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Women who made a difference - Mrs. Wilson led social scene


Posted By: Joanne Breen (email)
Date: 9/9/2023 at 17:23:29

Women who made a difference - Mrs. Wilson led social scene

Editor’s note: This is the third in a series of articles dealing with some of the women who have made a mark in some way or other upon Washington history. We in no way claim to have covered all of the women important in the county. The background research for the series was done by members of the Washington Daughters of the American Revolution (DAR) as a bicentennial project. References consulted were Burrell’s “History Of Washington County”, Shaw’s “Washington Academy”, “Washington County History, 1887”, Washington County in the World War” and files of the Evening Journal.

By SHEILAH KLAPP, Family Editor

Clara Conger Wilson, who reigned at historic Conger House from 1906 to 1930, loved life, people and Washington. To her, people were much more important than material things. And although she could have traveled, she did not. She loved her town and her home and preferred to spend her time there.

She made Conger House into the social center of Washington.Her parties were given not only for entertainment, but for patriotic or civic causes.

Clara was born Dec. 23, 1852, the daughter of Jonathan Clark and Jane (Sloan) Conger. Her father was a bootmaker who came to Washington in 1845 and made his fortune dealing in land and loaning money. He built most of Conger House about 1868 just after the Civil War when labor and materials were available.

Clara attended public school in Washington before classes were graduated and also the Washington Academy.

Miss Helen Wilson, Clara’s youngest daughter, says, “Mother had a happy childhood. She grew up in a very normal pioneer family. Every afternoon at dusk they would have a ‘quiet hour’. They would read aloud, or memorize poems while they did handwork, crocheted or mended.”

“When mother was a little girl during the Civil War she used to sit for a Mrs. Bell whose husband was in the war. She would spread a quilt out in the yard and watch the baby while Mrs. Bell went into town to get the war news.”

On November 13, 1872, at Conger House, Clara became the bride of Charles J. Michael Wilson, a promising young attorney, son of Michael Wilson. The Wilsons were also a pioneer family and Clara and Charles had known each other from childhood.

They became the parents of five children. Their first born was Nellie who died at age 18 months. Miss Wilson says, “It was the real tragedy in her life. She always talked about the baby.” Other children were Kathryn (Mrs. Fred Smith), Edith (Mrs. Lloyd Lytle), Carlton C. Wilson and Helen Wilson. Miss Wilson is the only child still living.

The Wilsons lived “on the other end of the block at the end of an orchard” until Clara’s mother died and they moved into Conger House to care for the home and Clara’s father. “Her sisters had married and moved away from Washington so there was no question but that Mother would take over at Conger House. It was a very happy experience for her and us. Conger House was a very important part of her life.”

Clara ran the house with the help of her maids. Miss Wilson says, “There were Bohemian girls that were hired for help. The maids were part of the family and had a room in the house. Mother would train them in household duties. They always seemed to enjoy living there.”

Although the maids were taught to cook, Clara still took a hand at cooking. Miss Wilson says, “Mother was a marvelous cook. Her baking powder biscuits were something else, so light and fluffy.”

Clara also prepared delectable foods, often out of season, to serve at her dinners. Two large extension tables could be arranged to seat 50 people in the dining room.

There was one special group that was always entertained at Conger House on the 4th of July. Miss Wilson says, “There was a group of young people that were very congenial and had children about the same age. One was a jeweler, one in the post office, one a lawyer, another had a lumber yard. They all got together at Christmas and the 4th of July which was always held at our house because we could be out of doors and set off firecrackers and rockets in the field. This group got to kind of be family. Sometimes they would have picnics. They might go over to Kalona where there was a mill. There were not golf clubs then for people to go to.”

The Wilson home was always used for all sorts of delightful social affairs and the family was well known for their jolly hospitality. Since Clara’s husband, Colonel Wilson, was active as a lawyer, in politics and in legislature, as well as serving on the governor’s staff for many years, Clara was called upon to entertain many dignitaries.

One civic event which Miss Wilson especially remembers her mother being involved in was a celebration held at Conger House to raise money for the boys in the Spanish American War.

Entertainment was provided by a group of local people trained in dancing (“mostly from the Christmas and 4th of July crowd”). There was an ice cream social, souvenirs to sell and “instead of having a fish pond they had a very clever idea.” Miss Wilson remembers, “Company D from Washington was in Florida waiting to be shipped to Cuba. The captain of our boys did not have any binoculars and the ladies wanted to buy this and several other things that were needed. They all got together and bought white elephants which they put in cotton and wrapped in orange paper. These were tied to a pine tree in the Conger House yard and they called it ‘the Florida Orange Tree’. For a certain price guests could cut one of the ‘oranges’ off the tree.”

Whenever there was a dinner, the house was decorated with lots of flowers. Miss Wilson says, “Father was the gardener.” Peonies, iris and roses were his specialties. Mother would often decorate with them.

During World War I Clara became involved in sewing for the soldiers. She made many, many “housewives” which were comfort kits containing khaki-colored buttons, thread, needles, pins, scissors and sometimes a khaki-colored handkerchief would get pretty, bright material and make drawstrings for the bags from khaki-colored shoestrings. Mother was not very robust and so had to do a great many things which did not require her to walk a great deal. She did however, serve on the executive committee during World War I and was head of the division of comfort kits and Christmas packets. She also made bandages uptown at the Commercial Club.

Clara was a life member of DAR and served as chapter regent as well as filling other offices. She was an ardent and enthusiastic member of the Episcopal Church and helped make the guild a growing society. About every holiday was celebrated be a special event of some type at the Wilson’s. Often the den was the setting for high school graduation parties and dances.

Miss Wilson remembers her mother as “fun loving, a good conversationalist, having a great sense of humor and loving company. But her family was her real life”.

Mrs. T. R. Philips says, “She loved to entertain and did so frequently and lavishly. She liked fun, was outgoing and jolly and was and was good conversationalist”.

Miss Wilson recalls that her mother was not at all clothes conscience. “She liked to have something that was nice to wear, but she didn’t care for clothes or jewelry. If she had jewelry, she didn’t wear it. She was very simple in her tastes and liked simple furnishings that were comfortable”.

“She did love beautiful china and linens, but that was for the house. For other possessions she cared not a wit.”

Although Miss Wilson remembers her mother as being a very calm person, she also recalls that Clara was a strict disciplinarian.

“She simply told us what we were supposed to do and that was it. We were expected to do it. If not, we were punished. But neither of our parents used manual discipline. I remember distinctly being ‘yarded’ which meant I could not leave the yard.”

“Father left the entire problem of discipline to mother. Whatever she said went and it was no use to go to father to get him to change her mind.”

“But,” Miss Wilson remembers, we always talked about such things.” She gives the following example of the way her mother’s discipline worked.”

“Mother has been to Omaha to visit her sister and brought back Noah’s ark of animal crackers. There wasn’t anything like it in the stores here. In the course of travel some of them were broken.”

“After she arrived home my oldest sister and brother decided to have a tea party with milk and animal crackers. They decided that would give their youngest sister Edith, all those that had lost a tail or head.”

“While they were getting the milk Edith reached over and bit all their crackers in half. When they saw what she had done they screamed and cried and wanted mother to do something to Edith. Mother calmly said ‘why now you’re all the same. Isn’t that nice.” I’ve heard them say that it was one of the best lessons they ever learned.”

Miss Wilson says she never saw her mother in a “temper.” Her philosophy was, “If things couldn’t be righted, they were to be accepted.”

On March 24, 1930, Clara Conger Wilson died.

She had never liked publicity. “She’d work and get behind a project, but she preferred that someone else have the publicity. The important thing to her was that things got done that needed to be done,” Miss Wilson says.

But although Clara avoided the limelight in her lifetime she has been and will be remembered as a woman who made a difference, both in her home and in her community.

Source: Washington Evening Journal, March 12, 1976

Transcribed by Deborah Johnson Wagner


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