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  • Writer's pictureRochelle Gridley

Charming Business Girls, #7

Updated: Mar 6

The Charming Business Girls contest started in August of 1937 and ran from the 16th of August to the 17th of September. The Pantagraph asked whether its readers hadn't been impressed with the charm and efficiency of the young women they met each day -- and hadn't their days been made brighter by the warmth of these young business girls? The Pantagraph wanted to give them some credit and recognition for their hard work all through the hot summer that could be so wearing and temper inducing. The contest was divided into two parts -- one winner would be from Bloomington-Normal and the other would be from anywhere in the range of the Pantagraph. The two lucky winners would receive a prize of $25 (each)! That was a very large sum of money for any working girl at the time.

Willa Hogarth was a grocery store clerk in the Kroger store in Chenoa, IL in 1937. I was truly surprised to hear that there was a Kroger in Chenoa. But Kroger had been around for a long time by then (since 1883!) and there was one in Chenoa. Willa had been working as a grocery store clerk since at least 1930, when she was 18 years old. She lived with her parents, Alex and Cora, and her three sisters. Her older sisters also worked, one for a gas station and the other as a waitress. Willa married in 1938 to Dallas Hartman and continued working at grocery stores the rest of her life. Perhaps she met Dallas through her work, he had been a meat salesman at one point in his working life. Willa died in 2005, twenty six years after Dallas. She was remembered by her nieces and nephews for her wonderful sense of humor and her good looks.

Nellie Simpkins was a telephone operator in Heyworth, IL, but what she really wanted was to be a nurse. Nellie was married to Marshall Simpkins and the mother of three sons in 1937. She was 45 years old, and her education stopped at the 7th grade. Unfortunately there were not good prospects for her becoming a nurse. Perhaps this wasn't really a goal of hers, but an answer to a question from the reporter regarding alternatives to being a telephone operator. Like so many of these women, she was just trying to help her family survive the great depression with what skills she had. She was the daughter of William and Mary Mears and born in Missouri in 1892. She was a lifetime member of the Pioneer Telephone Club of Illinois. She liked fancywork and reading. Nellie died in 1967 after a lengthy illness.

Helen Van Ness was from Mt. Hope, IL, the daughter of Sidney and Clara Van Ness, born in 1896. In 1920 she was working in Mt Hope as a school teacher, and in 1921 it was announced that she was going to the University of Chicago. In 1937 she was working at the Withers Public Library as a librarian and living in lodgings on Jefferson Street. Her hobby, surprise, was reading and cataloging her books. Although no contemporaneous record can be found of it, Helen Van Ness married Arthur Blomquist and moved to Joliet sometime around 1939. Arthur Blomquist was a pharmacist in Joliet, with two nearly grown children. In 1956 they visited Helen's sister, Mrs. Frank Breen, with their daughter, Sally, who was sixteen years old. They were living in Coral Gables, Florida, after Mr. Blomquist's retirement. It appears that Mr. Blomquist died of a heart attack in North Carolina in 1960. No record of Helen Van Ness Blomquist's death could be found.


Julia White was born Julia Brando in 1913 in Dwight, IL to parents Hervey and Gladys. In 1937 Julia was working as a secretary in the adult education project in Bloomington, a depression era make work/raise morale government project. She already had one child, and her husband, Floyd, was a laborer. Her stated ambition was to be a teacher. She had a high school education at that time and her husband had a 7th grade education. When Julia's parents died in the 1950s she was living in Chicago, but we know nothing of her occupation there. Her husband worked for the Sunbeam Corporation according to his obituary in 2007, which also reported that Julia was still living and that they had been married for 74 years! Julia lived until 2019, when she would have been 104 years old, but unfortunately, no obituary was located for her.

Jeanette Zehr was the daughter of John and Amanda Zehr of Mackinaw, IL. Born in 1913, Jeanette was 24 when the contest was running. Her father died in 1922 and her mother was left with three children, Jeanette being the oldest. In 1937 Jeanette worked at Stephenson's Grocery in Mackinaw and in the 1940 census Jeanette is listed as the stepdaughter of Leroy Stephenson and an "unpaid family worker," as was her brother Edmund. We don't know much about Jeanette -- she never married and no obituary was found for her death in 2005. Oddly enough, the only grocery store in Mackinaw was formerly run by the Zehr family (probably a distant relation). Although Jeanette only completed her first year of high school, her brother Edmund became a school counselor and lay minister in Mackinaw and her sister Alma was a registered nurse. Newspaper reports of Jeanette never reference her employment again, but she was active in the American Legion Auxiliary for many years.

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