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!
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.
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.
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.
Answer: Elizabeth Blackwell