Mrs. Wilt and the Great Depression

During the Depression Era, the Wilson family lived in the little town of Dexter, Iowa. The father, Clabe Wilson, was out of a job and worked part-time WPA jobs–roadwork, oiling the town pump, whatever was available–when he could.

The two oldest sons, Delbert and Donald, 1933 graduates of Dexter High School, had joined the Navy in 1934, leaving five children at home with their parents.

A picture of the Wilsons to send to their “Navy Boys,” April 14, 1935, Dexter, Iowa. Back: Dale, Leora, Darlene. Middle: Clabe, Doris. Front: Junior (with a plane he’d carved for school exhibit) and Danny.

Mary Wilt, in her 70s, was a neighbor of Wilsons. She she would mosey across the highway in her slippers to visit Leora Wilson. Mrs. Wilt had been born in Germany so spoke with a brogue. She was widowed and lived with a younger bachelor brother, Pete Jensen, who had been born after the Jensen family came to Iowa.

Mary (Jensen) Wilt (born in Germany) and brother Pete Jensen (born in Iowa).

School kids in those days had to buy their own school books. What a blessing that Delbert and Donald were able to send home a little money from the Navy to help pay for things. One time Donald sent money and wrote his folks, “Fill the boys and girls up on pork chops and mashed taters and gravy and a big glass of milk.” The five kids at home in 1935 were junior Doris, freshman twins Dale and Darlene, Danny in seventh grade, and Junior in sixth.

Students also needed to furnish materials for school projects–for home economics or manual training. Doris didn’t have money to learn embroidery, so the teacher furnished the fabric and threads. And she kept what Doris sewed.

Mrs. Wilt must have enjoyed the Wilson family, even the kids. Back in 1935, she gave Leora Wilson a hen and a dozen chicks, and also offered her setting hens when she was ready for them.

She hired Dale and Danny to pick dandelions for 25 cents apiece, which they planned to spend on baseball caps. I took it for granted that she was just trying to get rid of the dandelions in her yard, or a way for the Wilson boys to earn some money. No, she made dandelion wine with them.

Some of the Wilson kids were in the band, so Mrs. Wilt gave them her old pump organ in 1933.  PumpOrgan

Example of a pump organ. The pedals were to work the bellows inside that sucked air through metal reeds.

But in 1937, Dale had nothing to use to make something for manual training, so the old pump organ became a radio table.

table (2)
Darlene in a dress she made in Home Economics class. Dale with the radio table made in Manual Training. 1937, Dexter, Iowa

Dale’s table is a treasured heirloom among Darlene’s descendants, thanks to a neighbor lady named Mrs. Wilt.

wilt (2)
are clear. Keep tomatoes whole.

Mrs. Maria Wilt Rites Held Here

(March 4, 1948, Dexter Sentinel)

Funeral services were held Sunday for Mrs. Maria Wilt who died at her home in Dexter Friday. A short prayer service at the Evans funeral home preceded the funeral rites at the Lutheran church, where Rev. K. Daib officiated.

Music was furnished by Mrs. Lenore Martens who sang “Abide With Me” and “Be Still My Soul,” accompanied by Miss Ruth Jobst at the organ.

Casket bearers were the six Blohm brothers, Carl, George, Walter, William, Ed and Frank. Burial was in the Earlham cemetery.

Maria Katherina Jensen Wilt, the daughter of Julius Jensen and his wife Dorothea, was born in Pell Worm, Germany, Sept. 30, 1860. As a child she was taken into fellowship with the Tribune God through the Sacrament of Holy Baptism.

As a child she emigrated [sic] to America with her parents. In 1876 she renewed her baptismal vows after the mandatory instruction, in the rite of confirmation.

March 24, 1887, she was joined in marriage to Benjamin Wilt of Earlham, who preceded her in death. She was also preceded in death by one brother, Chris, of Denison, three sisters, Mrs. Anna Abbot, Frederica and Ida Jensen.

She is survived by three brothers, Peter and Carl of Dexter, Dorius of Worster, Ohio, and two sister, Mrs. Bertha Herman of Beach City, Ohio, Mrs. Frieda Algreen of Earlham. The days of her life numbered 87 years, 4 months and 27 days.

“Aunt Mary” as she was known was considered a good friend and neighbor, always interested in the well-being of her family and friends. The past two years she suffered some, but never complained. . . .

This story is also told in Leora’s Dexter Stories: The Scarcity Years of the Great Depression.


    • Wilsons were blessed to be in a small town where even most of the teachers went out of their way to help. When the oldest brothers graduated 8th grade, they had no clothes to wear so one teacher found suitable suits for them. The superintendent asked the parents if they would like the basketball hoop at their place during the summer since they knew they’d watch out for other kids, too.

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