A Woman with Wings: Frances Dean Wilcox Nolde


Nolde Forest. Photo: A Hike Through Nolde Forest by Susan Charkes

If you have lived in Berks County for most of your life, like I have, you have probably been to Nolde Forest, on route 625, in Cumru Township. It is a State Park where you can enjoy hiking, birdwatching, and taking photos of beautiful trees and animals. A few years ago, I was there and heard about Frances Nolde, one of Hans Nolde’s three wives. What I found out was that she was an awesome woman who followed her dream and made her dream her career and life.

Frances was born in Deposit, NY, in 1902. Kind of a strange name for a town, but people there probably think Bird-In-Hand and Sinking Spring are odd names, too! Originally her home town was named Deanville after her family but over time the commercial effort of bringing logs down from Canada created the wish for a new name: Deposit.

As a child and teenager she loved music and drama and had a dream of being an opera singer. When she was 16, her parents sent her to the Oberlin Conservatory to study music. While she was there, she was told her voice wasn’t strong enough to sing opera. She had taken piano lessons for years so she turned her attention to piano. She received her BS and BA degrees in music from Syracuse University, where she met and fell in love with Carlton Brown, who became a well-known screen writer in Hollywood. They married and had one daughter, Sally. But they soon divorced. She and Sally moved to NYC where she decided to follow her musical and stage career dreams. She loved the glamour of New York and was told she looked like Marlene Dietrich, but her acting career was short lived. She was offered a part in a radio soap opera, which she took, and played a major role as Gloria Gay!

Nolde Mansion. Photo: Christine Mitchell, bctv.org

A friend introduced her to hosiery manufacturer, Hans Nolde in the late 20s. She said he was charming and handsome and before she knew it, she was married and living in the Nolde Mansion in Reading, PA! Frances and Hans had two children, a son, Chris and a daughter, Frances. Along with Hans’s 4 children from his first marriage and Sally – that made 7 kids at the mansion! She loved the children and all their activities, and of course, the parties.

She was a board member of the Jr. League of Reading and she directed and founded the New School, a country day school at the bottom of Mt. Penn, which later moved to the Sheerlund Forest area. She always felt that education was the keystone to life. She made sure all 7 kids went to good schools and colleges.

During the 20s and 30s she was very happy with her life until she fell in love and was consumed by flying! Hans encouraged her to learn to fly, which may have been his biggest mistake! She loved flying, caught on quickly and before long was heading daily to the airport. At one time, she had amassed the highest number of solo flying hours of all women pilots in the United States.

Kenney, Clayton, and United States. Office of Civilian Defense. Civil Air Patrol. Eyes of the home skies.. U.S. Government Printing Office, 1943. Web. 08 Mar 2018

When the U.S. entered WWII, she wanted to help with the war efforts, so she joined the Civil Air Patrol (CAP). The CAP combined her love of flying with her love of country. Her job with the CAP was to ferry cargo and personnel around the US. This would free up the male pilots for combat in Europe. Frances was named commander of the Reading Station, and as Lieutenant, she flew her own Fairchild on many of the flights. Sometimes she worked 7 days a week, flying and keeping the logs, records and ledger books up to date. In the year between 1944 and 1945, her station logged 295 flights out of Reading with a total of 480 hours of flying time. The delivery of supplies helped to speed the war effort throughout the states. After WWII she remained active with the group and attained the rank of full Colonel, which was the highest rank a woman could achieve. She had logged 4500 hours flying for the CAP and was the first National Director of Women in Aviation for the CAP.

Frances Nolde from the Reading Eagle, May 29, 1949

She continued flying and in 1948, won the inaugural All Women’s Transcontinental Air Race–Powder Puff Derby– from LA to Miami. In 1949, she became the first woman to sit on the Reading Airport Commission and worked to have the airport named for General Carl A. Spatz of Boyertown, the first national director of the US Air Force Academy. In 1950, her hometown of Deposit, NY dedicated their air show to her and renamed their airport in her honor.

In 1952 Hans and Frances divorced and she went to Washington, DC, where she lived the remainder of her life. She had a phenomenal career working for the U.S. Department of Commerce as the Director of General Aviation in the Defense Air Transportation Administration. She logged over 10,000 hours as a commercial pilot and received too many awards to mention here. One of her favorite organizations was the Ninety-Nines. This was begun by the first group of female pilots. When the pilots could not agree on a name for the group, Amelia Earhart suggested that the group be called the Twenty-Six for the number of female pilots present at the meeting. The organization grew in numbers: The 26, then the 43, then the 87. Finally they stopped at 99! The group was formed to coordinate the interests and efforts of women in the aviation industry. They did everything from running Powder Puff Derbies to helping women become pilots and mechanics. They are still active and have chapters all across American grew to international status.

Francis passed away in 1995 at age 93. Chris and Frances (daughter) are still living. She made amazing contributions to our aviation history and yet, not a lot of people are aware of her accomplishments.

Hallie Vaughan is a Women’s History enthusiast, instructor and reinactor and longtime volunteer at the Berks History Center. As a guest blogger Hallie will focus on Women’s History in Berks County. 


Mystery Woman of the Week #2

I was the first woman to win 3 Gold Medals in an Olympics, in 1960, in track and field. I had polio, as a child, and most people thought I would never walk again, let alone run.

Mystery Woman of the Week #1  

Answer:   Elizabeth Blackwell



Muhlenberg Township: A Suburban Boom from a Pastoral Past

from Map of Berks County from Actual Surveys published by H.S. Bridgens. 1860

Though it was dotted with villages like Tuckerton, Temple, Laureldale, and Rosedale, Muhlenberg Township’s population of 1,676 in the 1860 census grew to only 2,069 by the 1900 census.  Small housing development in the 1920s and 1930s exploded into an all-out suburban housing boom in the years following World War II.  The small villages found themselves overlooked by unincorporated subdivisions like Riverview and Muhlenberg Parks, College Heights, Wedgewood Heights, Whitford Hills, Rivervale, and Hyde Villa.  The baby boom of the mid century created the need for more schools, culminating in the large academic campus containing the consolidate grade school, and middle and high schools situated on the Muhlenberg-Laureldale border.

Fifth Street Highway became the major retail strip, beginning in the late 1950s, with the original Muhlenberg Shopping Center and now boasting strip malls from the far northern section of the township south to the city line.  An effort is currently underway to revitalize struggling sections of these malls including the now nearly vacant, 37-year-old Fairgrounds Square Mall.

Photograph of Rt. 12 bridge construction near Kutztown Road in Muhlenberg Township c.1970. BHC Research Library Collection

Manufacturing also took hold as much farmland was rezoned for light industrial with many warehouses built and businesses established. The farms, including the last two surviving Reed farms on Tuckerton and Stoudt’s Ferry Bridge roads, became apartment and housing developments. Still, despite the proliferation of mid- to late-20th century and 21st century houses, there remain, in the ancient corners of the township along the waterways that the Lenni Lenape once occupied, homes that existed in the colonial era and that would inspire the renowned native artist Christopher Shearer in the late 19th century through the early decades of the next.

Written by Donna Reed

Keeping Our Soldiers Informed: An Act of Service During WWII

During WWII, The Reading Eagle published weekly newspapers and sent them to Berks Countians serving overseas. Did you know that another group of local residents created their own publication to send to Berks natives during the war? The Berks History Center is fortunate to have many of these monthly newsletters in our Research Library collection!

The Writers’ Service To The Armed Forces, October 1943. (AC 80 “Letters from the Homefront Collection” in the BHC Research Library)

When the United States entered World War II in December 1941, a non-profit organization called the The United Service Organizations (U.S.O.) was founded at the request of President Franklin Roosevelt. The organization’s purpose was to boost morale of troops fighting in World War II.  Shortly after the war began, a group of citizens from Berks County decided to enclose a note to servicemen along with the stationary provided by the U.S.O. The group invited local servicemen to write to them in order to keep up with news from home.

The response was overwhelming, so D.R. Shenton and Claire Henry decided to start a newsletter that could be mass produced, instead of writing to each soldier individually. They called it “The Writers’ Service To The Armed Forces.” Shenton acted as editor and Henry kept up with correspondence as secretary. Their first official newsletter went out on September 1, 1942. Each newsletter included news about local events, the merits of local soldiers (Lt. General Carl Spaatz’s name appeared often) and a special sports section.

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A V-Mail Letter thanking Claire Henry for The Writers’ Service (AC 80 “Letters from the Homefront Collection” in the BHC Research Library)


Local organizations, like churches, clubs, and unions could sponsor copies of the newsletter to send out to their members. Henry wrote to a friend in England that the newsletters and other correspondence were constant work, however the men seemed to enjoy them and appreciate their work. Letters steadily came in from Berks County natives expressing their thanks—most of their correspondence also included change of address information so they would continue to receive the latest news. The Writers’ Service continued sending newsletters, at least until V-J Day in August 1945. There is no record of The Writers’ Service in any local publication, including the Reading Eagle or The Historical Review of Berks County.

Claire Henry, secretary of The Writers’ Service, was an antique collector and antiques dealer. She corresponded with friends in England, often about the latest piece they found in London, and if she wanted them to send it to her in Pennsylvania. One of her shipments in 1942, was sunk by enemy fire while sailing across the Atlantic. Claire noted how disappointed she was that good antiques ended up on the ocean floor. Henry lived in West Lawn, a suburb of Reading. Her sister, Margaret Henry Moeller, stayed with Henry while her husband, A.R. Moeller, served in the war. It is likely their mother and sister lived there as well. Henry died at the age of 101, in 1995. According to her obituary, she lived in Indiana for many years, where she ran a ceramics shop, before returning to Berks County.

D.R. Shenton went on to act as co-editor for The Historical Review for over ten years. He never wrote an article about his work on the newsletters. He died on May 9, 1962.

AC 80 “Letters from the Homefront Collection, which contains these materials, is available to use for research at The Berks History Center Research Library.

Article Written & Researched by Archivist Stephanie Mihalik.


Before E-Mail There Was V-Mail: War Letters in WWII

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It is not uncommon to find letters written during wartime–either in archival collections or in personal collections kept within the family.

During World War II, you might have received or sent a letter in the “V-mail” (“Victory mail”) format. Letters were written on special paper and then microfilmed to reduce space. The microfilm rolls were shipped and reproduced at another location, and then delivered to the intended recipient.

Although traditional first class mail was preferred, over 1 billion pieces of V-mail were sent and received during WWII!  We have a few pieces of V-mail in the Berks History Center’s Research Library. The letter pictured above was written to thank a local group for producing newsletters and sending them to Berks servicemen around the world.

​(V-mail letter, Berks History Center Library, AC 80)

Researched & Written by Archivist Stephanie Mihalik