May Time VI: The Man Who Put Duluth On The Map

US sculler Walter Hoover from Duluth, Minnesota, received one of the great honours of the inter-war period – appearing on cards given away in cigarette packets.

3 March 2023

By Tim Koch

Tim Koch gives Walter Hoover a Fred May post of his own – Hoover in a vacuum.

Walter M Hoover (1895 -1984)

Caricaturist Fred May depicted Walter Hoover in two of his collections of Henley characters: 1922 and 1925. Hoover provided a sensation in the Diamond Sculls of both of those years – though only one resulted in a Pineapple Cup being taken back to the United States.

1922. Photograph: MNOpedia
1925. Photograph: MNOpedia

While Hoover is now little remembered in Britain, in his native land (and native city and state in particular), his name still means something in rowing circles. There is a splendid biography of Hoover on (“A resource for reliable information about significant people, places, events, and things in Minnesota history”) and I have drawn heavily on this.

Hoover joined the Duluth Boat Club as a young swimmer but switched to rowing when he was eighteen. In his first year of rowing, he was a member of the Junior Eight that won at the Northwestern International Rowing Association regatta. The same crew went on to win the Intermediate Eight at the US National Championships and they beat their own senior eight from Duluth in the Senior Eight finals.

The Duluth Boat Club National Champion Senior Eight crew in 1914. Hoover is the fourth from the right. Picture: MNOpedia

In 1914, Hoover took up sculling and won the junior and senior singles events at the Northwestern International Rowing Association and repeated the senior win the next year. 

Hoover was a private in the Third Minnesota Infantry National Guard and in 1916 was called up to pursue the Mexican revolutionary leader Pancho Villa on the Mexican border (pictured). When the US entered the First World War in 1917, he joined the artillery and became a second lieutenant.

At the 1921 US National Rowing Championships, Hoover caught the attention of the rowing world by winning the intermediate single, the senior single, and the quarter-mile dash.

In 1922, Hoover won the Philadelphia Gold Challenge Cup in record time. While the Americans claimed that this was effectively the sculling world championship, Henley held that the race for the Diamond Sculls was the pinnacle of amateur sculling. As if to settle the matter, Hoover sailed to England the day after the Gold Cup to compete for the Diamonds, taking the sculling boat that he had designed himself. 

At Henley, Hoover easily won his two heats, including a victory over AA Baynes, the undefeated Australian sculling champion. In the final, Hoover beat Britain’s best oarsman of the pre-Redgrave era, the great Jack Beresford, by nearly 30 seconds, and immediately became famous. The Times wrote:

The race proved one of the greatest sensations that we have had at Henley for a long time, and the pace that Hoover got on his boat in the stiff head wind was a revelation.

Beresford (left) and Hoover (right) at Henley in 1922. This was only the second time that the Diamonds had gone to the US, the first was in 1897 with a win by EH Ten Eyck. 

A few weeks after Hoover’s win, the Henley Standard reported:

A rousing reception was given to Walter Hoover, the American winner of the Diamond Sculls at Henley Regatta, when he returned to New York on Tuesday. A civic holiday has been declared in his hometown of Duluth, Minnesota today and Mr Hoover will be presented with a house fully furnished…

On 9 June last year, wrote:

The Duluth Rowing Club [sic Boat Club] is less than 24 hours away from celebrating the 100th Anniversary of Duluthian Walter Hoover’s (sic) World Championship during their 62nd Duluth International Regatta…

In the middle of the (regatta), the club will pause to name a brand new quad, honoring Hoover’s achievements after a century since he was crowned as (sic) the Single Scull World Champ at the Diamond Sculls in England back in 1922. Michael Cochran of Duluth Rowing Club [sic Boat Club], says Hoover may be one of the most famous people to come out of the Twin Ports:

“I’d like people to know that this was such a big thing for Duluth. When he arrived back from winning this event in England, he was met at the train station with thousands of people, parading through the city. The citizens were just all sorts of anticipation, the newspaper had published photographs of Hoover in the paper that they thought everyone should stick in their window to show their support. The business community was just ecstatic because they felt that his victory put Duluth on the map.”

Hoover back in Duluth with his Diamond Sculls Pineapple Cup. He may have been the most famous person to come out of Duluth until the 1960s when the locally born Robert Zimmerman began to have some success with his music. Picture: MNOpedia/David Bjorkman Collection.

The next year, 1923, Hoover returned to Henley to defend his Diamond Sculls title. Sensationally, he lost by 3/4 length in the first round to Britain’s David Gollan. The Times reported:

The American winner of the Sculls last year failed to reproduce the pace which marked his sculling in 1922. In his short boat, he appeared to be none too comfortable with the adverse wind and hit the booms before reaching the first signal.

Hoover (closest to camera) losing to Gollan in the first round of the 1923 Diamonds. 

Hoover had a peculiar but effective style. The Times said, “Hoover is undoubtedly a very fast sculler, despite his curious finish…” The newspaper had also noted that, “His work is set unusually high, but he is very neat and quick with his hands, and has a clean recovery.” 

In 1924, Hoover did not enter Henley as he was concerned with defending his American titles, but he competed again in 1925. In the first round of the Diamonds, he easily defeated an undertrained Morris K Morris of London who had sensationally won the event in 1923, less than 18-months after taking up the sport. The Times reported that Hoover “sculled brilliantly” but noted that he nearly lost an oar in the first minute. In the second round, however, Hoover lost to the eventual winner, Jack Beresford. The Times report is worth reproducing in full. 

The Times report on the 1925 Diamonds Hoover – Beresford race, Hoover’s last Henley.

In 1924, Jack Beresford, slightly peculiarly, became the holder of the Philadelphia Gold Cup by winning the Olympic Sculls in Paris. The next year, Hoover challenged him to row for the trophy over a mile-and-a-half of the Thames Championship Course, from the Boat Race start to Harrods. However, the Americans wished to style the race, the “Amateur Championship of the World”, something unacceptable to Henley and to Britain’s Amateur Rowing Association, so Beresford refused the challenge. By this time, however, Hoover was already in Britain and so Beresford, ever the gentleman, consented to row.

This unsatisfactory preamble was followed by an unsatisfactory race. Beresford led at the start but soon Hoover sculled into him. After the boats had broken apart, The Times noted that the two men raced “somewhat half-heartedly” and Beresford won by several lengths. The Times called Hoover “a fine racer and a gallant opponent” but held that he needed to rely “on his legs rather than his arms” and that he was handicapped by “too short a boat and too high a work, however great his courage…”

The 1925 Philadelphia Gold Cup held at Putney. The scullers in Fulham Reach, Beresford far in front. Picture: Thames RC Archive.

Above: Newsreel film of the Putney Philadelphia Gold Cup.

In 1926, Hoover became coach at the Undine Barge Club in Philadelphia and had much success. He continued sculling himself and won the championship single and single dash at the US National Championship Regatta and the championship single, the double, and the single dash at the Royal Canadian Henley Regatta.

Above: Hoover in a 27-pound experimental scull in 1927. Possibly, it had an aluminium alloy skin. 

In 1928, Hoover retired as a competitive rower and later moved to Detroit, where he coached the Detroit Boat Club. His son, Walter junior (1934 – 2020), was also a successful sculler and rowed in the US double in the 1952 Olympics.

In 1956, Hoover’s Detroit oarsmen won the coxless four and double sculls at the US Olympic trials and he was then made the US Olympic rowing team’s small boats coach. The five crews that he coached won one bronze medal, two silver medals, and two gold medals at the 1956 Olympics in Melbourne, Australia.

Hoover at the Minneapolis Rowing Club in 1978. Picture: Minnesota Star Tribune

After Detroit, Hoover retired from coaching but in 1978 had a comeback with the Minneapolis Rowing Club. In 1979, he became the women’s crew coach at Kansas State University and in 1982 he began working on the design of new rowing shells. 

Thus, when Hoover died in 1984, the boy from Duluth had been involved in high performance rowing and coaching for nearly seventy years.

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