Finding Ida

Early Dayton seamstress gave wings to aviation

By Katie Fender

Photo: Courtesy of Special Collections and Archives, Wright State University

In 2003, the U.S. House voted 378-3 to officially recognize Dayton, Ohio as the “birthplace of aviation.” This meant that finally, after 100 years, Dayton regained its title from North Carolina. With the title back in the Gem City, the mission to preserve the history of flight—which started with Dayton natives Wilbur and Orville Wright—became more important than ever. The National Aviation Heritage Alliance (NAHA) began the Wright Factory Families Project to do just that. What—or who—they discovered was Delphos, Ohio native, Ida Holdgreve.

Holdgreve is believed to be the first woman to have worked in aviation under the Wright brothers. In 1910 Holdgreve answered an ad to what she thought was for a “plain seamstress.” Holdgreve was hired, and much to her surprise, the position ended up being for a “plane seamstress.” Holdgreve became the first woman in history to work in aviation, sewing the canvas wing covers for airplanes.

Holdgreve began working for the Wright Brothers in 1910, at a small operation in Edgemont. They first formed the company in Edgemont as a temporary location and started producing airplanes before their factory buildings were ready.

Holdgreve continued to work with the brothers as long as Orville owned the company. She became acquainted with both brothers, but it appears she know Orville better, as he lived longer. In the news clips found about Holdgreve, she remembered the brothers as quiet, but nice. However, she remarked Orville was more outspoken than his brother. Orville sold the company in October of 1915. In an old article published about Holdgreve she also mentions that she went to work for another company called the Dayton Wright Company. In addition to sewing air plane covers, she was now supervising other women.

Holdgreve, who died in 1977 at the age of 95, was a local celebrity in the late ’60s and early ’70s. She even received a gift from the Dayton Chamber of Commerce for her 88th birthday: a 20-minute plane ride over the city of Dayton—her first flight. Years after her death, the story of Miss Holdgreve faded. However, thanks to NAHA and Holdgreve’s distant cousin, she was recently rediscovered as a very important part of aviation history.

Rediscovering Ida

On July 2, 2014, Director of Communications for NAHA, Timothy Gaffney, was at a signing for his newly released book, “The Dayton Flight Factory.” Gaffney was hopeful the book would help seek out historical people from the factories.

“One of the things we wanted to do was uncover stories about the Wright company factory workers,” Gaffney says. “Last year I was approached by a publisher to do a book about the Wright Brothers. I wrote this book and my focus of the book was the Wright company factory; I really wanted to promote the factory. I thought, ‘Maybe we can use the promotion of this book to find people who had descendants of people who worked at the Wright company.’”

Gaffney’s plan was successful, as he was approached by someone who told him they had a friend whose relative had worked for the Wright Factory.

“It turned out that this guy was a distant cousin of Ida Holdgreve and he brought all these clips of news stories about her,” Gaffney says.

The man was Ted Clark, who refers to Holdgreve as “Aunt Ida.”

“I was just a young kid when Aunt Ida used to visit my mother in Delphos, Ohio,” Clark says. “I guess you would call her a cousin, but I didn’t know her that much, but I do know a bit about her. My mother’s maiden name was Holdgreve and Ida was born in Delphos where I’m originally from. She has a lot of family in Delphos.”

To Clark and his family, Holdgreve’s occupation wasn’t that out of the ordinary, and he recalls Ida did not think much of it either.

“Everybody just sort of accepted the fate she worked for the Wright brothers, and she got the job by answering an ad and the ad had nothing to do with the fact she was going to be a seamstress and sew wings for the brothers,” Clark says.

Clark became aware of the importance of his relative’s history after he received a phone call from a friend who told him she had seen a picture of Holdgreve at the Wright Brothers memorial.

“[My friend] called me and said, ‘Ted, you got to get over to the Wright Brother’s memorial, they have a picture of Aunt Ida and it just says ‘Woman Sewing Wings,’” Clark says. “I went over and I said, ‘I know that woman,’ and that’s how she got in there as Ida Holdgreve. I thought that was going to be it. I didn’t think it was a big deal, but it sounds like it is. I know they would love to get more history on the people that worked for the Wright Brothers.”

Clark remembers his relative as a kind-hearted woman who cared for her family. “She was never married,” Clark says. “She had a sister that I believe had special needs and she spent a lot of time taking care of her.”

Clark provided the news clippings about Holdgreve to Gaffney to contribute to the Wright Factory Families Project where Gaffney discovered her short-lived local fame.

“It’s interesting how a person like Ida Holdgreve can be remembered in one generation, forgotten in the next, and then rediscovered later,” Gaffney says.

Learning from the past

The clips provided by Clark seem to comprise most of the information known about Holdgreve. “Well they’re about everything we know about her,” Gaffney says. “The interesting thing about this woman was, we had her picture and her name and we didn’t really know much else about her. The picture we have of her is kind of enigmatic.

“One of the things that is interesting is that the picture was taken back in 1911 in the factory, and so, since this was the first American factory built to produce airplanes, she had to be one of the first women to work in the world working in aircraft manufactory,” Gaffney says. “In the larger sense, what we had was a number of pictures, and there were and number of people in these pictures, but the Wright Brothers didn’t leave behind company payrolls or company rosters or things like that. I don’t know if it’s because they didn’t keep good records or if it just got lost as the company changed hands, but we just really don’t have good records of the people that worked there.”

In addition to the surprise plane ride on her 88th birthday, Gaffney recalls Holdgreve was recognized in other ways in the city of Dayton.

“In the articles she said the people of Inland recognized her with luncheons and presented her some sort of a plaque,” Gaffney says. “They had some recognition of her with her connection with the Wright company.”

Although there is still not much known about Holdgreve, what is known holds great significance in this project.

“There are little hints that she worked in the southwest quarter of the factory building,” Gaffney says. Well, with that information and with the pictures we have we can go through the building now and say, ‘This is where she worked, right over here.’ Also, I think the more publicity we get over this rediscovery of her the more likely we are to draw out some other people.”

The Wright Factory Families project is a joint effort with the National Aviation Heritage Alliance and Wright State University special persons and archives. This aim of the project is to reach out to many more people who may have connections to historical workers or information about the factory.

“What we are doing with Wright State with what we call the Wright Factory Families Project, we’re trying to put this information together into a collection so when it’s time to start restoring the factory buildings and designing exhibits the national parks service will have information about the people that worked there,” Gaffney says. “So when they make these exhibits, they can base them on actual people.”

The rediscovery of Holdgreve remains a very important factor in this project. It helps humanize the history of the factory and it gives people a more vivid image of what it was like to work there.

“It really helps us place people and activities inside that people,” Gaffney says. “I can imagine that when this building is restored that having somebody sitting at that table dressed to look like Ida Holdgrave sewing these wing covers just as she did in the same spot where she worked with the other information we’re gaining with this will really help bring this to life.”

Holdgreve is one of the first of many of the factory workers NAHA and the Wright Factory Families project hopes to uncover.

“And really,” says Gaffney, “as important as historic buildings are, what’s just as important is the people that worked there.”

Reach DCP freelance writer Katie Fender at KatieFender@DaytonCityPaper.com.

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Katie Fender
Reach DCP freelance writer Katie Fender at KatieFender@DaytonCityPaper.com.

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