LIMA — At the age of 88 Ida Holdgreve took her first airplane ride in November 1969. When asked about her flight over Dayton, she described it in terms befitting the seamstress she had once been. From up there, Holdgreve told a Dayton Daily News reporter Nov. 20, 1969, the clouds looked “just like wool.”
Holdgreve, who was born in Delphos Nov. 14, 1881, to Casper and Sophia Schwindeman Holdgreve, was something more than just an elderly infrequent flyer as the Associated Press explained in its story about the flight. “Miss Ida Holdgreve, a spry 88-year-old seamstress who 60 years ago sewed the cloth that covered the wings of the Wright Brothers’ flying machines, has finally taken a plane ride. The Wright brothers advertised in 1910 for a seamstress to help them construct planes ordered by the U.S. Army Signal Corps. Miss Holdgreve answered the ad. Miss Holdgreve worked closely with Wilbur and Orville Wright, but she never found time to go flying until T.O. Matheus gave her a 29-minute flight over the city last week.”
Sixty years earlier, in November 1909, the Wright brothers attempted to capitalize on their invention of the first practical airplane with the founding of the Wright airplane company in Dayton. The brothers’ successful first flight at Kitty Hawk, N.C., had been a mere six years earlier. Wilbur Wright died in 1912 and Orville Wright sold the company in October 1915. In 1916 the company was merged with the Glenn L. Martin Company to form the Wright-Martin Company.
Interestingly, a photo in Wright State University’s online collection shows Holdgreve sewing at a large table in a corner of the factory. It is a popular image in books and blogs about the Wright brothers but information about who was doing the sewing was lost for decades.
Holdgreve’s fling with fame didn’t last much longer than her first flight. Her death in Lima’s St. Rita’s Medical Center at age 95 in 1977 was marked with a one-column story at the bottom of page 4 in the Sept. 29 edition of The Lima News. “Woman who sewed fabric for the first Wright plane dies,” the headline read. And that was pretty much that until 2014 when a project to document the lives of Wright employees turned up an interesting fact: Holdgreve, despite a firmly earthbound life, was something of an aviation pioneer.
In June 2014, Gerald Jacobson attended a book signing in Dayton for “The Dayton Flight Factory,” by Timothy R. Gaffney, according to an August 2014 news release from the National Aviation Heritage Alliance of Dayton. During the presentation, Gaffney, NAHA’s communications director, mentioned the Wright Factory Families Project, a joint effort of NAHA and the Wright State Libraries’ Special Collections and Archives to find descendants of Wright company workers and preserve their stories.
Jacobson told his friend Theodore “Ted” Clark, of Beavercreek, about the project. “Clark, 78, said Holdgreve was one of his mother’s cousins,” according to the NAHA release. “His family also lived in Delphos, but Holdgreve moved to Dayton early in her life while Clark’s family remained. Holdgreve’s work for the Wright brothers was known in the family, ‘but nobody made a big deal about it,’ he said.”
Clark, the release continued “brought a folder of old news clippings about Holdgreve to Dawne Dewey, head of Special Collections and Archives at Wright State. Articles about Holdgreve appeared in Delphos and Dayton-area newspapers from 1969 through 1975. She died in 1977 at age 95. Never married, she left no direct descendants.”
Holdgreve’s work on the wood-and-cloth planes, it turned out, was a big deal.
“Thousands of women have followed her into the factory and earned a living wage building airplanes, but Ida was first,” Patricia Luebke wrote in the January-February issue of Aviation for Women. “The job made Ida a pioneer in the first American factory built for the purpose of producing airplanes. She and a handful of others were the first Americans hired and trained for specialized aircraft manufacturing jobs. And yet, her name and identity were lost for years.”
In his 2013 book “The Wright Company: Invention to Industry,” Edward J. Roach wrote that “the small number of women the Wright Company employed worked at traditionally female tasks, providing clerical and sewing services.” Holdgreve, Roach wrote, “worked in a corner of the factory sewing linen wing coverings … Holdgreve, from rural, working-class background in northwestern Ohio, had no business college training. She responded to a newspaper advertisement searching for someone to do “plain sewing” for the company. In addition to sewing wing coverings, she also mended the wings of airplanes damaged in use by aviation school students and by the company’s exhibition aviators.”
Holdgreve worked for the Wright Company from 1910 until the company was sold in 1915. Later, she supervised other seamstresses who were sewing fabric for military planes at the Dayton-Wright Airplane Company in Moraine. Holdgreve lived in Dayton most of her life and is buried there in Calvary Cemetery.