Alice Connrardy, who wore her dark hair pulled loosely back and in a knot on top of her head, ran a successful sewing school in Exira, Iowa, from about 1897 until 1925. She took a sewing course in Chicago at the Baughman School for Dressmaking, then trained girls and women at her home in Exira. It wasn’t that common for girls, especially those on farms, to attend high school.
Leora Goff, of rural Melville Township, Audubon County, was the oldest of ten children. She wasn’t allowed to attend high school. She was needed at home to help her mother, at least until she got married and started her own home.
The Baughman Adjustable Tailor System included learning to draft patterns, in addition to using a sewing machine, handwork, and fabrics. Mrs. Connrardy, the wife of John B. Connrardy–a German immigrant who had served in the Civil War and been elected Audubon County Sheriff twice, returned to Chicago occasionally for a refresher course.
For a time, the sewing classes met above a store, then later were held in the large Connrardy home at 600 Railroad Street in Exira. Students found homes to stay in during their six-week class.
Leora Goff was allowed to attend a six-weeks class with her friend Katherine “Katie” Dutler the spring of 1910. Katie’s older sister had attended the school and people hired her to sew for them. The girls stayed and took their meals with Katie’s elderly German aunt and uncle Jake Engle, who had no children, in exchange for help with laundry, ironing, and other chores.
Leora got quite a bit of mail while she was in Exira–at least twenty postcards from family and friends, and even a couple of boyfriends–Guy somebody and Carles or Carlos Ross.
The girls attended a party on a clear, warm evening. The earth was passing through the tail of Halley’s Comet and it was easy for them to see. Leora’s sister Georgia sent a newsy postcard telling about seeing the comet three times, and reported that it had a long tail.
Clipping: From The Audubon County Journal, May 26, 1910: Mrs Connrardy, her assistant and sixteen pupils in dressmaking went to Audubon Friday and had class pictures taken which they will highly prize as the years ago by.
They took the train to Audubon for the class picture. Photographed by Harper, most of the seamstresses were pensively leaning on their hands.
Clipping: The Audubon County Journal, June 2, 1910: Mrs. Connrardy closed another term of her dressmaking school last Saturday, the sixteen pupils receiving their diploma that day and departed for their respective homes.
Mrs. Connrardy ran a well-known sewing school for several years, beginning about 1896, her students coming from “many parts of the country,” often returning for advanced work.
When Leora wasn’t needed at home for feeding threshers or popcorn harvesters, she sewed for people in the area, sometimes staying with the family while she worked.
Clipping: Guthrie Times, June 5, 1913–Wichita [where Leora’s father bought a farm]: Leora Goff sewed a couple of days this week for Mrs. C. W. Powell.
Then, the winter of 1913-14, Leora sewed her own wedding gown. Leora did indeed highly prize that 1910 dressmaking class picture, which followed her from home to home as she raised her family.
About 1925 and living on a farm southeast of Dexter in Dallas County, Leora (Goff) Wilson–by then the mother of six youngsters–ordered a brand new Singer sewing machine through the Sears, Roebuck catalog. Her young sons rode Nancy the horse to school, two miles away. The mailman left a note that a package had arrived at the post office that was too big to come on the route. Leora waited for the boys to get home, then drove back to town with Nancy and a buggy to get her treasure.
The machine was powered when she rocked the treadle back and forth with her feet. She made Doris a light green pongee Easter dress. She sewed dotted swiss dresses for both daughters–blue for Doris, red for Darlene–which they wore to Dexfield Park one Sunday. People remarked about those dotted swiss dresses.
The sewing machine case had three drawers on each side. After Wilsons moved into town, their dad came home one day in 1934 with a couple of orphaned baby squirrels. Only one lived, Rusty, who would scamper up your arm, and when he got into the house, he would hide walnuts and other things up into Leora’s sewing machine.
Leora’s wedding gown did not survive the Great Depression, the fabric being used up with items they needed more. After the war and losing so many members of her family, she moved to Guthrie Center where she made a home for years for her own mother.
Both women were members of the Rebekah Lodge there. Every other Thursday afternoon, a group of them would gather at the Guthrie County Hospital to “offer their services as seamstresses, making new articles and mending the old.” Leora Wilson worked with that group at least through her eighties. She was the one who knew how to use the treadle machine.
In her 1986 memoirs, Leora wrote that she’d been patching at the hospital since 1957–over 600 times. In 1982–at age 92–she was chairman of the Rebekah’s mending committee.
The wedding gown didn’t survive, nor the green pongee or the dotted swiss dresses, nor the treadle sewing machine. But the picture of Mrs. Connrardy’s spring 1910 sewing class is highly prized by Leora’s oldest granddaughter.
Leora Goff Wilson was the mother of the Wilson brothers featured on the Dallas County Freedom Rock at Minburn, Iowa. All five served. Only two came home. Their story is told in Leora’s Letters: The Story of Love and Loss for an Iowa Family During World War II.