The Hoagland sisters of Red Oak, Iowa

This week’s “52 Ancestors in 52 Weeks” theme from Amy Johnson Crow is “Sisters,” and I certainly had a number of options, including the daughters of my great-great grandmother Whilamina Marckhoff, seen in the photo at the bottom of this post about her family’s immigration story, on the “52 Ancestors” theme “Foundations.” But I decided to focus on a pair of sisters a generation closer to me, and about whom I heard a few stories from people who knew them. They are Mary Hoagland and Ida Hoagland, my father’s great aunts, sisters to his grandmother Nellie Hoagland Dews. (I discussed the emigration from Sweden and settlement in Iowa of the Hoagland sisters’ parents in a “52 Ancestors” post on the theme “Landed.”)

While Nellie went on to marry Robert Dews and raise a family in Chicago–including my grandfather–her younger sisters Mary and Ida never married, lived and worked their entire lives together, wrote poems praising Iowa, and died … well, read to the end to find out.

Johan Fredrick Höglund, his wife Mathilda Carlsdotter Envall, and their baby son Carl Johan left Sweden in 1868, and found their way to Burlington, Iowa, where, in May 1870, their first daughter, Nellie, was born. Sadly, Carl had died. At some point in the next two years, the small family joined other Swedes in migrating to Stanton, a community in southwestern Iowa established by Reverend Bengt Magnus Halland, a Lutheran minister who envisioned a Swedish community in that part of the country. And so in Stanton, Nellie’s first sister—Alida Whilhelmina, “Ida”—was born on November 11, 1872. Then another sister, Maria “Mary” was born to the Hoaglands on September 26, 1875.

Stanton, Iowa, main street, 2005, author’s photo
World’s largest Swedish teapot functioning as a water tower, Stanton, Iowa, 2005, author’s photo

In 1885, per the Iowa state census, the family lived on about 40 acres between Stanton and the larger town of Red Oak to the west. John Hoagland, who had been a carpenter in Burlington, was now a farmer. But he died just the next year, on March 25, cause unknown at the age of fifty-one. Mathilda Hoagland now faced the job of continuing to raise her three daughters, aged 15, 13, and 9, and run a farm. How long Mathilda remained on the farm is unknown; by 1900, she and her two younger daughters were living in Red Oak, a town of about 4,300 (Stanton’s population was about 400 at this time).

1900 U.S. Census, Red Oak, Montgomery Co., Iowa, via

Mathilda was listed as “retired,” and both Ida and Mary as “servants.” Nellie had married Robert Dews, a traveling insurance salesman from England, in January 1895. In 1900, Nellie had given birth to four children, two of whom survived (including my grandfather, Fred; she would have two more children). Nellie met Robert in Omaha, Nebraska, in 1893 or ’94, while she and Mary were living there and working (Mary was listed as a dressmaker).

City directory, Omaha, Nebraska, 1893, p. 401, via

An Ida Hoagland is listed in the 1892 city directory of Omaha as a “domestic,” but whether this was Nellie’s sister is not certain, given the lack of other clues (like Mary and Nellie together the next year). Ida would have been about 19 or 20 at this time. These are the only two years any of the Hoagland sisters appeared in the Omaha directory. Perhaps Ida went there to work while Nellie and Mary stayed with their mom; and then when she returned home her older and younger sisters took their turn in the “big” city near their small town (Omaha population in 1890: 140,400).

In 1910, Mathilda Hoagland continued to live with her two daughters Mary and Ida in Red Oak, now at 818 Nuckols Street.

Both images, 1910 U.S. Census, Red Oak, Montgomery Co., Iowa, via

Ida and Mary, now 38 and 35, both worked at the calendar factory in Red Oak, Ida as an “inspector,” and Mary as a “fore lady.” These jobs were with the Thomas D. Murphy Company calendar factory .

Outside the Thomas D. Murphy Calendar Co., Red Oak, Iowa, 2005, author’s photo
Main entrance, Thomas D. Murphy Co., 2005, author’s photo

Thomas D. Murphy, a native of central Iowa, formed the business in 1900, and around 1905 built the massive red brick buildings that housed the calendar factory and a power plant that remain in the town today. The company was known as the birthplace of the art calendar, and also made greeting cards, maps, and other products. The facilities today are on the list of Iowa’s most endangered sites. (See also the Iowa State Historical Society’s application to the National Park Service for inclusion on the National Register of Historic Places.) The factory closed in 2002, three years before my wife and I visited the site during a trip through Iowa.

Power plant, Thomas D. Murphy Co., 2005, author’s photo

In 1920, the mother and daughters were again captured in the U.S. Census, with Mary, the youngest, now the head of household. She was still a “forelady” at the factory, and Ida remained an “inspector.” Mathilda Hoagland died on April 21, 1921 at home on Nuckols Street, cause of death: liver cancer. She was 83 years old.

In 1930, the U.S. Census showed Ida as head of household and no longer working, while Mary’s occupation was “pad sorter” at the calendar factory. They were then living at 814 So. West Street in Red Oak, though I think this was still Nuckols, as that’s the house number and street they lived on in 1940. Again, who was head of household had changed, with Mary listed in that position; Mary also continued to work as forelady at the factory.

1940 U.S. Census, Red Oak, Montgomery Co., Iowa, via
1940 U.S. Census, Red Oak, Montgomery Co., Iowa, via

At some point in the 1940s, my father and his brother would have become aware of their great-aunts who lived in western Iowa, the younger sisters of their paternal grandmother Nellie, who had died in 1939 when my father was a baby and his brother not yet born. I’ve been told by both my father and my uncle that the great-aunts sent each of the boys a poem and a silver dollar coin on their birthdays. I have in my personal archive one original copy of such a poem, a paean to Iowa itself. Which sister wrote “It’s Iowa for me,” I do not know, but I am certain that the pair were equally proud of their home state.

“Iowa,” by Mary Hoagland or Ida Hoagland, ca. 1950, original in author’s personal archive

My dad recalled for me one time a road trip he and his brother took in the late ’40s with their parents to see the Great-Aunts Hoagland, a car journey of some 450 miles from Chicago to Red Oak. He said they lived in a little house in the town, and had an old car. I’m sure that for two city boys it must have been thrilling, and alien, to drive across the corn and wheat fields of Iowa to a town with fewer inhabitants than their northside neighborhood.

Mary Hoagland and Ida Hoagland’s house on Nuckols Street, Red Oak, Iowa, in 2005. Author’s photo

In 1950, still residing on Nuckols Street, Ida (“Alida”) was once again head of household, while Mary was still working in the finishing room of the factory at the age of 74. This means that Ida worked at the Thomas D. Murphy Company for at least 40 years, from 1910 to 1950. There is not a city directory for Red Oak available online in which to see years previous and subsequent to the Census years, but still 40 years at one company is an impressive professional run!

So, I do not know when Mary finally retired from working at the calendar factory. Surely by that time she was a local institution. Sadly, I did not visit the county archives during my trip there with my wife in 2005. I would like to return to explore local newspaper and other archives to see if there are stories about the Hoagland sisters, who, in a small town, must have made a large impression for their dedication to each other, their community, their work, and their state.

Ida Hoagland, the middle daughter of John and Mathilda Hoagland, died on August 16, 1963 in Red Oak, probably at home. She was 90. Her younger sister by almost three years, Mary Hoagland, followed in death just three months later, on November 21, 1963, aged 88. Two sisters who lived their entire lives together, worked at the same place for many years together, and in the family consciousness are an inseparable pair. They never married, never had children. They, along with their mother, are buried in Evergreen Cemetery in Red Oak, together for eternity.

Gravesite of Mathilda, Ida, and Mary Hoagland, Evergreen Cemetery, Red Oak, Iowa. Author’s photo.

— Fred Dews

One thought on “The Hoagland sisters of Red Oak, Iowa

  1. Have you come across any calendars made during your great aunts’ tenure at Murphy Calendar? Over the 40+ years of making calendars, they would have seen the artistic evolution of the industry. Thanks for sharing.


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