Leora Wilson–Role Model

I was about thirteen years old and didn’t want to go to the Black Hills with my parents and younger sister, even though we’d never taken a family vacation before.

“What’s at the Black Hills?” I was more interested in rolled up denim jeans and bobby socks.

“Mount Rushmore.” Mom always wore a housedress and work shoes with anklets. “And take your swimsuit in case we stop at Hot Springs for a swim.” 

I knew I’d be stuck in the back seat of our two-toned blue Chevy with my annoying kid sister Gloria all the way through South Dakota. “Can’t we do something closer?” 

“Maybe we could invite Grandma Wilson,” Mom mused.

“Could we? She loves going places!”

So Grandma Wilson saved the trip to the Black Hills. Just having her along made a big difference in my attitude. Well, in all of us. Grandma sat in the back between Gloria and me, so there wasn’t even any sisterly bickering.

Back in the day when you could double expose a photo–August 1958. Our family and Gavin’s Point Dam, Yankton, SD. I had no idea we were close to Bloomfield, NE, where Grandma Leora encountered Santee Sioux when she was a preschooler and her family tried to make a go of living in NW Nebraska.

Grandma always wore a dress in those days, carried a handbag, and probably wore a hairnet over her permed hairdo (which she said she got at the “B-parlor”).

But for decades I took Grandma for granted although I enjoyed being around this upbeat little woman. She somehow made things fun by being her positive self. 

Grandma wrote me newsy letters–in college, when I moved away from Iowa with my new husband, even to him in Vietnam. This jaunty little woman lived in a small house in Guthrie Center, Iowa, where she saved every trinket, every birthday card, every souvenir, and every letter. 

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505 N. Fourth Street, Guthrie Center, Iowa

My husband was so surprised to learn that this tiny white-haired woman had lost three sons during World War II, and was widowed not long after.

After she died, at age 97, I read the hundreds of family and letters and clippings she’d saved–from the early 1900s and through the war. Her letters were full of how many eggs she’d gathered and sold, how many jars of produce she’d canned for winter, news of rest of the family. 

Then in my middle forties, I was stunned at the heartache she’d been through. All through my childhood and since I’d gone to the cemetery with her and her two daughters to help decorate family graves for Memorial Day, but didn’t realize that two of her sons aren’t even buried there. One is buried overseas. One was never found.

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Rose and Don Wilson, visiting from Washington State, in his mother’s little kitchen in Guthrie Center.

Leora’s Depression Era years were also poignant–losing three infants, two of them to whooping cough when all nine children were quarantined with it. Her husband was out of work. But because of two sons who joined the Navy during those bleak years, even then her letters revealed an encouraging mother–in spite of having to accept hand-me-downs for her children and reinforcing the thin soles of her own shoes with cardboard.

After the losses of WWII and her husband not long after, Leora made a home for fourteen years for her own widowed mother. She never learned to drive so she walked to church and other activities, which were what her chatty letters were full of, plus how her garden was doing. She sewed and patched at the local hospital for decades, the one woman who could still run the old treadle machine. 

Leora Wilson writing in her diary. Photo taken by Delbert Wilson, her oldest son.

When Gloria and I were still in school, Grandma would stay with us on the farm to attend our concerts and recitals. I don’t ever remember hearing this little lady complain about anything. 

For half my life, Leora was my cheerful and supportive Grandma. For the latest half, she’s been a wonderful role model of winsome faith and endurance–through those old letters and my winsome memories of her.

One of my followers asked whether Leora’s house had been torn down, as the house at that address doesn’t look the same. The people who bought it also bought the small house on the corner to the north (right, in the picture) and tore it down to expand Grandma’s.


Her picture window is the one to the left, and the house was built on to the right with the main door in the new part. I’ve never been in it since it was remodeled, but Aunt Darlene visited it one day.



  1. It is satisfying to find the bits and pieces of a loved one’s life an put them into better context. She sounds like a very strong person. Good for you to have those memories.

    I used Google Maps to try to see that house today. I couldn’t see it. Was it torn down?

    • Very clever! The people who bought the house also bought the small one on the corner north of it and tore that one down. They remodeled Grandma’s two-bedroom home, and the front door has even been moved. You found the house the way it looks now! Can you believe it? Most of the homes Leora lived in have been torn down. . . . With cousins and their kids coming this summer to see the Dallas County Freedom Rock and “all things Wilson,” I don’t have that many places to show them. . .. but I can tell lots of stories! I’ve also been asked to give a program about Leora’s Depression Era stories in June–that’s the next book. Have it started.

  2. Very moving; poignant indeed. Similar to my grandma on my mom’s side too. Small, pleasant woman of faith who had some losses but not near Leora’s . She also lived to be 97. She was a widow for last 31 years… but like Leora, NEVER got her drivers license. Because of where they both came from… Nebraska roots, I’ve often described them as the last of the Pioneer Women of America. They were a remarkable lot.
    But Leora’s was a singular extraordinary story with the loss of the three sons to WWII.
    Your book was remarkable too but these are the pieces I love to keep reading… the rest of the story.

  3. Thank you for telling stories about Grandma Wilson. I know I got my strength from her during difficult times in my life.

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