Robert Holdgreve grew up in the 1930s and early ’40s listening to stories about how his great-aunt, Ida Holdgreve, worked alongside Orrville and Wilbur Wright when they were building airplanes.
The 91-year-old Delphos resident thought he had heard all of the stories until several weeks ago when he received a copy of the March 15 edition of the Smithsonian Magazine, which is the official journal of the prestigious Smithsonian Institution in Washington, D.C.
In it was the headline and story: “How Ida Holdgreve’s Stitches Helped the Wright Brothers Get Off the Ground.” It went on to recognize her as the first female worker in the American aviation industry.
“We knew the stories about Ida and would see her three or four times a year at family gatherings, but I never knew the depth of some of her work with the Wright brothers until seeing the Smithsonian Magazine,” he said.
As the magazine tells it, fate smiled on Ida Holdgreve when she left the family farm.
She had worked for years in Delphos as a dressmaker before taking her talents south to Dayton at age 27. Two years later, around 1910, she answered a local ad that read, “Plain Sewing Wanted.” Not sure what that meant, Ida decided to apply anyway. It turned out the newspaper had made a typographical error. What the Wright brothers really wanted was a seamstress who could perform “plane sewing.” Even with that, few people knew what was meant by “plane sewing,” including Ida, but she got the job.
“The typo turned a new page in women’s history. … a woman was part of a team working on the world’s newest technology,” the Smithsonian Magazine pointed out.
The Wright Company factory where Ida worked was the first American airplane factory. Holdgreve sewed surfaces for some of the world’s first airplanes, making her a pioneer in the aviation industry. She was on the floor — in the trenches — and working with men.
“She was earning her living making airplane parts. As far as I know, Ida Holdgreve was the first female American aerospace worker,” aviation historian Timothy R. Gaffney told the Smithsonian Magazine.
Dawne Dewey, who headed Wright State University’s Special Collections & Archives for more than 30 years, put it another way for the magazine.
“When you think about these people, you realize they were part of a local story, but they were also part of a national story, an international story. These are hometown people, ordinary people. They had a job, they went to work—but they were a part of something much bigger,” he said.
Duval La Chapelle—Wilbur’s mechanic in France—trained Holdgreve. He taught her how to cut and sew cloth, to stretch it tightly over the plane frame so it wouldn’t rip in the wind.
“When there were accidents,” Holdgreve recalled in an October 6, 1975, interview with The Delphos Herald, “I would have to mend the holes.”
She also shared with the newspaper her impressions about the Wright brothers. “Both boys were quiet,” she said. “Orville wasn’t quite as quiet as Wilbur. At different times I talked with Orville and got acquainted. They were both very busy, not much time to talk to the people there. But they were both nice.”
The Wright Company was sold in 1915 after Wilbur died, but Holdgreve remained in the airplane business.
She supervised a crew of seamstresses for a new company during World War I.
“I went to work … as a forewoman for girls sewing,” Holdgreve told the Herald. “Instead of the light material used for the Wright brothers, the material was a heavy canvas, as the planes were much stronger.”
After the war, Holdgreve left the aviation industry to sew draperies at Rike-Kumler Company in downtown Dayton. Ironically, it was the same department store where the Wright brothers purchased the muslin fabric for the world’s first airplane, the 1903 Wright Flyer.
Not much was heard about Ida Holdgreve after that until 1969, the magazine noted. That’s when Ida decided to fulfill a lifelong dream — ride in an airplane. Until that time, her feet had never left the ground. When the media heard about this, she became an instant celebrity across the country. The Los Angeles Times noted, “An 88-year-old seamstress, who 60 years ago sewed the cloth that covered the wings of the Wright brothers’ flying machines, has finally taken an airplane ride.”
On September 28, 1977, Holdgreve died at age 95.
In her final years, she looked back on her experience in the aviation industry and said she didn’t realize it could be so special.
As Gaffney stated to the Smithsonian Magazine, “She was Rosie the Riveter before there were airplane rivets.”
ROSES AND THORNS: Safety is a priority in the rose garden.
Rose: To Samantha Spencer, of Harrod. The Ohio State Patrol gave her a “Saved by the Belt” honor after her use of a seat belt kept her from sustaining life-threatening injuries in a car crash on Napoleon Road.
Rose: To Sharon and Bill Clark, of Lima. They celebrated their 60th wedding anniversary on Friday.
Rose: To Cheri Turnwald, a private client advisor for J.P. Morgan in Lima. She made the Forbes’ list of top women wealth advisors.
Thorn: The Allen County Fair Board finds itself looking for a new director of the fair after Chad Hughes turned in his resignation. Hughes was hired on Oct. 21 and is leaving before ever overseeing a fair.
Thorn: Another week passes with three more vehicles reported stolen in Lima.
PARTING SHOT: A positive attitude may not solve all your problems, but it will annoy enough people to make it worth the effort.
Jim Krumel is the editor of The Lima News. Contact him at 567-242-0391 or at The Lima News, 3515 Elida Road, Lima, Ohio 45807.