In 1936, my mother, Barbara Drake, age twenty months, was photographed in North Dakota in a dress she received from her great aunt, Ida May Detwieller Leiter, who lived in Biloxi, Mississippi. The dress was seventy-two years old and had been worn by “Cousin Ida,” as she was commonly referred to, in the California goldfields in the 1860s. Since then, my sister, cousins, daughters, granddaughters, nieces, and grandnieces (eighteen total) have been photographed in this one hundred and fifty-six-year-old dress. My mother (North Dakota,1936) and youngest granddaughter (Arkansas, 2021) are pictured above.
“Cousin Ida” led a fascinating life of adventure and fortune; she was college-educated, progressive, independent, and world-traveled at a time when this was most unexpected for a single woman. A brief account of her life follows:
Ida May was born on October 28, 1864, to Jacob and Sarah Detweiler, in the California foothills of the Sierra Nevada Mountains. Her father had come as a young man to the goldfields a decade earlier from his boyhood home in Pennsylvania. He sailed from New York City, hiked across the malaria-infested Isthmus of Panama, and then steamed into the San Francisco Bay in 1854 during the height of the California Gold Rush. Jacob initially worked a placer mine in Copper Flat without much success. Eventually, he was able to buy a merchandising business, obtain one of the first state licenses to sell goods to miners, and by 1857 had enough money to buy a “quarter interest” in a gold mine at Quartz Mountain, near Jamestown.
“While I was making an open cut to work the small vein which I bought of the company, which was rich in pockets though hard to get to, I found it necessary to make an open cut and in doing this work I soon stuck what was supposed to be a large quartz boulder or detachable quartz rock. I worked several days, and instead of getting around the rock it continued to grow larger. Finally, I decided to investigate by breaking off some of the rock and examined it for gold, and I found it contained gold in paying quantities.”
In 1860, Jacob sailed back east to Ohio, made the acquaintance of Sarah Nitterauer, and was married that same year. Sarah and Jacob returned to California, where he built a house in Jamestown. Ida’s older brother John Franklin was born there in 1861. Ida was born in the same house three years later. The Quartz Mountain mine turned out to be very profitable, and Jacob was able to sell his interest in 1866 and move his family back to Wadsworth, Ohio, with a small fortune. Jacob invested in several business ventures and eventually founded the successful Wadsworth Salt Company.
Ida was raised in an upper-middle-class Midwest society and schooled in culture, arts, and social graces. Miss Detweiler was “a woman of gracious presence and advanced education, having attended Heidelberg College, in Tiffin, Ohio, and Oberlin College, at Oberlin, Ohio.” Her brother “Frank” studied medicine at the Long Island Medical College in New York before returning to Wadsworth.
In December 1886, Ida May married Dr. Thomas C. Leiter, DDS, “one of Wadsworth’s most deserving and most popular young men.” The wedding announcement continued, “The young couple has certainly entered the threshold of married life under the most auspicious circumstances. Both being characterized as sensible pains-taking persons, the future that spreads out before them certainly is a bright and happy one.”
Dr. and Mrs. Leiter made their home in Wadsworth, where he began an active dental practice and was involved in politics and several business ventures in banking and mining. Unfortunately, Dr. Leiter died in 1910 at age 52 from complications relating to appendicitis, leaving his wife “well-to-do” and with no children.
The newly widowed and quite wealthy, Ida May then set out to see the world. Her first trip to Europe in 1914 was highlighted by the local newspaper, the Medina Sentinel, with “Mrs. Ida Leiter… who is in Paris, France, and detained on account of the war. Her parents are not greatly alarmed believing that the party with whom she is traveling, will receive ample protection.” Her wanderlust continued in 1928 with a trip to China and Hawaii. In 1929 she visited Belgium from where she brought back a complete set of china which she hand-painted with gold leaf – leaving her initials IML on the bottom of each piece.
Ida, her brother Frank, and sister-in-law Martha visited the Gulf Coast of Mississippi in the early 1920s to escape the “brutal and dreary” Ohio winters. They both bought houses on the beach in Biloxi and eventually made Mississippi their permanent home. Dr. Detweiler became involved in the Biloxi Hospital while his sister and wife immersed their families in local society.
“Mrs. I. M. Leiter, 433 East Beach honored her brother and sister-in-law… at a party Monday evening for their sixtieth wedding anniversary. Twenty friends of Dr. and Mrs. Detweiler were present. Centered on the serving table was a three-tiered wedding cake, surrounded by azaleas and spring flowers.”
Ida May was very active in the First Presbyterian Church of Biloxi. Shortly before her death in 1955, she gave her beachfront home and property, along with a sizable financial donation, to the church to construct a new sanctuary that continues to serve the community to this day. As she presented the property to the church, she said, “I am giving this property to our Church because I believe you will use it to win more people to Christ. I want to help our people build a lovely sanctuary where they can worship God for many years to come. Also, I am especially interested in the young people. It is my desire to help win the young people of our community to Christ and to give them a strong Christian influence.”
Ida May loved children but died childless. Her brother and his wife also had no children and left no heirs. The bulk of Jacob Detweiler’s fortune was left with the First Presbyterian Church. Ida May and Frank distributed their possessions to their cousins Charles and Emma Sands of Illinois near the end of their lives. Ida May writes, “My dear cousins, you will find in a little box a silver belt buckle a gift from my father to mother, and her two band rings, also a little cameo ring of many years ago. You will also find two rings wrapped in cotton the long one I bought in China valued at 60.00 the small one I bought in Rome Italy but not expensive.”
Frank Detweiler sent a box with a note, “Revolutionary powder horn worn and used by my grandfather during the war of 1812 and 14. Small priming horn for powder. A Mexican spur that Father brought from Calif. A leather holster carried in Calif 1852.”
Also, among the items sent from Biloxi back to the Midwest was a little white dress presumed to have been worn by Ida May in Jamestown, California, in 1865. The name of the seamstress who hand-stitched the cotton panels, lace, and ribbons has been lost in antiquity. The dress, however, has been lovingly safeguarded by Cousin Ida’s “girls” for over one hundred and fifty-six years.