Saturday, March 17, 2018

The life, timepiece (& hats) of Nelle Argo Jones

Nelle Argo Jones's vintage Seth Thomas schoolhouse wall clock came home to Lucas County this week and we're hoping it will feel at home at the Lucas County Historical Society museum. Not only  do we have a big collection of one-room-school-related memorabilia --- but lots of women's hats, too. And hats were the lifelong passion and profession of Mrs. Jones (1885-1981) --- a milliner by trade.

The donors were Bea and Edmund Smith, now of Fort Madison, who acquired it from Mrs. Jones  and eventually decided that it belonged back in Chariton, where Nelle had lived for many years.

Mrs. Jones told them that the clock had hung on the wall of a Lucas County one-room school that she  attended and that she had purchased it as a reminder of those school days. I'd hoped to be able to determine which school, but fell short.

What I do know is that Nelle, born in Illinois, arrived in Russell with her family about 1891 and that she was a 1903 graduate of Russell High School. So the school most likely would have been located very near Russell. it's possible that her purchase was made during the late 1950s when many country schools were consolidated to form the Russell district and the contents of all the rural schools were gathered in the gymnasium at Russell and sold (I vaguely remember being there, but haven't tracked down the date).

Nelle's parents were William H. and Mary J. (Foulke) Argo. William was associated with Reuel R. Fogg in the operation of Russell's lumber yard. After Fogg sold the operation to Eikenberry & Co. of Chariton during 1902, Argo accepted a position as traveling salesman for the Carr-Adams Sash and Door Co. of Des Moines. A couple of years later, the Argos moved to a home on North Grand Street in Chariton and Nelle moved with them.

The senior Argos were indulgent and relatively affluent parents and Nelle, quite the social butterfly and traveler --- if early newspaper reports are indication --- but in no hurry to marry. She went to work while living at home as a trimmer for Chariton millinery establishments, then moved to Moravia to follow her trade there and finally accepted a position as a trimmer in a Monmouth, Illinois, millinery shop.

In Monmouth, Nelle met and married during 1915 James Weber Van Valkenburg, some 10 years her senior and partner with his father in a prosperous hardware store. By this time, she was both creating and trimming her own hat collections, marketing through retail dealers in women's clothing and accessories in Monmouth and elsewhere.

This marriage did not make it thought the 1920s, however, and after the divorce Nelle married an automobile salesman named Dwight Burnett Jones and they settled down near Peoria, where she continue to create collections of hats.

Jones was 61 when he died of a heart attack on July 12, 1935. Although he had no connection to Lucas County other than his marriage to Nelle, she brought his remains to the Chariton Cemetery for burial on the family lot and a few months later moved home herself to live with her now-widowed mother on North Grand Street.

Nelle continued to create hats, but also worked in other capacities for Chariton's leading retailers of women's apparel at the time, including the Elite Shoppe and, of course, Oppenheimers --- where she opened a hat salon in 1950.

Nelle retained the family home on North Grand after her mother's 1953 death and continued to create hats --- so long as there was a market for them --- and to work on the square, traveling extensively, too. She was an early member of the Chariton women's business and professional association and active in St. Andrew's Episcopal Church.

When the new Southgate Apartments opened, Nelle was quite old and had outlived nearly everyone, She was among the first residents there.  In December of 1974, she moved from Southgate to the Eastern Star Masonic Home at Boone, where she died on Aug. 14, 1981, at the age of 96. Memorial services were held a week later at St. Andrew's Church and her ashes then were buried on the family lot in the Chariton Cemetery.

I've been wondering this morning if some of the hats in the museum collection, many of them created for prominent Chariton women, might have been her designs. And if she signed her hats. I'm going to have to take a look.

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