, I set out with my mom on a long, meandering road trip from Ohio to California. Along the way we stopped at numerous roadside attractions and lots of museums, including presidential and presidential-ish sites.

After stops in Norwalk, Ohio; Terre Haute, Indiana (Eugene V. Debs' home); Michigan City, Indiana (no idea what we did there); Chicago (lots of things); and Galena, Illinois (Ulysses S. Grant's home); we finally headed into Iowa, where attractions like the Field of Dreams movie site awaited us. But our first stop was in West Branch for the Hoover Museum.

We went through the museum and then went outside to walk around the buildings that are part of the Herbert Hoover National Historic Site. I honestly don't remember much about the museum or the buildings, but what I remember very clearly is the cow.

There was a cow. It was along a path and behind a wooden fence. I don't recall there being any other animals, and I also don't recall there being any other people. It was kind of eerie. The cow was just hanging out, so I went over to it. It mooed at me and let me pet its nose. I'm pretty sure that was the first time I'd ever touched a cow (and, come to think of it, possibly the last).

There was definitely a cow.

We finished with the grounds, we went on to do lots of other things in Iowa and along the old Route 66, and I got to California and life went on.

I've been back to the Hoover site a few times now. When I first took my family, I recounted to my kids how I'd met a cow and hoped it was still there, but alas it wasn't.

So the other day when the Hoover Museum tweeted a picture of the fake cow, I asked them about the real cow that used to live there...but they have no recollection of its existence.

I have an excellent memory, but I started to wonder if maybe I'd seen the cow at a different presidential museum. We had gone to two others on the trip: Lyndon Johnson's and, I'm assuming, Eisenhower's. I say "assuming" because until a few months ago, I would have told you we'd gone to Truman's, but as I recently learned, we had not. The only other presidential museum along our route would have been Ike's. So it's possible the cow was there, and it's possible my memory isn't as good as I thought it was. But somewhere, there was a cow.

I eliminated the possibility of the LBJ museum because that was toward the end of our trip, and the cow was definitely earlier. The Eisenhower museum does appear to have a house on its grounds, and feasibly that's the one I remember seeing behind the cow. Could it have been an Eisenhower cow and not a Hoover cow? I asked the Ike Museum on social media, but they also don't remember a cow.

So now I don't know where the hell the cow was, but I know it existed, and I'm still pretty convinced it was at the Hoover Museum, but I'm leaving Ike open as a possibility.

If anyone else visited the Hoover or Eisenhower Museums in the mid-1990s and remembers there being a cow, please let me know. Or if you happen to work at the Hoover Library and Museum, Hoover National Historic Site, or Eisenhower Library and Museum and want to look into this more closely, I'd really appreciate it. Because it's driving me crazy.

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