Spats, the Wilson Family Pup

A puppy joined the Wilson family in the town of Dexter, Iowa, in August 1935, right during the Depression.

The neighbors’ Boston terrier had a single puppy. Joe brought it over to show the Wilsons. Doris, almost 17, and Dale, age 14, fell in love with it right away.

“We’re going to sell it,” Joe said. “It’s not a purebred. You wouldn’t want to buy it, would you?”

“How much?”

“Two dollars.”

“Two dollars! Let’s ask Mom.”

“Well, he sure is a cute pup,” she said, “but you’ll have to ask your dad.”

But Clabe said no. It would cost too much to feed it.

Doris began to cry. So did Dale.

“Okay, okay. I can’t stand it for big kids to cry. If you can get the dog for a dollar, you can have it.”

By then, older brothers Delbert and Donald had been in the Navy over a year. Darlene, age 14, wrote all about school, and about the cutest puppy “about a foot long and as round as a barrel. We can’t get a name to suit him. If you have any suggestions, let’s have them. He’s kind of a light brindle with a white spot on his head, two front white paws, and the black paws just have the tips of white.”

They made a bed for the new pet on the back porch, where he always greeted his family. Danny was in junior high that fall and got home from school first. The pup would just jump into his arms.

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Dale, Danny, and Junior Wilson with Spats, Dexter, Iowa

One day Mrs. Wilt, an elderly neighbor lady with a German brogue, was visiting with Leora at the kitchen table. They watched Danny hug the little pet and even give it a kiss. “Isn’t that sweet?” said Mrs. Wilt.

Delbert was the one who came up with the name “Spats.” He and Donald had played in their uncles’ World War I uniforms, which had included spats over their shoes.

In a letter to his brothers in the Navy, Junior (age 10) declared, “Spats is the best dog in the country–he’s the smartest dog, too.”

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During cold weather there was a mitten box behind the kitchen stove. In the evening Spats would grab a mitten and nudge it against someone’s knee, to get them to play “chase the mitten” with him. Once another neighbor, O.S. Neal, came to deliver milk. Spats noticed a glove dangling from his hand,  grabbed it, and ran off with it to his box on the porch. Mr. Neal knocked on the door to report what had happened and get his glove back. I imagine he and Leora enjoyed the episode.

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“This picture was taken on Christmas Day 1935 at Dexter, Iowa–From left to right: Daniel 12, Junior with ‘Spats’ 10, Dale 14, Doris 17 and Darlene 14. Quite a bit below zero [F] and blustery.” Doris missed the first two weeks of her senior year working at the canning factory, so bought clothes and a class ring. Darlene babysat for neighbors. Delbert and Donald were in the Navy.
In March of 1939, Spats moved with his family to the Minburn farm where there was lots of excitement for him. The rundown buildings, brush, and weeds growing everywhere housed a myriad of varmints. The Wilson brothers even shot rats from the back porch, with one of them holding a flashlight.

Spats loved chasing rats until one bit him on the nose. That made him so furious that he really tore into rats from then on.

Darlene and Richard with Spats, early 1943, near Minburn, Iowa. Spats is hoping for that graham cracker.


The landlord had an old truck, which Spats liked riding in. And of course hunting with Clabe and his sons. Sometimes on long hikes or hunting trips, they’d take some snacks. Spats was especially fond of Fig Newtons.

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Clabe with Spats on the tractor wheel, near Minburn

After Dale left for the Army Air Force, he was the first one to ask for a picture of the terrier.

When they came home on furlough, Spats was usually a little wary of them at first, until they changed from their uniforms into familiar overalls.


With his sons gone off to the service, at least Clabe had a companion or two to go hunting with. They had another small dog, Smokey Joe, for a while until he was run over by a car.

Clabe with Smokey Joe and Spats, 1943, near Minburn, Iowa

In October of 1944, Spats moved with Clabe and Leora to the Perry acreage. All five sons were in the service then, one of them–Dale–missing in action. Four months later, Danny was missing in action, and five months after that, Junior was killed in a training accident.

When the war ended Delbert and his little family moved in with Clabe and Leora. Delbert’s oldest daughter, who is my age, still remembers Spats. “He was always with Grandpa,” she said. Yes, he was Clabe’s constant companion. But he fall of 1946, Clabe had a stroke and died.

The winter of 1947, Leora spent the winter in Omaha with her mother, so Spats became the pet of Delbert’s family. No one knows what became of Wilsons’ favorite pet, but that December, Delbert’s wife Evelyn wrote her mother-in-law, “Spats has gone.” He was a dozen years old.

Spats is the family pet in Leora’s Letters: The Story of Love and Loss for One Iowa Family During World War II. Spats joins the family in Leora’s Dexter Stories: The Scarcity Years of the Great Depression.



    • I always thought he was kind of ordinary when looking at the pictures. I should have a small remembrance of him, but I don’t. But Mom talked about him, and I found him mentioned in the brothers’ letters, and was surprised to find Spats in so many pictures.

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