DAYTON, Ohio — An effort to gather the stories of Wright Company factory workers has uncovered information about one of the first women in the world to work in the aircraft industry.
Ida Holdgreve, born in Delphos, Ohio in 1881, worked as a seamstress for the Wright Company in Dayton from 1910 to about 1915, according to information provided by a distant cousin. She sewed the surfaces for the company’s wood-and-fabric airplanes. The job made Holdgreve a pioneer aircraft manufacturing worker in the first American factory built for the purpose of producing airplanes. She and her co-workers were the first Americans hired and trained for specialized aircraft manufacturing jobs.
Wright State University’s online collection of Wright Company images includes a photo of Holdgreve sewing at a large table in a corner of the factory. It’s a popular image in books and blogs about the Wright brothers. But information about her was lost for decades.
Holdgreve’s story has resurfaced with the help of Theodore (Ted) Clark of Beavercreek, Ohio. He was the first respondent to the Wright Factory Families project, a joint effort by the National Aviation Heritage Alliance (NAHA) and Wright State Libraries’ Special Collections and Archives to find descendants of Wright Company workers and preserve their stories.
NAHA is working with the National Park Service and others to acquire and restore the original Wright Company factory as a unit of the Dayton Aviation Heritage National Historical Park.
Clark, 78, said Holdgreve was one of his mother’s cousins. His family also lived in Delphos, but Holdgreve moved to Dayton early in her life. Holdgreve’s work for the Wright brothers was known in the family, “but nobody made a big deal about it,” he said.
Clark 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 descendents.
Dewey said information about Wright Company workers like Holdgreve “adds to the human side of the story” about the company.
“It makes these people come alive, and that’s what this hunt for family members of the Wright Company workers is all about,” she said.
Holdgreve answered a Wright Company newspaper ad for a seamstress in 1910, according to the articles. Wilbur and Orville formed the company in November 1909.
An article in the Nov. 20, 1969 Dayton Daily News quoted her as saying she first worked for Wilbur and Orville “in a little room in Edgemont.” The Wright Company initially occupied an unused part of the Speedwell Motor Car Company plant in Dayton’s Edgemont neighborhood while its own plant was under construction.
The company moved into the first building of its own factory in late 1910. “I sewed cloth for the wings, stabilizers, rudders, fins and I don’t know what all,” Holdgreve said in the Nov. 21, 1969 Dayton Journal Herald.
Orville sold the Wright Company in 1915, but news reports indicate Holdgreve continued sewing for airplanes. A 1975 Delphos Herald article indicates that during World War I, she supervised women sewing fabric for military planes at the Dayton-Wright Airplane Company in Moraine.
Holdgreve was a momentary celebrity in November 1969 when she took her first airplane ride at age 88. Local news media covered the flight, and newspapers around the country picked it up from wire services. Much of what is known about her now comes from those news reports.
Gerald (Jerry) Jacobson, a friend of Ted Clark, told him about the Wright Factory Families project after learning about it at a book signing for The Dayton Flight Factory, a new book about the Wright brothers by Timothy R. Gaffney. Gaffney, NAHA’s communications director, wrote the book as an independent project but is working with NAHA and Wright State to find Wright Company workers’ descendants. Holdgreve’s photo appears in the book.
Anyone with information about Wright Company factory workers should contact Wright State Special Collections and Archives at 937-775-2092 or email firstname.lastname@example.org.
The National Aviation Heritage Alliance (NAHA) is a private, not-for-profit corporation designated by Congress as the management entity of the National Aviation Heritage Area. NAHA’s vision is for the Heritage Area to be the recognized center of aviation heritage tourism and aerospace innovation, sustaining the legacy of the Wright Brothers. For more information: AviationHeritageArea.org