The Dexter Library

Clabe Wilson was an Iowa farmer but during the slump in farm prices after WWI, he lost his farm. Clabe, Leora, their family of seven kids ended up in the small town of Dexter. He hired out to work on farms, but as the Great Depression deepened, farmers couldn’t afford to pay for help.

The summer of 1930, daughter Doris, nearly 12, spent her free time in the upstairs bedroom she shared with a younger sister, where she read and read in a wooden rocking chair, leaning against the open window to get a breeze that sultry summer.

She also overheard their neighbor, Mrs. O.S. Neal, tell her mother that her daughter-in-law Ruby Neal couldn’t even make a fire when she first married their son Kenneth. Ruby was a town girl, had played basketball, and had even graduated from high school. Now Ruby was in a family way again–even though they had the perfect family of two boys and two girls. Doris was shocked that her friend Betty would be getting a baby brother or sister.

That was the year Dexter’s first public library–with 100 donated books–opened in Allen Percy’s law office.

By the next summer, Clabe got a job in Redfield at the brick and tile plant. But he also lost blood during an operation and was weak for months so couldn’t work much.

Because so many Americans were out of work, President Roosevelt’s New Deal–a series of programs enacted between 1933 and 1938, and even later–was set up. Funds were granted to the states to operate relief programs to create new unskilled jobs.

Yes, it was more expensive than to hand over welfare payments (called the “dole”), but men were embarrassed and ashamed by taking unearned money. They would rather earn it by working.

Clabe got a part-time ERA (Emergency Relief Administration) job the summer of 1934, and into the winter–keeping the town pump oiled. The Dexter pump was west of the road that leads to the cemetery, in the south ditch of the east-west road. It had a little shack but was terribly cold during winter months.

After 1934 the library was moved from Mr. Percy’s office to a room at the town hall.

Una Hemphill was the librarian. “How did you like Little Women?” she asked when Doris returned the book.

“Not especially. I’ve tried to read it three times.”

“I know one you might like.” She suggested Anne of Green Gables, about an 11-year-old orphan who had no money. Someone Doris could relate to.

“You’d also like this book, I’ll bet,” said Mrs. Hemphill. It was Shepherd of the Hills. Doris enjoyed it and other Harold Bell Wright books.

The ERA was replaced in 1935 by the Works Progress Administration (WPA), which funded Clabe’s road-work jobs. That fall he and daughter Doris spent late hours working on corn at the Dexter Canning Factory. Doris graduated Dexter High School, 1936–the same year the library became tax supported and reorganized under Iowa library laws.

A 1939 WPA project was approved to remove the second story of the building which had once housed the Chapler-Osborn Clinic. The men–including Clabe Wilson–were hired to reuse materials from the second story for a Library Hall which included a library, and also a community room with a kitchen and dining area.


1938. Top story gutted.
The Des Moines Register, December 25, 1938
WPA2 (3).jpg
Dallas County News, Adel, Iowa–May 10, 1939
The Des Moines Tribune


Seven years later, Doris Wilson married a Dallas County farmer who had volunteered for the Army Air Corps in WWII. After the war, in the early 1950s, they bought a farm south of Dexter. Their daughters regularly used the Dexter library, enjoying The Secret of the Old Barn and other Nancy Drew mysteries. And nervously attending an 8th grade social in the library hall, where I wore a while blouse and a red velvet jumper.

When I was in high school and needed more about the Bronte family for a term paper, a Dexter librarian, perhaps Mrs. Struck, introduced me to the wonder of ordering free books through the Iowa State Traveling Library.

Librarian Elizabeth Leighty helping a young reader.

Today a bench commemorating the WW II service of Clabe Wilsons’ five sons sits right outside the same brick building their father worked on decades ago.

bench (2)

And, thanks to a Dexter librarian’s perfect suggestions, my mother loved those “Anne books” well into her later years, and watching those stories come to life on TV.


Story shared in the Fall 2018 Living New Deal newsletter.

See also: Leora’s Dexter Stories: the Scarcity Years of the Great Depression.

Fall of 2020, Byron Weesner located the original specs for the remodeling of the old building. They are very hard to see, but the Dexter Library is excited to have these wonderful pieces of WPA history.