Friday, April 15, 2016

Quilts in Iowa

The state of Iowa emerged with statehood on December 28, 1846.  However settlers had begun to arrive in Iowa territory prior to that -- the period of time when the area was part of the Northwest territory.  President James K. Polk signed the law admitting Iowa as the 29th state of the Union.  There was a rich history of the plains as many Siouan speaking tribes of Native Americans, along with Caddoan speaking tribes had inhabited the area since prehistoric times.  By the time white settlers began to move into the area the Meskwaki had claimed land in Iowa.  As pioneers began to settle in the mid-1800s, families settled onto the prairie, cleared the land, and began to cultivate the land.  The men and older children worked the fields and tended the animals, the women and younger children tended the home, the garden, and the fires to keep the homestead warm and as comfortable as possible.

One of the activities that occupied the pioneers/settlers, during the winter was making quilts.  Scraps of material were cut into shapes and pieced together to make colorful patterns.  Quilting bees (where a group of quilters would sit around a quilting rack and hand quilt the pieced quilt top to batting and the bottom layer) were held in churches, a neighbor's home, and so forth.Over time many quilts were made and shared.
The picture on the left was taken at the Laura Ingalls Wilder museum in Burr Oak, Iowa.  Laura and her parental family lived there (1876–1877) for a time and operated the town saloon which also took in overnight travelers. These quilts are period pieces that represent the type of quilt that might have been used in the 1870s.  (Read more about Wilder's days in Iowa here

Sometime in the mid-1900s the State Historical Society of Iowa joined a larger project to document the evolution of quilt making in the early days of the state ... and up through 1925.  Documentation for some of these quilts can be located at

Check out the early quilts digitalized on the Quilt index website.  But even though the history here has a cut-off date of 1925 - that doesn't mean that quilting in Iowa is no longer active.  While there are many quilt collections included in this project ( those that are associated directly with Iowa can be found at the State Historical Society of Iowa (
Among some of my favorites are these patterns:

Each of these quilts and others are shown - and details regarding year, quilter, and so forth are included on the Quilt Index website.

Today quilting bees sometimes do take place - often in rural churches, the church ladies hand quilt quilt tops which are brought to them.  The quilts they hand quilt bring in needed funds to their small community.  But these days, many quilts are quilted by machine on contract by quilters who have a long-armed quilting machine in their home or small business location.  On April 15, 2016 a member of the East Iowa Heirloom Quilters, Jennifer McRae, showcased many of her quilts.  The showcase took place at the Hiawatha (Iowa) public library.  The quilts showcased were those that that McRae, her mother, or her daughter had pieced together -- and which McRae or her daughter had machine quilted.

These pictures are from the quilt showcase:

Thank you Jennifer McRae for sharing.  Many more examples of her quilting are showcased on My Dancing Needle webpage at

Those in the Cedar Rapids/Iowa City area may also be interested in investigating the East Iowa Heirloom Quilters group


  • Blaski, Steven. "Quilts Reveal Lives of Early Iowans," The Palimpsest: Iowa's Popular History Magazine. 1990 Spring 71(1); p 33.
  • East Iowa Heirloom Quilters
  • Flanscha, Karan. "Heritage Quilts From America's Heartland: The Iowa Quilt Research Project," Lady's Circle Patchwork Quilts. April/May 1996; pgx. 5-12. 
  • Iowa History: Bits and Pieces: Laura Ingalls WIlder - at home in Iowa. (2013 Sep 15).  Retrieved
  • My Dancing Needle.  (2016) 
  • Schmeal, Jacqueline Andre. Patchwork: Iowa Quilts and Quilters. Iowa City, IA: University of Iowa Press, 2003. 158 p. 0877458650
  • The Quilt Index - Collection: State Historical Society of Iowa.  Retrieved from 
  • The Quilt Research Project. Retrieved from
  • The Thread That Remains, Patterns From Iowa’s Past. Des Moines: Iowa Quilts Research Project, 1990. Small exhibit catalog.

Sunday, September 27, 2015

Memories of a Journey

The Joy Is in the Journey -- The Steeples of NE Iowa on the Way to Balltown & Pope Francis (Inspiration) 2015.

In 2013, a friend and I headed out from Cedar Rapids to head to Balltown to eat lunch at the historic Breitbach's Country Dining.  The original eating establishment, opened in 1852 - just six years after Iowa became the 29th state in the Union. It was a stagecoach stop for cross country travelers and in 1862 the Breitbach family bought the establishment and it has been in the Breitbach family ever since.  The restaurant has been continuously in operation for more than a century.  On Christmas eve in 2007 the restaurant burned completely to the ground.  The community got behind the family and the family rebuilt and reopened the restaurant to great acclaim.  The euphoric atmosphere lasted only 10 months.  On October 24, 2008 the restaurant was again on fire.  This time the decision to rebuild was a little more difficult but rebuild they did.  The history of this restaurant - their menu and all you might want to know about the restaurant can be found on their website at

Along the journey we decided to check out all the church spires - and here is what we found...

As we traveled through Worthington, Iowa we found this church steeple: St. Paul the Apostle.

Between the town of Worthington, and Dyersville was some beautiful trees that were just beginning to turn crimson and orange and golden yellow.  Beautiful.

 The Basicilca of St. Francis in Dyersville, Iowa has twin steeples.

New Vienna cam next on the route.  From a distance, the steeple on St. Boniface is impressive.  The next two photos are photographs taken from a closer vantage point.  The steeple was so tall that two photos had to be taken.

 This is the little chapel building that sits on the cemetery that is next to the church itself -- the cemetery sits on Church Street.

Pope Francis during his visit to the United States, September 26, 2015.
The last time a pope visited Iowa was an eventful day in 1979 when Pope John Paul II visited Iowa. Pope Francis will not (and did not) come to Iowa during his visit in 2015.  However, his mere presence in the United States and his inclusiveness brings us all - regardless of religious affiliation or non-affiliation, a reminder that our journey is not over with admiration for the church structure itself.  Our admiration must be for the way people bring beauty into their personal lives -- Christian, Jewish, Muslim, ... whatever one's belief... or non-belief we must care for our fellow human beings.  During Pope Francis's visit to the United States I wish he could have seen how the rural area of Iowa honored (and honors) the religious institution with its buildings from throughout the centuries.  And I wish he could have witnessed the caring people of Iowa.  But we all have much to do.

The buildings are beautiful.  But the work of humanity is not the buildings.  The work for our fellow humans is inside our own actions.
If we can just continue to follow Pope Francis's wish that we actually follow that beauty with gracious and good deeds toward our fellow humans here on Earth perhaps there will someday be peace and honor to all.

A very interesting day to tour Iowa ... and a reminder that each of us could do better for ourselves and for others. 

Monday, September 01, 2014

Herbert Hoover - Native Iowan

A President from IOWA -- 
Herbert Clark Hoover (August 10, 1874 - October 20, 1964)
U.S. President (31st)  1929-1933
Herbert Clark Hoover (August 10, 1874 - October 20, 1964 ) was born in West Branch, Iowa but before he was ten years of age he was orphaned and living in Oregon being raised by an aunt and an uncle.  He studied at Stanford and became a civil engineer.  He spent a lot of time in China and worked all over the world.  It was his work during World War I that marked his true success as a humanitarian when he became involved in the relief efforts for trapped foreigners, and headed up the Commission for Relief in Belgium
Citizens of Belgium (and elsewhere in Europe) were so thankful that they often used their talents to embroider over the designs on the grain sacks and sent them back to Hoover as a thank-you for his humanitarian efforts.

At the Herbert Hoover Museum in West Branch, Iowa there are several personal stories of memories of Hoover's efforts to feed the hungry in Europe.  One man, Eric Sonneman* (December 1, 1910 - 2004), tells of a day in his childhood -- he like many other children had little or no food on many days.  The children were always hungry.  Often their only food was grainy and brown rolls made with flour mixed with sand in order to stretch the quantity of the flour.  And milk that was so diluted with water that the color was blue. One day his teacher came into the classroom and told the children that they would be getting a tin plate and cup and that they should scratch their name in the plate and cup.  And soon other teachers would be bringing in "Hoover Rolls."  He did not know what "Hoover
Rolls" were but it turns out they were luscious aromatic white rolls.  As the teachers came in with pans filled with the delicious smelling rolls the children were given hot chocolate and a Hoover roll.  As an adult Eric brought that tin plate and cup with him to America -- a memory of the very best day in his life.  Even as an older man, he said that he will not ever forget that day.  Hot chocolate and Hoover Rolls.

~ ~ ~

Herbert Hoover's career moved on and many felt that he was not the best president ever but in fact history may look a little more favorable as time passes.  Read about his career as humanitarian, secretary of commerce and as the 31st President of the United States of America, Herbert C. Hoover (1929–1933).
~ ~ ~
*While researching information about Eric Sonneman, whose story lead to my discovery of "Hoover Rolls" I came across a post by his daughter Toby Sonneman who writes of one of his favorite things during his later life in Chicago, Illinois -- rich delicious "S" cookies.  "A hundred years of S-Cookies" shares the story of and the recipe for a sweeter treat that Sonneman came to enjoy.  His mother brought the recipe with her when she and his dad (Toby's grandparents) fled Nazi Germany in 1940.  Sweet recipe and sweet story.   I'll be making these cookies this Thanksgiving in honor of Eric Sonneman - a man who remembered our Iowa born president - Herbert C. Hoover.  Thanks, Eric for sharing your story, and Toby, thank you for sharing yours.  Stories make history memorable.

Sunday, May 25, 2014

Memorial Day Moment: The Story of a Civil War Soldier

Memorial Day Moment - The Story of a Civil War Soldier

Civil War Statue donated by Thomas S. Simons in
honor of Civil War Soldiers
Statue is in place at Evergreen Cemetery
Delhi, Delaware County, Iowa
When public funding did not raise money
for this memorial statue, Thomas S. Simons
donated the funds to erect the statue.

Memorial Day Moment -
Civil War Statue in Evergreen Cemetery in Delhi, Delaware County.
The Civil War statue erected in memory of the service of Civil War soldiers.  Statue was funded by Thomas S. Simons (1839- 03 Apr 1919) who served with his father (George)   Co. K 21 Iowa Inf.  Thomas S. Simons was the brother of John Edward (1846-1914). John Edward was the father of Thomas Harold Simons (1887-1951) who became the father of Mary Simons McElmeel (1905-2013).  Mary McElmeel was the grandmother to the McElmeel children (Mike, Deborah, Tom, Steve, Matt, and Suzanne),  making this Civil War Soldier and the benefactor who honored his fellow Civil War Soldiers, their great-great-great uncle.

From the US Department of Veterans Affairs:
"Memorial Day History

Three years after the Civil War ended, on May 5, 1868, the head 
of an organization of Union veterans — the Grand Army of the Republic 
(GAR) — established Decoration Day as a time for the nation to decorate 
the graves of the war dead with flowers. Maj. Gen. John A. Logan 
declared that Decoration Day should be observed on May 30. It is 
believed that date was chosen because flowers would be in bloom all over
 the country.
The first large observance was held that year at Arlington National Cemetery, across the Potomac River from Washington, D.C."

Originally published May 25, 2014 at 
The father of Thomas S. Simons, George Simons,  also served in the Civil War.  Father and son joined together on August 15, 1862.  Both mustered in on August 23, 1862.  According to military records this is an account of George's service in the Civil War ...
  • January 11, 1863: Wounded Hartsville, MO.
  • Wounded in the head at the battle of Houston
  • May 1863: absent "sick, Grand Gufl, Mississippi"
  • September 10, 1863: "absent on furlough"
  • October 1863: "September. 10, 1863 Brashear City, George Simons absented himself on pass to New Orleans and has not returned."
  • November 1863: "joined from desertion" (Note: During the war, many soliders who were actually ill or injured were listed as desertions unitl their whereabouts or actual status could be determined or verified.)
  • March 1864; 
  • February 29, 1864: "transferred to Invalid Corps. S.O.N. 47 d qrs 13 ac New Orleans, Feb. 29, 1864; by order of Maj. Gen. J.A. McClernand." The nature of the disability was listed as "nervous, derangement."
  • Other documents give a slightly different slant to he "desertion" statement on the service record.  The muster rolls list George Simons as leaving "sick at Perkins Landing, LA."  The date being March/April 1863.  Sept./Oct. 1863 have him listed as absent, but he returned to duty from "convalescent camp" on Nov. 10, 1863.
~Roster — Iowa Soldiers War of the  Rebellion, Vol. 3
page 543, 21 st Infantry, Company "K"

George Simons came to the United States in 1842 and settled in Ohio, where he and his family remained for four an one-half years. They returned to England, and later returned to Ohio for another two and one-half years.  In 1860 the family arrived in Delaware County, Iowa.  In 1878 George Simons was listed as having five living children, and four "lost" children.  Goerge Simons and his son Thomas served in the 21st Reg. I.V.I. (Iowa Volunteer Infantry), Company "K",  during the Civil War.  he was wounded in Hartsville, Mo and "will carry the rebel lead to his grave, was wounded in the head and knee in the same battle and was taken sick in Texas.  He was sent to New Orleans in the Invalid Corps; took small pox there; and was honorably discharged din May 1865."

George Simons was described as having hazel eyes (some descriptions say "blue eyes"), dark hair, with a dark complexion.  He is listed on military records as being five foot eleven and one-half inches tall.  When he enlisted in the service he was paid a $25 bounty, $2 premium.  Later when he was discharged he was paid a $4.00 monthly pension.  Family members recall stories of George Simons wearing his hair long (after returning from the war) in order to cover the head wound.  He was lame in the left leg, and the left side of his head and skull were fractured.  Because of the head wounds he is said to have suffered from frequent dizziness and headaches, especially in heated rooms or during the hot weather.
George Simons lived in Delaware County Iowa until 1881 when his wife Sarah Short died.  He then returned to England where he married a second time. He died on April 1, 1888 at the age of 70 years.  He is buried in Pitstone,  Berkhamstead, England.

George Simons married Sarah Short in England on March 12, 1837.  She was born in Buckinghamshire, England on March 19, 1818 (and died November 20, 1881 in Delhi, Delaware County, Iowa).  On the eve of Sarah's death she retired in the evening, seemingly in good health.  She had not been ill, but she never awakened in the morning.  Her death remained unexplained.  She died at the age of 63 year, 8 months, and 1 day.  Shortly after her burial, George Simons returned to England.  His youngest daughter, Mary Ellen Simons Robinson (who was 36 at the time) is said to have received a letter sent by his second wife, after George's death.  The letter contained a lock of George's hair.  His second marriage is said to have been to a woman he had known before he left England.
Sarah Simons is buried in the Evergreen Cemetery in Delhi, Iowa.  Her tombstone is inscribed:
Alone you died dear mother,
Without husband, daughter, son,
But we know you love the savior,
and a home afar you long  
(uncertain of the last word)
George is listed on the tombstone but he is NOT buried beside Sarah.  He is buried in Pitstone, Berkhamstead, England where he died.

~Directory of Delaware County, 1878, page 606
(copy of book located State Historical Library, Iowa City, Iowa)

Update: An excellent page about George Simons is on the web at where a descendent of George's oldest daughter (and) Thomas Simons' sister, Maria, who married Edward Christian during the family's time in Cuyahoga County, Ohio.  Information about Sarah Short is also shared by Eric Lowe who has posted the informational pages linked in this paragraph.  Thanks for this great research, Eric.

Saturday, September 14, 2013

Laura Ingalls Wilder - at home in Iowa

Laura Ingalls Wilder - Prairie Girl

Laura Ingalls Wilder (February 7, 1867 – February 10, 1957) began her children's writing career when she was well into her 60s.  The books based on her life in Pepin, Wisconsin; Walnut Grove, Minnesota; Indian Territory (Kansas); and DeSmet, South Dakota have been the subject of numerous articles and titles.  William Anderson is a noted Wilder expert; but Iowa has its own expert in Sarah S. Uthoff who frequently writes about Wilder on her Trundlebed Tales site.

Laura Ingalls Wilder.jpg
Laura Ingalls Wilder's books were based on her childhood and early years on the prairie, her ages in various locations have been adjusted, and locations were moved or Laura depicted as being a different age than she really was.  This moving around of the facts completely left out the year-and-a-half or so (1876–1877) that Laura and her parental family lived in Burr Oak, Iowa.  But the family did live in Burr Oak and there is much to discover about the family's time there.  None of Wilder's published writings for children included the months spent in Burr Oak but she did write about life in Burr Oak (in a previously unpublished manuscript).  In Burr Oak, Pa Ingalls was to help run the tavern in town, and Ma was to fix meals for those who stopped to sleep in the facility, or who just happened by for a meal.  But the family was not paid for their work, and they were left to do much of the work themselves even though the agreement was "to help."  Disenchanted the Ingalls moved to an apartment two lots over, above a grocery store, and finally to a house at the edge of town.  It is that house, owned by a Mr. Bisby, where baby Gracie was born.  But when she was just a few months old, the family returned to Walnut Grove and eventually to DeSmet, South Dakota where Ma and Pa Ingalls lived for the rest of their lives.  When the family left Burr Oak, it was during the "time between two days" -- meaning they left in the middle of the night.  Pa could not pay the rent he owned the house owner.  The owner had threatened that Pa must pay before he left or he would have the sheriff hold his horses.  So Pa took his family and they left without being seen.  Indications are that Pa did make the debt right, but there is no absolute record of that.  Burr Oak is not the only connection between Iowa and the Ingalls family.  The family was living in South Dakota when Mary (Laura's sister) lost her sight as a teenager.  Mary was sent to Iowa where she attended school at the Iowa College for the Blind in Vinton. Information about Mary's days in Vinton may be found in an article "Vinton School for the Blind Mary Ingalls Era 1877-1889" on the Museum of the American Printing House for the Blind site.

Even though Laura Ingalls Wilder did not publish information about the Burr Oak community, the community and the directors at the Burr Oak Museum have researched and showcase the connection.  On a recent September day, a friend and I headed out to visit the Burr Oak Location.
 Laura Ingalls Wilder Park and Museum • 3603 -- 236th Avenue • Burr Oak, Iowa 52101
The Burr Oak House (Masters Hotel) is on the west side of the street and the renovated and restored Burr Oak Savings Bank is on the east side.  Visitors to the center go to the old bank building first to pay for the museum admission and to visit the gift shop.  From there a museum tour guide is available to guide visitors through the hotel.  The approach to the side door is lined with prairie flowers, bursts of yellow, and coneflowers, as well as others that I could not identify.  After our visit to Burr Oak, and later in the weekend my friend brought, as a hostess gift, the yellow planter/flowers in the lower left corner of this collage.  Each time I see those flowers in my house, I think about something new that I heard or learned in Burr Oak.   The photo board to the left of the building was created by a local artist, Nancy Sojka who was inspired by the art work of Cheryl Harness

 Pa's fiddle is one of the most recognizable items - many children who read Laura Ingalls Wilder remember the scenes in which Pa is playing his fiddle.   For many years (including 1947)  Pa's fiddle was in Memorial Hall in the Museum of the State Historical Society at Pierre, South Dakota.  During an annual concert someone would use the fiddle to play the old songs Pa used to play.  Now the Laura Ingalls Wilder Historic Home and Museum in Mansfield, Missouri has acquired Pa's original fiddle and has it as part of their collection.  Over 127 songs are referenced in the Wilder books.  Several CD's have been produced showcasing Pa's fiddle music.

Since I enjoy having special dishes for special occasions I enjoyed seeing a place setting of the dishes Laura had at Rocky Ridge.  These dishes were certainly much fancier than the ones the family would have used in Burr Oak.  You will see later in a picture that the Burr Oak House (Masters Hotel) set the table for the evening meal with plain white plates and it seems tin cups were used for drinking.  Certainly not these beautiful china dishes used later in Laura's life after she married Almanzo and settled on their little farm, Rocky Ridge Farm, in Mansfield, Missouri. 

 At Rocky Ridge Laura also had this bread plate, decorated with heads of wheat and words circling the plate "Give us this day our daily bread."  In her book The First Four Years, Laura describes the plate as being oval but the plate exhibited at Rocky Ridge and a duplicate exhibited here is much rounder than what one would describe as oval.  In 2009 Cheryl Whitlock wrote an article "The Mystery of the Oval Glass Bread Plate" on her site Beyond Little House.  In that article she examines the mystery surrounding the oval description and the round plate on display.

 In addition to the quilt patterns which I found interesting, the lower left hand corner shows Laura's corncob doll.  It is simply a corn cob, with two black dots for eyes, wrapped in a white hankerchief type cloth.  Later she was given a coveted rag doll that she named Charlotte.

 One thing that I missed seeing during this trip that was on display the last time I was in Burr Oak is the "red work" that Laura and her mother and sister embroidered throughout their life.  In this picture you can see one example of the red work.  Red work was very popular in the 1880s (to about the 1920s but it is gaining a renewed popularity in this decade). Red cotton embroidery floss was often the only color available as other colors were only available in silk floss making it more expensive.  Patterns were stamped on muslin and an outline stitch (actually called the Kensington stitch for a girls school in England) was used to embroider the design onto the muslin.  Red work was used to decorate towels, pillow cases, scarves for dressers, luncheon cloths, and so forth.  Girls as young as 5 and 6 were taught to embroider red work.  Since Laura was born in 1867, it is doubtful if she would have been doing red work when she lived in Burr Oak as the family was in Burr Oak in the late 1870s, a full decade before the popularity of the fashionable "fanciwork" would have become popular.  Laura would likely have created some red work later in her teens, although I don't believe that has been documented.

Laura wrote her first book when she was in her late 60s.  An unpublished manuscript, Pioneer Girl, became the basis for her first children's book, Little House in the Big Woods, which drew from her original manuscript.  Later she drew from Pioneer Girl for the years that she wrote about in her continuing series.  In Pioneer Girl Wilder does speak of living in Iowa.  The South Dakota State Historical Society Press apparently has obtained the rights to that original manuscript and is preparing an annotated publication which hopefully will be released in 2014.  The historic society press has a website The Pioneer Girl Project, where questions surrounding the life of Wilder and notes about the progress of the book's publication are announced.  Of course there are dozens of other websites focusing on the work of Laura Ingalls Wilder - a search of the Internet will turn up many of them, along with Wilder's books as well as those researched and written by William Anderson who wrote his own biography of Wilder, Pioneer Girl: The Story of Laura Ingalls Wilder (HarperCollins, 2000).  In 2002, Cynthia Rylant's book Old Town in the Green Groves: The Lost Little House Years (llustrated by Jim LaMarche) was published by HarperCollins.  The book was meant to fill in the gap of the years Laura did not write about but reviewers generally felt it lacked the intimacy with the times that Laura had in her written stories.  Old Town in the Green Groves seemed more fact reporting than storytelling.
Fans of all things Laura Ingalls Wilder will be eagerly awaiting the publication of Pioneer Girl.  And real fans will also not want to miss visiting Burr Oak, Iowa, one of Laura Ingalls Wilder's childhood homes.  Burr Oak's Laura Ingalls Wilder Park & Museum website is at‎.

Related blog posts:
McBookwords: Library of America - Laura Ingalls Wilder - December 3, 2012
McBookwords: Laura Ingall's Wilder's Birthday - February 6, 2011; Updated as Re-Thinking LIW's books - February 7, 2015. 
McBookwords: Laura Ingalls Wilder - Happy Birthday - February 7, 2009

Sunday, August 11, 2013

Iowa and Anne Frank

Anne Frank is well known to readers and historians. Annelise "Anne" Marie Frank  was born on the twelfth of June in 1929 and before she turned 16 she was a victim of Hitler and his regime that aspired to cleanse the world of Jews.  She is perhaps the most discussed Jewish victims of the Holocaust.  She and her family were German citizens.  But in 1933, when Anne was just 4 the family moved to Amsterdam.  That was the same year that the Nazis gained full control over Germany.  They had left in time -- but by 1940 Nazi Germany invaded the Netherlands and by 1942 the family was forced into hiding.  They hid in some concealed rooms in the building where her father, Otto Frank, worked.  They lived there, inside the walls, for two more years before they were betrayed and sent to concentration camps.  Anne and her sister Margot's transfer to the Bergen-Belsen concentration camp became their last -- both died of typhus in March 1945.  After the war, Anne's father returned to Amsterdam and found that her diary had been saved. The Diary of Anne Frank has been translated from Dutch into dozens of languages.  The diary itself came as a 13th birthday gift (12 June 1942) and she wrote in it until the family's discovery on 1 August 1944.
In 1939, before the invasion of Amsterdam by the Germans, Anne and her sister, Margot, were paired with pen pals in America.  The pen pals were two girls in Iowa.  Anne only wrote two letters -- and only one is still in existence.  Anne corresponded with Juanita Wagner; Margot with Juanita's older sister, Betty.  The war quickly interrupted what might have been a firm friendship.  As it was Anne's life quickly became one marked by the realities of war and Juanita's remained one of innocence in the relatively safety of Iowa.  Juanita and Betty were unaware of their pen pals' fate, and really had not even realized that their pen pals were Jewish, until Betty sent a letter to Margot after the war and received a letter back from Otto explaining the dire fate of his family.  That letter was lost over the years and through many moves. Susan Goldman Rubin has written a book exploring and contrasting the lives of these two would be friends, and budding pen pals.  Life in war-torn Amsterdam and Iowa could not have been more different.  Searching for Anne Frank: Letters from Amsterdam to Iowa (Harry N. Abrams, 2003) follows the two pairs of sisters from prewar to their lives (and in the case of the Franks, their deaths) during and after the war.  The pen pal connection may be slight but the book does give readers a great deal of information about the war years in the Netherlands and Germany, and on the homefront, in Iowa.  The letters were sold in 1988, for $165,000 and were to be donated by the winning bidder, to the Simon Wiesenthal Center in Los Angeles.  The letters went on display at the center's new Beit Hashoah - Museum of Tolerance - when it was completed in late 1989.
Anne Frank is not only well-known in Holocaust literature but she represents an industry that perpetuates her story and the knowledge of the atrocities that occurred during World War II. 

Sadly Rubin's book, Searching for Anne Frank: Letters from Amsterdam to Iowa,  is no longer in print, but that does not lessen the bit of Iowa that touched the life of Anne Frank.  More about the Iowa sisters can be found in a Quad City Times article (Anne Frank's Iowa Pen Pal Tells Her Story) published in April 2012 when Susan Goldman Rubin visited the German American Heritage Center in Davenport, Iowa and the Bettendorf Public Library to talk about the sisters and to promote her picture book,  The Anne Frank Case: Simon Wiesenthal’s Search for Truth (Illustrated by Bill Farnsworth; Holiday House, 2010).  The Anne Frank Case is only one of the focuses in this book, as Rubin tells much about the life of Simon Wiesenthal who himself is a Holocaust survivor and Nazi hunter.  In 1958 he set out to find the Gestapo officer who had arrested Anne Frank and her family.  An article that appeared in the Palimpsest (Winter, 1995) also provides some insight into the Wagner sisters and their teacher Ms. Birdie Mathews that set up the pen pal exchange.  Juanita Wagner Hiltgen was living in Redlands, California when she died in 2001.  Betty Anne Wagner was living in Burbank, California when she died in August of 2012, at the age of 86.  Her "adopted" niece wrote a tribute to Betty in a blog entry at AdnreaV Photography.  The entry includes several pictures of Betty in later life as well as an earlier one of her on a tractor in Iowa. 
Anne Frank was only brushed for a moment with her connection to Iowa, but like others before her -- Iowa briefly became a part of a life of a historically significant person.

Monday, July 22, 2013

A Moment in Iowa History: Dr. Mary Edwards Walker - and the Iowa Connection

Dr. Mary Walker became the first (and to this date, the only) woman to be awarded the Congressional Medal of Honor.   She was a woman before her time and among her many achievements she was well known for always wearing pants.  Cheryl Harness introduces us to this incredible woman from history and shares her unconventional path to the Medal of Honor.  Harness's book serves to introduce young and old to this remarkable woman -- a woman who has Iowa Connections. 
Harness, Cheryl.  Mary Walker Wears the Pants: The True Story of the Doctor, Reformer, and Civil War Hero. Illustrated by Carlo Molinari. Albert Whitman, 2013.  

Mary Edwards Walker (November 26, 1832 – February 21, 1919)

Dr. Mary Edwards Walker was among those who worked for women's right to vote in the years leading up to the granting of women’s suffrage.  She was among the very unconventional women of her time, one of the first American feminists, and she supported abolition, prohibition, as well as, the right of women to vote.  She was one of the first women doctors in the country and she wore pants! She served as a Union solider (in a modified uniform) during the Civil War, as a doctor.  She became the only woman, to this day, to earn the the Medal of Honor. 
Mary Edwards Walker was born in Oswego, New York.  Her mother taught school and Walker’s father was a country doctor and farmer who encouraged education for his five daughters: Mary, Aurora, Luna, Vesta, and Cynthia, and their one son, Alvah.   The girls’  often helped in the fields and their parents believed that the tight corsets and otherwise restrictive garments women generally wore in those days were unnecessary and hampered women’s ability to move about and do what was needed. As an adult Mary became an avid supporter of the issue of dress reform led by Amelia Bloomer.  Bloomer defended the right of women to wear Turkish pantaloons – or “bloomers” as the bloused trousers came to be called.  Eventually Mary Walker adapted the practice of wearing full men’s evening dress to lecture on Women’s Rights.
At the age of twenty-one (1855) Mary, graduated from Syracuse Medical College.  She was the only female in her medical class and had spent three semesters (13 weeks each) in the study of medicine.  Mary Edwards Walker is the second American woman to earn a medical degree (the first, Dr. Elizabeth Blackwell earned a degree in 1849).  The following year (1856) Walker married a fellow physician, Albert Miller.  Both bride and groom wore a suit and top hat and Mary Walker continued to use her birth name.  The two physicians established a medical practice in Rome, NY but the practice failed as few were ready to accept a female doctor.  

The Iowa Connection

This period of time is when Dr. Mary Edward Waker became part of Iowa’s history.  Dr. Walker separated from her husband after just four years of marriage (due, reportedly, to his unfaithfulness). In 1860, Walker became an active promoter of dress reform but before accepting a formal role in the organization working for reform, she wanted to finalize her divorce from Miller. New York’s laws required a five-year waiting period.  So in the summer of 1860, Walker traveled to Iowa and stayed with a family friend in Delhi, hoping to take advantage of Iowa’s more lenient divorce laws and to avoid New York’s waiting period.  The friend, Judge Albert E. House, was a former resident of Oswego and was willing to host her and to advise her on Iowa law. While in Iowa she briefly attended the relatively newly established Bowen Collegiate Institute (later Lenox College) in Hopkinton, Iowa. She protested that the college advertised that a student could study German at their institute but when she arrived the school had no German instructor.  Dr. Walker did attend the institute, however, until she was suspended when she refused to quit the all-male debate society.  Many of the male members supported her efforts and her protests of unequal rights.  Her protest efforts resulted in many supporters in the Delhi-Hopkinton community but eventually her protests led to her full expulsion from the Institute. While she waited for her divorce, she was privileged to work with a local physician, Dr. Cunningham.  Back in New York state, a long-time attorney friend, B.F. Chapman, learned of her efforts to obtain a divorce under the new laws in the state of Iowa.  Chapman sent her a five-page brief. The brief detailed cases that made clear New York state would not recognize out-of-state divorces.  Walker trusted Chapman and so she returned to Rome, NY the following summer without the divorce. That ended her physical connection to Iowa however, in the following years there would be at least one other connection to Iowa.

Civil War and the Medal of Honor

When the Civil War broke out Mary Walker attempted to join the Union Army.  She was denied an official role so she volunteered in various field hospitals and positions.  Eventually she was appointed to official Army duties.  She always wore two pistols on her side, and dressed in a modified uniform – reportedly designed by a Mrs. Littlejohn of Delhi, Iowa (Leonard 246).  She treated many soldiers and sometimes crossed Confederate lines to treat civilians.  Some suggest that during this time she also served as a Union spy.  Whatever the case, in 1864, she was captured and held prisoner in Richmond until she, along with other Union doctors, was exchanged for 17 Confederate surgeons.
After her release back to the 52nd Ohio Infantry she spent the remainder of the war practicing at a Louisville female prison and an orphan's asylum in Tennessee.  She was awarded a military pension ($8.50, later raised to $20) but it was less than some widow’s pensions.
On November 11, 1865, Dr. Mary Edwards Walker was awarded the Congressional Medal of Honor by President Andrew Johnson, in recognition of her contributions during the war.  She was the only woman ever to receive the Medal of Honor, her country's highest military award.  The award was rescinded in 1917 when the “rules” were changed, but Dr. Walker refused to give up the medal and wore it every day, the rest of her life.  Sixty years later, President Jimmy Carter restored the medal to her.
After the war she continued to campaign for the right of women to vote, and entered the political arena by becoming a candidate for Congress (1890) and for a U.S. Senate seat  (1892).  She has been honored with a United States Postage Stamp (1982) and inducted into the Seneca Falls (NY) Women’s Hall of Fame.


Graf, Mercedes. A Woman of Honor: Dr. Mary E. Walker and the Civil War. Thomas Publications, 2001.
Harris, Sharon.  Dr. Mary Walker: An American Radical, 1832-1919. Rutgers University Press, 2009.
Leonard, Elizabeth.  Yankee Women: Gender Battles in the Civil War.  W.W. Norton & Company, 1995.
Snyder, Charles McCool. Dr. Mary Walker: the Little Lady in Pants. Arno Press, 1974.
The History of Delaware County, Iowa: Containing a History of the County, Its Cities, Towns, &c., a Biographical Directory of Its Citizens, War Record of Its Volunteers ... History of the Northwest, History of Iowa, Map of Delaware County, Constitution of the United States.  Western historical Company, 1878.
Walker, Dale L. Mary Edwards Walker: Above and Beyond.  Macmillan, 2005.

(This article originally published on the blog at McBookwords:All things literacy — Authors, Books, Connections . . . (Jun 06, 2013)