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The Case of the Cabinet

Mildred Augustine's yearbook photo from ....

The Case of the Cabinet

Chapter One: The Secret of the Will

It could have been the plot line of a Nancy Drew mystery: A phone call from an unknown attorney. A mysterious will and unexpected bequest…

The message on the cover page reads, “This was the first book ever written in the Nancy Drew series for Edward Stratemeyer by me. Mildred Augustine Wirt (Benson)”

Author’s copy of The Secret of the Old Clock, published 1930.

When a ringing phone shattered the silence in the Iowa Women’s Archives that day, curator Kären Mason was caught off guard. Not by the sound of the phone, but by the voice on the other end of the line. The caller identified himself as the executor of Margaret Wirt’s estate. Margaret – known by her family as Peggy – was the only child of Mildred and Asa Wirt. She had died in January 2013. The attorney was settling her estate: typewriters, writing desks, cabinets, and books. Peggy Wirt had bequeathed to the Iowa Women’s Archives her mother’s personal collection of all the books she had ever written. More than 150 books, 135 signed author’s copies with original dust jackets.

Mason was flabbergasted. Millie’s own copies of all the books she’d written, coming to the Iowa Women’s Archives! But sure enough, several boxes of books arrived in the Archives not long after. As the books with their colorful dust jackets were pulled from the boxes, they were greeted with oohs and aahs from the students looking on.

But one mystery remained. How could this valuable set of books be safely stored and displayed in the Archives? Help was on the way.

 

Chapter Two: The Sleuths take the Case

A black and white photograph of Mildred Augustine standing on the porch of her childhood home. A memory book filled with memorabilia from her graduation from Ladora High School and her years spent at the State University of Iowa. Her early articles, published in the Clinton, Iowa, newspaper. A letter from Harriet Stratemeyer, senior partner of the Stratemeyer Syndicate, dated 1951. Fragments of story drafts by Mildred Wirt. A cart full of books, all written by that same woman, pulled out from the stacks and ready to be explored. These items and more were displayed in the Reading Room of the Iowa Women’s Archives in 2015 when the Nancy Drew Sleuths visited.

Sleuth members explore Benson’s books at the Iowa Women’s Archives, 2015. Image courtesy of Jennifer Fisher.

The Sleuths, an internet-based discussion group comprised of Nancy Drew readers, collectors, and scholars, were in the midst of celebrating their 15th anniversary, the 85th anniversary of the first publication of Nancy Drew, and the 110th anniversaries of Mildred Wirt Benson’s birth and the founding of the Stratemeyer Syndicate. A visit to Iowa would be a chance to learn about Benson’s early life in Iowa and explore some of the sites that had provided inspiration for her books.

The Sleuths’ fascination with Mildred Wirt Benson began in 2001, when a group of twelve members traveled to Toledo, Ohio to meet her at the office of The Toledo Blade. Jennifer Fisher, the president of the Nancy Drew Sleuths, later said that she was impressed by Benson’s timelessness and sharp wit. “I got the sense that there was a lot more to her life than Nancy Drew,” Fisher said. Inspired by their meeting of Benson and fueled by curiosity, the Sleuths met in Iowa the next year to explore Benson’s childhood home in Ladora, Iowa. They visited the Iowa Women’s Archives for the first time to investigate the Mildred Wirt Benson papers. They also heard talks by Carolyn Dyer and Nancy Romalov, who had coordinated the 1993 Nancy Drew Conference in Iowa City.

The community of Sleuths grew rapidly after their 2002 visit to Iowa City; membership surpassed 700, and included followers from around the world. When the Sleuths returned to Iowa City in 2015, there was an exciting new addition: all of the books Benson had written. As the Sleuths exclaimed over the wonderful collection of books, Mason mentioned in passing that she wished there was a better way to showcase them. Fisher suggested the possibility of the Sleuths raising funds for a cabinet. “One of the Sleuths immediately said that he would be willing to donate,” Mason later remembered. “Everyone seemed excited by the idea.”

Fisher reached out to the online community of Sleuths after the conventions were over. Within a month, donations began flowing in. As Fisher later reported, “Thanks to the generosity of 23 individuals, we were able to raise the funds quickly.” She found the number of 23 to be symbolic, as Benson wrote 23 of the first 30 Nancy Drew books.

 

Chapter Three:  The Family Gift

Megan May Bohlke, December 20, 2007. Image courtesy of the Bohlke family.

Funding secured, Mason approached Dan Bohlke, a local woodworker who had built custom furniture for the University of Iowa Libraries in the past. Bohlke readily agreed to take on the project. He designed a beautiful bookcase with glass doors and a removable display shelf that would provide plenty of room for the Mildred Wirt Benson books.

Megan’s memorial plaque, placed in the fall of 2017. Image taken by Zayetzy Luna

When Dan Bohlke and his son came to drop off the cabinet in the fall of 2016, he presented Mason with the bill. But as she took it, he told her he wasn’t going to charge for his work; the bookcase was a gift from him and his wife Roxanne, in honor of their late daughter Megan.

Megan Mary Bohlke was born on Valentine’s Day 1984. Her parents read to her every night before she went to bed beginning when she was an infant. When she was almost four, they purchased a thirty-three book set of Nancy Drew books at an antique store. Megan soon became obsessed with Nancy and her friends. Every night ended with her asking, “Please! One more chapter!”

Megan’s love of Nancy Drew inspired her to learn to read even before she started school.  She followed along in the books as her parents read to her, and later reread each book several times on her own. One of the highlights of her early life was attending the Nancy Drew Conference at the University of Iowa when she was nine years old. She continued to be a voracious reader her entire life, until her death in 2009.

A plaque on the bookcase reads “In loving memory of our Nancy Drew fan Megan Mary Bohlke.” We thank the Bohlke family for their generous gift.

 

Epilogue  

The bookshelf sits in the IWA Reading Room.

Today the wooden shelves of the bookcase contain 146 books by Mildred Wirt Benson and are a highlight for the donors, researchers, and classes that come to the Archives. “The cabinet creates a lot of conversation,” Iowa Women’s Archives assistant Rachel Black reports. “People are attracted to the book covers and want to know the story behind them. Quite frankly, there are many wonderful stories to tell with this bookcase.”

A thank you to the Nancy Drew Sleuths. Created by Nancy Romalov and Cheryl Jacobsen.

So, what of the funds so graciously donated by the Nancy Drew Sleuths to commission a bookcase? They were used to hire Rachel Black to create this website. A magnifying glass propped on the display shelf of the cabinet thanks the Nancy Drew Sleuths for making the bookcase possible. The beautiful wooden handle of the magnifying glass was crafted by Nancy Romalov, the words and design on the glass drawn by calligrapher Cheryl Jacobsen.

“We think Millie would have been pleased,” Fisher said. She and the Sleuths encourage private collectors with original source material about Mildred Wirt Benson and Nancy Drew to add their contributions to the Mildred Wirt Benson papers in the Iowa Women’s Archives. Housing such historic documents in the Archives would ensure their preservation and enhance the research potential of the Benson papers.

 

 


Many thanks to Dan Bohlke, Carolyn Dyer, Jennifer Fisher, and  Kären Mason for sharing their time, memories, images, and words. This story could not have been told without you.

–Rachel Black, 2017