About Robert Pahre

I'm a professor of Political Science at the University of Illinois.

Remembering Warbonnet Creek

As I write this in the summer of 2020, the United States is having a conversation about our statues and monuments. Instead of piling on to the debate over statues for slaveholders, I’d like to tell you of an obscure pair of monuments in a remote corner of Nebraska. I accidentally spent some time with them in the spring of 2012, and they have an unusual story behind them.

The Site of Cody's Scalp

I spent much of spring break in 2012 helping scout a stretch of the Great Plains Trail. The trail stretches from Guadalupe Peak in Texas all the way to the Canadian border. It goes through the ultimate flyover country – if you need to fly between two points in flyover country, you fly over our trail. We never saw another soul when hiking on trails. When we had to walk on the ranch roads instead, we saw maybe one truck a day.

Major Junction Ahead!

I was driving the main shuttle car. We’d drop my car somewhere, drive back to our starting point in a second car, and then hike back to my car. Ken and Steve would keep going for a while, then I’d go pick them up, and we’d set up another shuttle. That left me with some time alone each day, and on this particular day I got to spend some time in Montrose, Nebraska.

Technically speaking, I got to spend some time where Montrose used to be. Wikipedia calls it a “former village.” There’s a junction with a whole lot of mailboxes for the local ranches. On a small rise next to the mailboxes stands Immaculate Conception Catholic Church. It’s a beautiful little church, well cared for, and clearly still in use. There is no sign of any former houses, much less a village.

Montrose Church

Montrose is a long way from Henderson, the county seat of Sioux County. The county is larger than Rhode Island, but it has only 1300 people – half of whom live more or less in and around Henderson. The town has a bar that serves food, and a gas station with a convenience store.

Opposite the Montrose church stands an impressive hill – well, impressive for Nebraska – across a small creek. There’s a grand monument atop the hill, so of course I visit it while Ken and Steve go on their way. To get there, I have to jump across Warbonnet Creek, near another monument behind a small fence.

Warbonnet Hill

The monuments go together. They tell the story of the Battle of Warbonnet Creek on July 17, 1876. This was the first engagement between the US Cavalry and the Indians after the Battle of Little Bighorn. The troopers were itching for revenge, as you might imagine.

Also itching for action was one William F. Cody, the famous “Buffalo Bill.” Buffalo Bill was a marketing genius who not only made himself into a legend but also helped build the myth of the Wild West. His Wild West Show had been a sensation since 1872, selling both self-made legends and live action with stagecoach ambushes, battles, and marksmanship. After George Custer’s defeat at Little Bighorn, Buffalo Bill understood immediately that he needed to be part of the action to help him develop his myth. Cody tagged along with the Fifth Cavalry as a scout.

Buffalo Bill as scout

Colonel Wesley Merritt, in command of the Fifth, was trying to keep the supply lines to Fort Laramie open along the Cheyenne & Black Hills Stage Road. He also wanted to keep the now-dispersed Indians from coming together into a large force again. If he could defeat them in battle, all the better.

Montrose lies at the junction of the Black Hills Road and the Powder River Trail, so it’s not surprising that the two forces might find each other in the neighborhood. Merritt faced Morning Star (Dull Knife), leading a band of about 800 Cheyenne from the Red Cloud Agency. They Cheyenne had left the agency and were moving to join other camps to the north. The two sides had roughly equal numbers of soldiers in the neighborhood on the day of their encounter.

Cheyenne scouts spotted a wagon trail on the road, and saw two couriers riding ahead to tell their commander it was on the way. The Cheyenne vanguard then prepared to ambush the wagon train.

View from Warbonnet Hill

The scouts did not see the Fifth Cavalry, but Buffalo Bill, in command of Merritt’s scouts, saw them. After telling Merritt of the Cheyenne presence, Cody received permission to lead a small group of his friends to try to ambush the Cheyenne vanguard.

At some point after that, Buffalo Bill changed out of his campaign dress. To prepare for battle, he put on a brightly-colored, ornamented stage costume with a shirt of red silk and trousers of black velvet. His double-wide brown leather belt featured a large silver-washed buckle and he wore a large, floppy-brimmed, brushed beaver-felt hat. His friend, First Lieutenant Charles King, called it “a Mexican vaquero costume.”

Though he is normally subdued about such things, historian Paul Hedren calls the costume “outlandish in the extreme.”

The Cheyenne were dressed for battle in the traditional way, though they doubtless also looked spectacular in their war paint and other accouterments. Yellow Hair rode in front, wearing a feathered bonnet, tin bracelets, a charm, a beaded belt with a scalp tucked in it, and a breechcloth made of a cotton American flag.

Yellow Hair and Buffalo Bill were in the lead of their respective groups. Each took a rifle shot at the other. While Yellow Hair’s missed, Buffalo Bill shot through one of Yellow Hair’s legs and killed his horse. Before his opponent could get off the ground, Cody shot and killed him. Buffalo Bill rode over and scalped his defeated opponent. He then raised Yellow Hair’s scalp and feather bonnet and shouted, “The first scalp for Custer!”

Buffalo Bill's Publicity Stunt

That symbolic revenge proved to be the only result of the battle. The Cheyenne disengaged and the US Cavalry held the field, making this skirmish an American victory. Holding the field meant that Merritt succeeded in keeping the Cheyenne from joining forces with the northern camps.

Buffalo Bill saved Yellow Hair’s scalp and then shipped it back East. He worked up the story of his encounter for the Wild West Show as a small drama, The Red Right Hand; or Buffalo Bill’s First Scalp for Custer. He performed it for the first time in October.

The scalp appeared again as a prop, or as a historical artifact, in Cody’s 1914 movie, “The Indian Wars.” In the critical scene, Buffalo Bill stands over his foe, warbonnet and scalp in one hand, outreached knife in the other, partially silhouetted against the landscape in a dramatic pose for the cameras. No other cavalrymen, and no other Cheyenne, appear in this climactic moment in which he claims the “first scalp for Custer.”

Whatever military importance the minor skirmish may have had, Warbonnet Creek looms large in myth. Buffalo Bill thoroughly blended theater and reality, wearing a theatrical costume into battle and dramatizing an actual killing for the theater. He eventually brought an authentic scalp to the motion picture screen as part of dramatized history in which he removed all the other participants from the scene.

The small monument along Warbonnet Creek dates to the 1930s. It celebrates the legendary duel – “On this spot W.F. Cody Buffalo Bill Killed Yellow Hair (or Hand), the Cheyenne leader who, with a party of warriors, dashed down this ravine to waylay two soldier couriers coming from the west.” It’s near the creek, probably close to where the event would have occurred.

The Friends of the Warbonnet Battlefield rebuilt the monument on the hill in 1997. They do not give a date for the original, but the stones and construction method resemble the monument down the hill. It’s far more subdued than Cody would have written, saying that Merritt intercepted 800 Cheyennes here and drove them back to the Red Cloud and Spotted Tail Agencies.

Friends of Warbonnet

In short, we have memorialized a single battle death with two stone monuments here, an impressive ratio of markers to casualties. The monuments were raised more than fifty years after the event, remembering a skirmish of little intrinsic significance but great legendary meaning. More than sixty years later, a local group reconstructed the battle marker.

They seem to have left alone the monument to the fatal publicity stunt.

Warbonnet Monument

Most of my details of the battle come from:
Hedren, Paul L. 2005. “The Contradictory Legacies of Buffalo Bill Cody’s First Scalp for Custer.” Montana: The Magazine of Western History 55(1): 16-35 (Spring).

You can find directions to Warbonnet and related sites here:
Hedren, Paul L. 1996. Traveler’s Guide to the Great Sioux War. Helena: Montana Historical Society Press.

Other details come from bits of the large literature on the Wild West Show and Buffalo Bill.

You can learn more about the Great Plains Trail here.

This story has some connections to my book manuscript, “Telling America’s Stories.” Stay tuned for more!

Backcountry geysers


Since I take students to the national parks every other year, I can get a bit jaded visiting frontcountry thermal areas like Old Faithful, Norris, or Midway.

Trailside Geyser.

In recent years, I’ve begun to visit backcountry sites. I’m much happier now.

Why? See my article on the Shoshone Geyser Basin in National Parks Traveler, here.

Arkansas Post in the Civil War

Painting in the visitor center.

Arkansas Post in the Civil War

Even if you know a fair amount about the Civil War, you may not have heard of the Battle of Arkansas Post. It doesn’t make the indices of the one-volume histories on my shelf. Though a significant action in the Vicksburg Campaign, it was not part of Grant’s widely-studied maneuvers that led to Vicksburg’s fall.

The great egrets seem to like having the battlefield underwater.

The military historians don’t have much of a story to tell at Arkansas Post National Memorial, the site of a brief siege in 1863. First of all, most of the relevant battlefield is underwater, either washed away by the changing channels of the Arkansas River or flooded behind a dam project managed by the US Army Corps of Engineers. Only some rifle trenches from 1863 remain to interpret.

Second, military historians like to focus on battlefield tactics and, to a lesser extent, the operational decisions generals make at the campaign level. Those are not very interesting here since the story consists of overwhelming land forces accepting Fort Hindman’s surrender after Union naval guns pound the fort into submission. A park brochure (McCutchen 2003) tells that story, along with three signs along the park’s entrance road, near the rifle pits.

Lots of politics! The six flags of Arkansas Post’s history.

By seeing it in military terms, the park narrative misjudges events at Arkansas Post. The Civil War Battle of Arkansas Post (Fort Hindman) was a political victory by a political general, Major General John McClernand. As it turns out, the most interesting—and most important—aspect of the battle concerns McClernand and army politics.

McClernand was an ally of Stephen Douglas, presidential candidate of the Illinois Democratic Party, and a member of the national House of Representatives from Illinois from 1843 to 1851. He also filled a vacancy in the House briefly in 1860. Though he supported Douglas for president in 1860, McClernand was also a friend of Republican candidate Abraham Lincoln. Appointing him as a brigadier general helped President Lincoln maintain relationships with the Democratic Party at home, at a time when many in southern Illinois had Confederate sympathies.

Though vainglorious and self-serving to an extent that annoyed his military colleagues, McClernand proved to be a more reasonable soldier than many other political generals. His success at Arkansas Post was balanced by weaknesses in performance at Fort Donelson and Champion Hill, though a tenacity on defense at Shiloh balanced his slow movements on the advance. Capturing Fort Hindman was not without military advantages, but interpretation exaggerates them. Remarkably, McClernand’s success at Arkansas Post led to his removal.

Rear Admiral David D. Porter brought some city-class gunboats.

As commander of the Army of Tennessee, Major General Ulysses S. Grant thought his subordinate’s operation a “wild-goose chase” that diverted a large force of soldiers, transports, and gunboats away from the planned assault on Vicksburg. Historian Brian McCutchen (2003: 2; see also Coleman 1987/2009: 116) provides a more sober summary that, “Although Union losses were high and the victory did not contribute to the capture of Vicksburg, it did eliminate one more impediment to Union shipping on the Mississippi.” That said, McClernand undertook the operation without telling his commander until it was already underway.

Commanding, Grant did not think that prize worth the effort. As he saw it, McClernand diverted forces away from Vicksburg and from Grant’s plans to link up with General Nathaniel Banks as the Army of the Gulf moved upriver from New Orleans. As a general principle, Grant believed it unwise to divide his forces to achieve any goal other than the main objective, and that goal was Vicksburg. This guided his reply to McClernand when he learned what was afoot:

“I do not approve of your move on the Post of Arkansas while the other [Vicksburg] is in abeyance. It will lead to the loss of men without a result . . . . It might answer for some of the purposes you suggest, but certainly not as a military movement looking to the accomplishment of the one great result, the capture of Vicksburg. Unless you are acting under authority not derived from me, keep your command where it can soonest be assembled for the renewal of the attack on Vicksburg.” (quoted in Foote 1963: 137)

Replica of a gun from the period of Spanish Louisiana. But you get the idea.

Grant also informed the General-in-Chief, Henry Halleck, of the action against Arkansas Post. Halleck backed him up, authorizing Grant to relieve General McClernand from command of the Vicksburg campaign, “giving it to the next in rank or taking it yourself” (quoted in Foote 1963: 137). Since McClernand was friends with Lincoln, Halleck presumably cleared this action with the president. Because McClernand enjoyed public acclaim after his success at Arkansas Post, Grant held back from dismissing him immediately “until the time was right to pounce” (Foote 1963: 138).

These internal Army maneuvers were clearly important for the war, but only in hindsight. With McClernand out of the way, Grant could begin planning the campaign against Vicksburg. After some false starts, he ended up producing a model campaign, swinging south and then east of the objective, ignoring his lines of supply and communication to points east of Vicksburg. From there he moved first to take the capital of Jackson before turning west to besiege and then conquer Vicksburg.

That campaign is a classic of American military history, and is rightly featured in interpretation at Vicksburg National Battlefield Park. It would not have happened if McClernand had remained in command of the Vicksburg operations.

None of this appears at Arkansas Post, however. Interpretation does not seem to mention that Grant had McClernand relieved for his actions at Arkansas Post. Instead, the park explains the battle in traditional military terms. A panel in the Visitor Center (“January 1863”) describes the Union attack as a “response to Confederate raids on shipping on the Mississippi.” However, any threat to Union shipping from Confederate gunboats was minor; Fort Hindman could be bypassed at this point in the war. Still, the fort had had some value earlier in the war, which is why Confederate engineers chose to build a fort here, to protect trade along the Arkansas River (Visitor Center, Panel, “Defending the Delta”).

The Daughters of the American Revolution helped pay for this replica Spanish cannon. They are stakeholders here too.

Interpretation reflects the bureaucratic interests of the National Park Service as well as the biases of military historians. As is true at most historic sites, the NPS has a stake in making the events here seem important—whether they are or not. The park’s resource study (Coleman 1987/2009) and administrative history (Carrera 1975/1987) emphasize the military events on site and what little physical evidence remains of them. Though the resource studies mention the political context briefly, park interpretation does not.

Of course, all authors bring their own biases to any narrative. Like most biographers, Ron Chernow (2017: 241) sees the story from Grant’s perspective, emphasizing his successes in internal Army politics while downplaying McClernand’s military successes. Shelby Foote (1963: 133-136) balances the political and the military, as does Robert Huffstot (1969). Both are more attuned to the political context of any war, and my perspective is closer to theirs than to other texts I’ve consulted.

Gunboats are not the only thing with armor at Arkansas Post today.

In fairness, the capture of Arkansas Post did have some military advantages that Grant may not have anticipated. First, the battle strengthened Union morale after the defeat at Chickasaw Bayou (December 26–29, 1862). Indeed, finding a reasonably-sized military success had been a goal of generals McClernand and Sherman when they met with Rear Admiral David Porter to decide their next moves (Huffstot 1969: 4-5).

A second important outcome of the battle was the Union capture of almost five thousand rebels, a considerable share of all Confederate forces in Arkansas. With the Union’s successful repulse of a Confederate advance at the Battle of Prairie Grove on December 7, 1862, Lieutenant General Theophilus Holmes’s Trans-Mississippi Department would remain on the defensive (Huffstot 1969).

The park’s focus on battlefield events in 1863 overlooks those military consequences, whether on the Army’s morale, national public opinion, or the weakening of the Confederate position in Arkansas and the Trans-Mississippi theater. The effect on Army politics, by allowing Grant to take over command of the Vicksburg campaign from McClernand, was even more important, paving the way for Lincoln to “put that key in his pocket.”

The NPS marks the town site by paving the historic streets, showing the layout.


Carrera, Gregorio S.A. 1975/1987. Arkansas Post National Memorial Administrative History. US Department of Interior: National Park Service.

Chernow, Ron. 2017. Grant. New York: Penguin.

Coleman, Roger E. 1987/2009. The Arkansas Post Story: Arkansas Post National Memorial. US Department of the Interior: National Park Service, Southwest Cultural Resources Center, Professional Papers No. 12. Eastern National.

Foote, Shelby. 1963. The Civil War: A Narrative. Volume II: Fredericksburg to Meridian. New York: Random House.

Huffstot, Robert S. 1969. “The Battle of Arkansas Post.” Historical Times, Inc.: Civil War Times Illustrated.

McCutchen, Brian K. 2003. “The Battle of Arkansas Post ~ January 9-11, 1863: Overview and troop positions.” US Department of Interior: National Park Service, Arkansas Post National Memorial.

Backpacking Campsites in the Deam Wilderness

Campsites in the Charles C. Deam Wilderness, Hoosier National Forest

The Deam Wilderness lies about 20 minutes southeast of Bloomington, Indiana, across Monroe Lake. It’s small by western wilderness standards, with only 13,000 acres. Websites and US Forest Service signs don’t provide much information about the campsites, including important details such as “is there water there?” This page should fill the gap.

Backpacking on the Peninsula Trail

The USFS has posted a helpful brochure on the internet here.

Page 1 has the camping regulations, while page 2 has a map of the wilderness showing the trails and campsites. Designated campsites have numbers on the map and most have signs identifying them in the field, though not always with the number. If you can read a map, you’ll be fine.

National Geographic’s Trails Illustrated Map of Hoosier National Forest provides greater detail and multi-color readability. The Deam takes up one side of the map.

I have camped at several of the sites reviewed here, visited a few more out of curiosity, and have seen most of the rest from the trail. I’ve noted the quality of information below.

Note: I mostly visit the Deam in spring and fall. Streams might not be a good source of water in late summer. Water quality in ponds probably goes down as summer drags on. Monroe Lake lies behind a dam and always has water.


Sycamore Loop Group

Kobuk on the Sycamore Loop

The Sycamore Loop is 4.7 miles in length. The south side of the loop sticks to a stream before ascending to a ridge for the north side of the loop. It would make an attractive day hike. That hike would be about 6.2 miles, closing the loop on the west side and adding the connector to the trailhead. Campsites 1-4 are all on the south side of the loop.

Campsite 1 seems to refer to the campsite at the junction of the Terrill Ridge Trail and the Sycamore Loop Trail. It’s close to the parking lot, visible from both trails, and lacks water. If you’re just looking to camp without any cars around, that’s your site. It’s close enough to haul an ice chest, lawn chairs, firewood, and other things I leave in the car.

If you go down the Sycamore Loop Trail, you’ll hit an unmarked campsite near a creek at the bottom of the hill, tolerably close to where the map shows campsite 1. (I have not seen a numbered sign at either place.) There are flat spots there that would meet the requirement of being 100 feet from the trail and 100 feet from water. It’s a lovely site, within view of both stream and trail. If this is campsite 1, leave the ice chest and lawn chairs in the car.

Campsites 2, 3, and 4 are similar to that last site. Each has good water from the creek, flat tent sites, and fire pits. Each is visible from the trail, though campsite 3 is less visible than the others. They are not particularly private, but most campsites in the Deam are not.

Campsite 5 sits next to a beautiful little pond. The current trail runs on the opposite side of the old horse trail, so you have a little distance from hikers. There is less flat space here than at other sites, so I wouldn’t plan to put a big group here. There’s vegetation all along the shore, so there’s a minor bother to get to the pond, and the views aren’t as nice as campsite 6 has of its pond.


Terrill Ridge Group

Pond at Terrill Ridge










This group lies atop Terrill Ridge, which has access on a wide, well-graded trail that seems like a former road or wagon route. Where the trail turns left to a cemetery, there’s a little trail off the right that’s marked “no horses.” That narrow, winding trail gives you trail access to the sites. (Some are better reached by water.)

Campsite 6 sits on a beautiful pond. Depending on your definition of “site,” there are 2-4 around the lake, as well as one behind a berm with good access to the pond. This was a popular day hike destination when I camped there, so there was quite a bit of traffic. The best site for a lake view is also the least private.

The (unmaintained) trail continues along Terrill Ridge. There are several spots you might camp, all of which meet the USFS requirements for undesignated campsites. The end of the ridge was the most attractive, with peekaboo views of Monroe Lake. None of them have water.

The end of the ridge would seem to have access down a steep hillside to campsites 7 and 8. I haven’t tried that, so it’s just a guess.

A crossing of Axsom Branch

I have not seen campsite 9, accessed by foot from the bend in the Axsom Branch Trail. I should note that campsites 7, 8, and 9 presumably appeal to boaters and not backpackers.


Grubb Ridge Group

Kodiak guarding the tent at a Grubb Ridge site.

This is a small group of campsites at or near the junction of the Grubb Trail and the Peninsula Trail. They’re only 2.5-3.0 miles from the Grubb Ridge Trailhead.

Campsite 12 sits right next to the junction, so it’s not at all private. There is also no water. However, there’s room for a bunch of Boy Scouts, which I have seen done.

Campsite 13 is a stock site close to 12. I’ve seen it but haven’t explored it.

Down the hill from campsite 12 are campsites 14 and 15. They’re easily visible, and the best route down seems to be a little bit down the Peninsula Trail after site 12. I haven’t tried it, but the route looks steep but straightforward. I once met two guys coming up from those sites, who liked them. They were hunting, and the off-trail nature of the sites had attractions for them. The sites are just above Monroe Lake, so water is good.


Peninsula Trail Group

These campsites seem to be the most popular in the Deam Wilderness. Judging by the trail traffic, most people access them from the Grubb Ridge Trailhead. It’s 5.3 miles from there to the tip of the peninsula. (There’s a Backpacker page that claims it’s 8.8 miles, but that disagrees with the USFS map and with the fact that I can hike this trail in under two hours.)

Sunset from the Peninsula

The tip of the peninsula is a beautiful place for sunsets year round. Easy access to water from Monroe Lake. You won’t be alone – campsites 18, 19, and 20 receive high use by backpackers and occasionally boaters. Plan to get there early on a weekend (or Friday).

Campsites 16 and 17 require bushwhacking from the trail, and they don’t have the views across the lake. Campsites 16 and 17 also seem to be most popular for boaters who don’t clean up after themselves, and there always seems to be weird trash there.

Campsites 21, 22, 23, and 24 may be accessible along the shoreline from sites 19-20, or they may not. As a rule of thumb, the higher-numbered sites require lower water levels to be accessed by foot along the shore. Bushwhacking may be an option, but 23 and 24 may require you to ford streams to reach them in this direction.

You might be able to reach 24 by bushwhacking from Grubb Ridge either down from the ridge, or along the stream from the trail’s low point. I haven’t tried that. I have bushwhacked up from 23 most of the way over to 12. Route-finding to 23 from the other direction might be tricky.


Cope Hollow Trail

I have no information on campsite 25, a stock site on a trail I haven’t hiked.


For more photos, see my album on Flickr.



Idaho and Nebraska

Among other experiences this year, I’ve been fortunate to spend some extended time in Boise, Idaho, and Kearney, Nebraska. In both places, I talked with people about eco-tourism, environmental issues, protected areas, and sustainability, in various mixes. Both are very red states, and both economies have strong primary sectors. People talk about agriculture and livestock in both states, as well as forestry and mining in Idaho. Even so, they see the relationship between humans and nature in very different ways. Context matters.

In Idaho, I participated in the Idaho Environmental Forum. After that, I gave a talk on national parks at Boise State University. I also wrote a piece on the national parks for the Blue Review, an online magazine of the Idaho Center for History and Politics. In Nebraska, I participated in “Plains Safaris,” a conference on tourism and conservation in the Great Plains, sponsored by the Center for Great Plains Studies and Visit Nebraska. Idaho connected best to my teaching and research on Environmental Politics, while Nebraska connected to my teaching and research on Recreation and Tourism.

The occasions were very different, but it was striking that people in Idaho tended to talk about “environmental” issues while those in Nebraska tended to talk only about “conservation.” Not surprisingly, people in both places talked in terms of conservation when talking about hunting and fishing. The word “preservation” could be heard in both places, but in Nebraska it might refer more often to historical or cultural preservation than to the environment.


Despite the important role of hunting and fishing in how people imagined both places, there were also significant differences. I don’t remember anyone talking about birdwatching in Idaho, but it’s pretty salient in Nebraska. Because the cold winter and spring were keeping birds a bit longer than usual, we also got to see a lot of sandhill cranes in Kearney and pelicans at Harlan County Lake.

The conversations in both settings were also stamped by strong regional differences. Not surprisingly, the politics of the two large urban areas (Omaha-Lincoln and Boise) differ from the rest of the state. Each holds the state capital, several headquarters of large businesses, and each is the home of the largest university in its state. Conversations about environmental issues in the cities tended not to be much different from other US cities I know.

Outside the cities, there were obvious differences in the environmental issues salient for the Snake River region, Idaho Panhandle, and Eastern Idaho, among other regions. The Nebraska Panhandle, Central Nebraska, Niobrara River, Lake McConaughy, and Rainwater Basin stood out among the regions we discussed in Plains Safaris. Nebraska has other regions that we didn’t discuss, such as a piece of the Flint Hills. No matter the region, birds often shaped the conversations. Sandhill cranes and the Platte River, the wetland habitats of the Rainwater Basin, and the rich biodiversity of Lake McConaughy were recurring themes.

Perhaps the biggest difference between the two states is the role of the federal government. Federal lands make up almost two-thirds of Idaho, but only a little over one percent of Nebraska. As a result, you can’t talk about the environment in Idaho without talking about federal lands. In contrast, the feds were almost entirely absent from the conversations in Nebraska. State government and non-governmental organizations (NGOs) were where the action was.

Leaving Oglala National Grassland

The role of the federal government is particularly visible when we compare the visibility of federally-designated wilderness areas in the two states. Nebraska has only two small wilderness areas, each less than 10,000 acres. I’ve hiked near, but not actually in, each of these. They lie in lovely country, one outside Valentine and the other outside Fort Robinson. They don’t seem politically visible, and the ecotourism conference did not discuss them.

Idaho, in contrast, has 15 wilderness areas. All are big. The largest three are the Frank Church-River of No Return, at 2.4 million acres, the Selway-Bitterroot (1.3 million), and the Owyhee (1.1 million). With such “untrammeled” spaces available, wilderness is central to conversations about the environment in Idaho.

Surprisingly, there were fewer differences in the conversations about Indian Reservations. There are five reservations in Idaho, four of which have large landholdings. Nebraska has six reservations, but only two can be described as reaching a “modest” size. That count includes Pine Ridge, which has significant off-reservation landholdings in Nebraska.

Plains Safaris

The Plains Safaris organizers included two Native speakers, one of whom is a national park employee, and one non-Native who works closely with a tribe in Oklahoma. That may have made Indian Country more visible than it otherwise would have been. Those sessions were all very well attended, so there is clearly significant interest in partnering with tribes in the ecotourism sector. The NATIVE Act of 2016, which was mentioned in several presentations, will encourage such partnerships.

The role of state government in the conversation also varied considerably. Not surprisingly, both state governments support the role of the primary sectors in the state economy. In Idaho, only the difference between Boise and the rest of the state appeared in our conversations about state politics. In Nebraska, state government, fish and game, bird conservation, and tourism development were among the salient issues.

Each state has an agency in charge of tourism promotion. Not surprisingly, the themes of tourism promotion differ considerably. The Nebraska Tourism Commission  cosponsored the Plains Safaris conference, so of course it was visible at the event. Its website also makes ecotourism, broadly defined, part of “The Good Life” you can experience in Nebraska. Themes such as nature, agritourism, gastronomy, adventure tourism, and outdoor recreation make up almost half of the topics on the Visit Nebraska website. I’m associated with one of these subtle glories, the Great Plains Trail. We were just featured in the June 2018 issue of Backpacker magazine – check us out here.

The Plains Safari conference also featured small-town Nebraska, reachable along scenic byways. (The Heartland Byways Conference, under the auspices of the National Scenic Byways Foundation, was held in conjunction with the main conference.) Chambers of Commerce, town governments, and other local bodies were very visible in the Nebraska conversations. Willa Cather’s fiction, grounded in small-town Nebraska, was a common point of reference.

The Idaho Division of Tourism Development emphasizes very different themes than Nebraska does. Their website stresses “Your Idaho Adventure,” and the eight themes it features all concern outdoor recreation. You have to scroll down quite a while to find the first urban theme, which is beer.

Plains Safaris

Beer also makes the Nebraska list, and I encourage my Midwest friends to explore brewpubs in Omaha. Gastronomy is also visible in Nebraska’s tourism promotion. That’s easier to sell in a diverse agricultural state than in a state with “Famous Potatoes.” That said, Boise’s restaurants do a great job featuring obscure but flavorful potato varieties.

Non-tourism businesses also made an appearance at the events I attended in each state. The J. R. Simplot Company, which commercialized french fries for McDonald’s and other retailers, is very visible downtown but did not connect to our environmental discussions. Timber company Boise-Cascade  has important effects on Idaho’s forests, and was very visible.

Union Pacific 5953

Nebraska’s large businesses also affect the environment, of course. As a transportation company, Union Pacific is a major energy user. Because its most important freight is coal, it also contributes indirectly to coal consumption and thus to carbon emissions. However, these kinds of sustainability concerns are not visible on the ground in Nebraska. The environmental impact of “Uncle Pete” seems to be a national issue, not a local one.

My experiences in these two states made visible the highly-contextural, textured nature of environmental politics. This won’t surprise geographers and historians, but political science texts tend to focus on national politics. That means that political scientists end up focusing on pollution regulations, climate change, and things like energy policy. Those are important, but they leave out how the environment looks to people. Idaho and Nebraska illustrate how important it is to develop a nuanced understanding of how local residents see the relationship between humans and nature.

It’s also important to compare and contrast local politics and not just study a single site. That’s why I teach places like the Greater Yellowstone Area, Northwest Indiana, or the Four Corners region in my environmental politics classes.

Yellowstone backcountry campsites

This page reviews my experiences at many of Yellowstone’s backcountry campsites, both those where I have camped and those I have only seen along the trail. (I have eaten lunch at some of those.)  I have about 350 miles of backpacking experience in the park, though about half of those miles are “repeat” miles. Those miles include both personal trips and those in which I have led a group.

I’ve taken Illinois students backpacking in Yellowstone four times in late June and three times in late July. There are still bear closures in most of June, which rules out a number of sites I’d like to use. Even in late July some places still restrict off-trail travel. Most sites are limited to eight people, so I have often needed two sites for the short backpacking trips. The online reservation system and permit lottery now makes this two-site strategy difficult; in the past, backcountry rangers were helpful in providing options and explaining the rules in such cases.

Two of those group trips have gone to the Thorofare because it has a lot of 12-person sites. We limited group size to make that work.

My student groups have generally consisted of backpacking novices, though the two Thorofare trips had many experienced members. I’ve learned that it’s best to aim for distances around 2-5 miles, which works well for overnights or three-day weekends. Grebe Lake is at the low end of that range, the Gardiner sites at the higher end. For groups of 4-6 people, Heart Lake sites would be great but they are nine miles from the trailhead. The Snake River sites would also be great. Later in the season you can ford the Snake at the South Entrance; earlier in the season, you use an informal trail south of the park, across a bridge, and park on the east side of the river. That adds a couple of miles.

The Thorofare trips need people who can cover more miles since the minimum round-trip distance is 65 miles (plus spur trails to camping sites). I would recommend at least six nights, planning on days of 8-12 miles.

In addition to advice for backcountry groups, I thought I’d add reviews of other sites I’ve used. I’ve compared my impressions to Bill Schneider’s Hiking Yellowstone, which reviews every hiking site in the park. The park retires sites regularly, or restructures trails. Some of my reviews are updates to Schneider’s book. I have also drawn from the data in Thomas Bohannan’s Yellowstone Trail and Backcountry Field Guide.

One frustration in Yellowstone’s backcountry is that most official sites don’t follow the park rules. Ideally, your sleeping area, cooking area, and food storage area should each be 100 yards apart. You should sleep upwind of the cooking and food storage so that those food smells don’t lead a bear to your sleeping area. Not one of the sites reviewed here follows all of those rules. Most of them have a fire ring and cooking space directly underneath the bear pole. Some use constricted spaces that will leave your tents 10-25 yards from the cooking area.

Gardiner River

1G3 and 1G4 provide a pair of sites that work well for a group. You can put two eight-person crews here, within an easy walk of one another. Unfortunately, neither of these sites have a view of Electric Peak. However, either one would make a good basecamp for a climb of Electric.

Electric Peak1G4. This site is close to the Gardiner River water source. This site is very open with a big fire circle that is great for a group. The campfire has very good views across the meadow and into the lower portions of the Gallatins. Even though this site is visible from the trail, I’d choose this one over 1G3 if I were backpacking by myself.

1G3. This is a more closed-in site. It is much more private than 1G4, located some distance off the trail. It does not have any real view from the cooking area or tent sites. It’s about a hundred yards to the river water source.

Gardner's Hole1G2. This site is also on the Gardiner River, but it’s on a different trail than 1G3 and 1G4. You can’t accommodate 16 people here. Schneider gives this site five stars, but I can’t figure out why. He likes it as a private site with a good view, tent sites, and water source. I certainly agree on the tent sites and water source, but there were no real views from the site. You can get some good views if you walk upslope a bit from the sites (no trail), but hte sites are in the woods by the river.

The nearby site 1G5 is for stock groups only, but it better fits Schneider’s review. It’s possible that he mixed up the two sites in his notes. For views similar to mine, see http://www.trailguidesyellowstone.com/yellowstone_hikes/fawn_pass_trail_east_yellowstone.php

Grebe Lake

There are three sites on the north side of Grebe Lake that would work well for groups. We used 4G3 and 4G4, but 4G5 would also pair well with 4G4. 4G3 and 4G4 are a little farther apart than I’d like for a group, and the trail between them is indistinct. The lake was very buggy in late June, and the area mostly seems to attract anglers. All three sites had clear views of 4G2 on the other side of the lake, which was also occupied. This reduces the privacy.Guard uinta

4G3 parallels the trail. It has beautiful views of the lake but is not at all private. The tent site, bear pole, and eating area are spread out in a line and more separate from one another than is true at most Yellowstone backcountry sites. There’s a community of Uinta ground squirrels between the campsite and the lake.

4G4 is a real winner, though the bear pole, eating area, and tent sites are closer together than they should be. The site is hidden in the woods but looks out over the lake.

Snake River

8C1. I love the views from this site, which go up and down the Snake River Valley. The bear pole, eating area, and tent sites line up parallel to the trail, reasonably spaced out but nowhere near the official recommendations. Because we don’t make campfires, we ate away from camp on bluffs overlooking the river. You don’t have any privacy, and the trail attracts a fair number of horsepacking groups on their way to sites on the national forest.
Snake River MorningThere are other sites within a reasonable distance that would make this work for a group. They’re a little farther apart than I’d like, though.

Thermal features flow into the Snake River in this area, creating one legal (and safe) soaking area next to the river. You should be aware of the risk of the Naegleri fowleri parasite, which is deadly.

Basin Creek

8B1. This site has been moved since Schneider wrote his book, and the nearby trail junction has been restructured a bit so that the site is south of the junction and not north as the maps show. Signage was not yet adequate when we were there.

Schneider calls it “semiprivate,” but it’s now a very private site. Because it’s new, it lacks a defined spur trail. If you’re coming from Snake River, look for the sign and walk uphill across the meadow. You’ll find the site in the woods. If you’re coming up the Basin Creek Cutoff Trail, turn left at the junction with Heart Lake, not right. (The NPS failed to tell us this; you might ask for details at the backcountry office.)
Basin Creek Sunrise
Inexplicably, the cooking area, bear pole, and best tent site are all on top of one another, so don’t use that tent site. It’s hard to find level sites in the woods, so we just found a hard site in the meadow. The meadow has quite a few bison wallows, and I wouldn’t use those! As campers have explored the site since we visited, you might find some tent pads at the edge of the woods looking over the meadow There are great views toward Overlook Mountain from that meadow, so enjoy.

Heart Lake

There are five campsites on the west side of Heart Lake. 8H2 and 8H3 share a new spur trail, but are otherwise private. We could see 8H2 from our bear pole, but the campers there never showed any awareness of us. Both sites are on the lake and allow campfires. 8H2 has a composting pit toilet with no walls. It’s visible from the cooking area, which is another example of poor landscape design by the NPS. However, we never had any problems with smells.
Heart Lake sunset
We only found one good tent site at 8H3. It has a good view of Mount Sheridan, but not of Heart Lake. However, there is a shoreline area along the lake where we watched sunrises, sunsets, and beavers.

All of the Heart Lake sites are great basecamps for a hike up Mount Sheridan. That’s a nine-mile round trip from 8H2 and 8H3, a little less from 8H4-8H5-8H6, and at least a mile more from 8H1.

Thorofare and Southeast Arm

Park Point offers a group of three sites and a trailside pit toilet. Two of those sites, Park Point North (5E8) and Park Point South (5E9), have beautiful locations along the lake. Their meadows are also mosquito-breeding facilities, a feature you’ll notice if there is no lake off the breeze. The third site (5E7) is back from the lake, in a marshy area that has a ferocious mosquito population and no views. Avoid that one.

Three miles further south you’ll find Columbine Meadow (5E6), a lovely spot where I have had lunch but never stayed. This is nine miles from the trailhead, so it gives you the mileage you need for your first (or last) day on the trail to the Thorofare Ranger Station.

5E4 Brimstone Bay is a lovely lakeside side with a beautiful view of Yellowstone Lake and Promontory Point, down an easy 0.2 mile spur from the trail.  It rightly earns five stars from Schneider. My only concern in August 2017 was that there were a lot of snags in and around the campsite – one fell down during our dinner on a perfectly calm day. While the park had cleaned up those by July 2022, my students found new widowmakers. Place your tent well.

The Beaverdam Creek area has two campsites some distance apart, and my old map shows that both of them have been moved. Beaverdam Creek 5E1 is west of the trail, on a spur that will take you a few hundred yards away from the junction – and your water source at the Beaverdam Creek ford.  The tent sites are squeezed into a narrow space between a steep slope and the forest, but the views are fantastic. It’s a long way to water, though.

6B4 Beaverdam Meadow seems to have new routing when we were there in 2017, with about half the 0.4 mile spur trail essentially guesswork through a meadow.  That meadow seems popular with horse parties, and we saw a lot of, uh, horse sign there in 2017.  Horse sign was much less in 2022 and 2023. The food area and tent sites don’t have views. It’s a short walk to the creek, with constricted views of the mountains but lots of privacy. This site is the approximate location of one of the 1870 Washburn-Langford-Doane Expedition’s campsites, and still gives a group lots of room.

6C2 River’s Edge is a beautiful site on a bluff above the Yellowstone River with a number of good tent sites.  When the river is high (as in 2017), it was challenging to get down the bluff to water. Unless you’re on horse, the mile-long spur trail entails some route finding to cross streams in the meadow and to reach the well-marked campsite.

6D3 surprised me. It’s on a small triangle of land between braids of Mountain Creek, barely hiding out of view from the trail. If other hikers or, say, a bull bison are using the ford, you’ll see them if you step ten feet from the cooking area. The sunset views were glorious to both the west and the east, as the warm light hit the Absarokas. Schneider only gives it three stars because it’s not exactly private, though traffic is so light on the Thorofare Trail that I don’t think that’s a problem. I’d give it five stars for space, “swimming” hole, and views. The only downside is that, no matter which way you’re traveling, you start your morning with a ford. Brrr!

6Y6 Three Mile Bend on the Yellowstone River has a beautiful view and a lot of mosquitoes. This was the only place we used our head net in 2017.  Most of the group used head nets in 2022, though I didn’t. The mosquitoes were better behaved in 2023, and don’t remember anyone using the head nets both nights. It’s easier to get down the bluff for water than it is at 6C2, but there was no flat space at the river’s edge in 2017 – we were balancing on slick mud. In 2022 and 2023, water levels were lower and we had a nice beach downstream from the camp. The spur trail required some bushwhacking through the willow, but the route finding is easy if you stay close to the river.  (Horse parties will want to stay away from the river and look for a gap in the woods to the left once the river is no longer visible.) There was a lot of bear sign there in 2017, and we met someone who had a grizz examine her bag at the food pole two days before. We heard wolves both nights in 2022 and 2023, with fresh wolf and elk prints the first morning.

6Y5 Cliff Creek. I have not been to the actual campsite, but it clearly lies inside a stand of trees downhill from the trail and at the edge of a wetland. Some parts of the site are visible from the trail. Looking up, Cliff Creek descends between two arms of The Trident, and supposedly you can scramble to the falls. I had reserved this site in 2022 but the bear pole was damaged in the June storms so the NPS rerouted us. Next time.

Shoshone Lake

8S0 and 8S1 are two campsites next to each other, both next to the Shoshone Lake Ranger Cabin.  The paddler site is just back from the lake, with the lovely beach you see here. I had lunch here before exploring the eastern shore. The backpacker site is back from the lake and right next to the trail, with a terrible pit toilet. The two sites seem to have been classified as one in Schneider’s book, and he gives the paddler site four stars.

8S1. The backpacker’s site is further inland, near the trail junctions. The backpackers’ site has peek-a-boo views of the lake. It’s an easy walk down to the beach, offering great views of beautiful Shoshone Lake. As you can see in the photo, the backpackers’ site is serviceable but unexceptional. The outhouse has reached that stage (in 2022) where screws and nails no longer hold everything together, so gravity makes those decisions.

8S2. I didn’t stay here but walked through the middle of it, and talked to someone staying there. There’s a tent spot about 10-15 yards of the trail but the cooking area is right on the tail, with the lake on the other side of the trail. Pretty but not private.

8S3. This was empty when I walked through it, but is similar to 8S3 with perhaps a little more privacy.

8R5. This is a gorgeous site well off the trail. The bear pole and cooking area are on a small bluff above the lake. You could also bring your food down to the shoreline for views of the Shoshone Geyser Basin and Shoshone Lake.  The site lies down a good spur trail, about a half-mile from the trail. There’s a pit toilet (no walls) and abundant tent sites, all an appropriate distance from the cooking area and each other. The shoreline offers great sunrise and sunset views in September. The site is very private unless you’re on the shoreline and a canoe goes by on the way the geyser basin.

Outstanding opportunities for solitude

The Wilderness Act of 1964 defines a wilderness area as a place where, among other values, one may find “outstanding opportunities for solitude.” Because of their popularity, it’s often hard to find solitude in national park wildernesses, especially during the tourist season.

In this article for National Parks Traveler, I recount how I found solitude in a popular national park on a busy Memorial Day weekend.

Herbert Hoover’s Heroic History

Stanford_University_Hoover_TowerI’ve always had a soft spot in my heart for Herbert Hoover. I had the opportunity in college to do some research in the Hoover archives as part of a senior thesis. Though his presidency was not a success, there is much to admire in the rest of his life, both public and private.

When I moved to the Midwest, I was able to visit his birthplace in West Branch, Iowa. It’s a national historic site, managed by the National Park Service (NPS). The site preserves about a dozen historic buildings to give you a sense of what it was like for Hoover to grow up here. Next door you’ll find his presidential library, managed by the National Archives and Records Administration. Taken together, these two sites are an Iowa gem, well worth a visit – and convenient, just off Interstate 80, east of Iowa City.

Though I like the site, it tends to present President Hoover’s self-image more than his actual history. Following Hoover’s self-image, the National Park Service here interprets its subject as the ultimate American success story — orphaned at age ten, a boy from small-town Iowa succeeds through education, hard work, and faith. After becoming a millionaire by age 40, the story goes, he turns to public service and eventually reaches the presidency.


Herbert Hoover Birthplace

There’s a lot of truth in that story. Even so, a critical perspective requires that we look more fully at the political setting of this national historic site and the stories it tells. The site’s history begins just after Hoover was elected President in 1928. People began to visit West Branch, and Hoover’s wife, Lou Henry Hoover, wanted to provide something to celebrate her husband’s achievements. After exploring several options, the Hoover family bought his birth home in 1935 and began to restore it. They worked with a private group in which Herbert’s son Allan played an important role. That group operated the site as a memorial and public park, following the family’s wishes for the site, until Congress made it a national historic site in 1972.

Herbert Hoover was involved in planning this site over these years. That legacy shapes park planning today. For example, two of the five “fundamental resources and values” reflect Herbert Hoover’s own decisions, the gravesite location and its vista over the birthplace cottage. President Hoover chose that vista to show “that anyone can start from a simple life and achieve great things”

Hoover's Fences

Interpretation throughout the site emphasizes Hoover’s view of himself and his personal history. Hoover believed strongly that America provided great opportunities for the self-made man. A central theme found in several locations is Hoover’s statement that,
“My country owes me nothing. It gave me, as it gives every boy and girl, a chance . . . In no other land could a boy from a country village, without inheritance or influential friends, look forward with unbounded hope.”

The NPS continues that theme. It invites visitors to “discover how family, faith, education, and hard work opened a world of opportunity—even the presidency—to a man of simple beginnings.” It claims that “Hoover exemplified the ideal of individualism and the self-made man. His expertise as a mining engineer made him a millionaire by age 40. Having been raised in the Quaker traditions of being humane and generous to others, Hoover embarked on a course of public service for the rest of his life.”

Hoover certainly came a long way, but his was not exactly the rags-to-riches story of a man who accomplishes everything on his own. While he was not born to wealth like Theodore Roosevelt, neither was not born in a frontier cabin like Abraham Lincoln. For that matter, he also was not born to freedmen in the Reconstruction South. He was born to successful parents in a very small single-family home in a growing community of about 500 people.

The chains I forged in life

His father, Jesse Hoover, owned a blacksmith business. That business outperformed competing smithies in town, a a uccess that the NPS attributes to “Jesse’s friendliness, honesty, and strong work ethic.” As his income grew, Jesse Hoover sold his blacksmith shop and bought a more lucrative farm implements business. This earned enough money to move the family to a much larger house up the hill, the boyhood home that “Bertie” Hoover remembers.

Whetstone and gear

The family’s financial success was short-lived. Jesse Hoover died when Bertie was six, and his mother died four years later. Their three children were divided among relatives. However, Bertie was fortunate to live in a supportive community of Quakers in which his mother Hulda Hoover had been a religious leader. Several relatives, and even his schoolteacher, offered to take him. After a year with local relatives, Hoover’s family decided to send him to Oregon to live with a successful uncle, Dr. Henry John Minthorn.

Though he was an orphan, Bertie had financial resources. His mother had saved $850 from Jesse’s insurance policy for Bert to go to college. That was a sizeable sum in the 1890s, equivalent to perhaps $20,000 today. A recruiter for the brand-new Stanford University contacted Dr. Milton and successfully recruited his ward. First-year tuition at Stanford was free. With his mother’s nest egg as a base, Hoover worked to cover his other costs.

Hoover earned a geology degree and went to work immediately as a mining engineer in California’s gold mines. His work later took him to Australia, China, and Europe, where he worked as a consultant. While working at his consulting firm in London, Hoover helped Americans return to Europe when the Great War broke out in 1914. After this success, people invited him to organize relief for Belgium, a neutral country that had become a major battleground when the Germans invaded. Reflecting his Quaker beliefs in service to community, Hoover answered the call.

His relief work was a great success, expanding throughout Europe. He even provided food relief to both sides in the Russian Civil War. These successes catapulted Hoover into the public eye. Though some wanted him to run for president in 1920, he ended up serving both Harding and Coolidge as Secretary of Commerce. Success in that role made him a successful presidential candidate in 1928.

That story certainly provides the material for Hoover’s view of his own success. He did indeed rise from a small town to the presidency through hard work, education, and faith. Even so, that self-image downplays the helping hands he received. His father was a successful small businessman, as were others in his family. That family came to the rescue when his parents died. His inheritance helped him through college, as did the generosity of Jane and Leland Stanford in building their university.

Friends meeting house

The town of West Branch also provided Hoover with a lot of social capital. It had been settled mostly by the Society of Friends, as the Quakers are formally known. Hoover’s extended family was part of the early group who built West Branch, and civic leaders. The Quaker community instilled him with the values that served him well, “education, thrift, and individual enterprise.”

In addition to teaching visitors about the Quakers at Hoover NHS, the NPS idealizes Iowa small-town life. The interpretive plan says that “The park presents the opportunity for visitors to experience the serenity of the landscape and explore the simplicity of the small town rural character with all of their senses.” This simplicity helps illustrate Quaker values of simplicity as well.

P. T. Smith House

However, small-town life here was less bucolic than the NPS imagines. Those who explore the entire website will find stories about ten houses in the historic district (the Garvin, Hayhurst, Leech, Mackey, Miles, C. E. Smith, P. T. Smith, Staples, Varney, and Wright homes). Many coincided with Hoover’s days in West Branch, but several were built after he had moved to Oregon. The house histories on the website mention that three of these homes went through foreclosure, the Hayhurst (1878), Garvin (1885), and Leech (1886) homes. The park does not say this, but those years coincided with a national decline in per capita income in the 1880s, a decline associated with the Great Depression of 1873-96.

The financial traumas that must have been associated with these foreclosed mortgages provide a view of American capitalism that differs considerably from what the NPS presents at the site. This was not merely a community that valued education, hard work, and faith, but a community where some hard-working people lost their homes to the local bank or real estate developer. These frequent foreclosures — three of the ten historic homes in eight years — contrasts with Hoover’s memory that “In consequence of plain living and hard work, poverty has never been their lot.”

A more realistic sense of how West Branch connects to the national and global economies might make for some good story opportunities. The park brochure notes that Hoover’s ideals of individualism and charity pointed in different directions during the Great Depression. It might go further and explore how his town’s economic difficulties shaped both of those values. As we now know, those values were a poor guide to policy-making in Hoover’s presidency.

Hoover’s failure to address the Depression paved the way for Franklin Roosevelt’s New Deal, with large-scale government intervention in the economy far beyond what Hoover was willing to do. That set the stage for the great debates of the twentieth century, with presidents such as Lyndon Johnson expanding the role of government while Ronald Reagan and others sought to decrease it. Interestingly, Hoover later found a role in the expansion of government. He led two “Hoover Commissions” on making the executive branch run more efficiently, one for Truman and one for Eisenhower. However, the park does not connect this fact to any larger issues in American history.

The park’s current Long-Range Interpretation Plan intends to make the Depression of 1929-39 a bit more visible than it currently is. Those recommendations were not yet visible on-site in 2012, though the adjacent Presidential Library does not shy away from the Depression years.

Because the Hoover family played a major role in establishing the national historic site, interpretation here stays close to his own self-image. That story belongs here, but it should also connect to larger and more complicated stories about the political economy of small-town America.

Adapted from “Telling America’s Stories,” a book manuscript by Robert Pahre. For questions and comments, email him at pahre@illinois.edu

Visit Herbert Hoover NHS