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



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

Please Welcome Guest Blogger…Joshua Blay

I receive many emails and letters of inquiry from individuals and institutions looking for museum objects to study or loan for exhibit. One of our more popular inquiries regard the USS Reading, the only ship of the United States Navy to be named after Reading, PA.  One of eight identical ships, she was christened and launched on August 28, 1943 in Sturgeon Bay, WI, by Mrs. John C. Butterweck.  Her son Russell M. was among the first killed at the Battle of Guadalcanal, a decisive and successful campaign in the Pacific theater of World War II.  The ship reported for fast convoy escort duty between the United States and European and North 818African ports.  A silver service, consisting of a coffee urn, a teapot, a creamer, a sugar bowl, a tray, and a waste bowl was presented to the officers and crew of the ship at the Abraham Lincoln Hotel on January 25, 1945 on behalf of the city’s business and civic leaders.  She made only two round trips across the Atlantic before the end of the war.  In May 1945 she was converted into a weather ship.  Six months later, the Reading was decommissioned and was later sold to Argentina and renamed Heronia.  Deemed obsolete, she was scrapped in 1966.

We have many artifacts in t5521110bhe museum collection directly related to this ship.  These include the original champagne christening bottle, donated by Mrs. Butterweck in 1983.  The silver service was returned to the area in December 1947.  All the items except for the tray and christening bottle are currently on exhibit.  In the archives of the library are many pieces of original paperwork including newspaper articles and the original programs from the presentation made in January 1945. Incidentally, the silver service remains the property of the United States Navy and the records between the HSBC and the Navy are in the process of being updated.  For more on her history please see Vol. 50, Issue 3 of The Historical Review of Berks County.

In the midst of my research on the USS Reading, I happened to stumble a54515cross a record for object #54-5-15.  What is this object you might ask?  Well, it happens to be a ship’s badge from another naval vessel called Reading, the HMS Reading.   Formerly the naval destroyer USS Bailey, it was one of fifty obsolete destroyers, inactive since the conclusion of World War I, which was transferred to the English Royal Navy through the lend-lease program of World War II.  The USS Bailey had been named after Rear Admiral Theodorus Bailey, a naval officer during the Civil War, who was instrumental in developing thruster systems that many ships use today.  Upon delivery to England, all fifty ships were renamed after both British and United S
tates towns, and because of this, they came to be known as the Town class.

Commissioned on November 26, 1940 the HMS Reading was assigned to escort duty for two years.  From 1942 until the end of the war in 1945, this ship was used for target practice.  Sold for scrap in July 1945, the ship’s badge and a book on the Town class destroyers passed from The Lord Commissioners of the Admiralty to the citizens of Reading, England, to Reading, PA, and finally to the HSBC.  According to the Royal Naval Museum, there was never an official directive as to where on a ship its badge should be mounted. The most common location would be somewhere on the centerline of the bridge, though some classes of ship had the badge mounted on the funnel. A copy of the badge would also be mounted on the ship’s “honors board” (a plaque listing the battles in which the vessel had served), which would have been displayed next to the gangway when the ship was in harbor.  The book may easily be found in the library and archive collection.  The badge is currently mounted above the entrance to the director’s office on the first floor of our main building at 940 Centre Avenue.

Joshua K. Blay is an Associate Director and Museum Curator for the Berks History Center.  Volunteering in museums since he was thirteen, Joshua is most interested in industrial and transportation history.