Leora Goff, of rural Melville Township, Audubon County, Iowa, 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. But her father finally decided that since she still wasn’t married by the age of 19, she could go to sewing school. It would be one way she could at least make a little income for herself.
Alice Connrardy, who wore her dark hair pulled loosely back with a knot on top, ran a successful sewing school in the town of Exira, Iowa, from about 1896 until 1925. She trained at the Baughman School for Dressmaking in Chicago, then taught girls and women at her home in Exira. Mrs. Connrardy ran a well-known sewing school for several years, beginning about 1896, with students coming from “many parts of the country,” often returning for advanced work.
The Baughman Adjustable Tailor System included learning to draft patterns, in addition to using a treadle sewing machine, handwork, and choosing 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 local store, then later were held in the large Connrardy home at 600 Railroad Street in Exira. Students found homes for board and room during their six-week class.
Leora Goff attended with her friend Katie Dutler during April and May, 1910. Katie’s older sister had attended the school. The girls boarded with Katie’s elderly childless German aunt and uncle Jake Engle, 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.
The girls attended a party one clear, warm evening which made it easy to see the tail of Halley’s Comet. Leora’s sister Georgia sent a newsy postcard telling about seeing the comet three times, mentioning its long tail.
The seamstresses rode the train ten miles north to Audubon for the class picture. Photographed by Harper, most of the seamstresses were pensively leaning on their hands.
A newspaper clipping from The Audubon County Journal, May 26, 1910, noted that “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.”
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.
I located a clipping from Guthrie Times three years later noting that “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. She married Clabe Wilson in February of 1914. Leora did indeed highly prize that 1910 dressmaking class picture, which followed her from home to home as she raised her family.
Several years and seven youngsters later, the Wilson lived on a farm southeast of Dexter, Leora ordered a brand new Singer treadle sewing machine through the Sears, Roebuck catalog. The mailman left a note that a package had arrived at the post office that was too big to come on the route. Leora’s young sons rode Nancy the horse to school, two miles away, so she had to wait for the boys to get home. She hitched up Nancy to a buggy, then drove into town to pick up her treasure.
Her sewing machine was powered by rocking the treadle back and forth with her feet. Leora made Doris a light green pongee Easter dress that year. She also sewed dotted swiss dresses for both daughters–blue for Doris, red for Darlene–which they wore to Dexfield Park one Sunday, where people remarked about those dotted swiss dresses.
The sewing machine case had three drawers on each side. After Wilsons moved into town, Clabe came home one day with a couple of orphaned baby squirrels. Only one lived, Rusty. He would scamper up their arms, and also climb up into the sewing machine where he would hide walnuts and other things up in the drawers.
Leora’s wedding gown did not survive the Great Depression, the fabric being used up for items they needed more. After the World War II 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 for decades. She was the one who knew how to use the old treadle machine.
In her hand-written memoirs, Leora wrote that she’d been patching at the hospital since 1957–over 600 times. When she 92 years old, she was chairman of the Rebekah’s mending committee.
No, the wedding gown didn’t survive, nor the green pongee or the dotted swiss dresses, not even the treadle sewing machine. But that picture of Mrs. Connrardy’s spring 1910 sewing class is still 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.
Also Leora’s Dexter Stories: The Scarcity Years of the Great Depression.