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Viola Nesfield Owen papers

Identifier: IWA0801

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Scope and Contents

The Viola Nesfield Owen papers date from 1911 to 1963 and measure 9 linear inches. The papers are arranged in three series: Biographical information, Correspondence, and Sheet music.

The Biographical information series relates to Viola Nesfield Owen and Betty Whitehead. It includes an obituary and eulogy for Betty Whitehead, a family tree, and a photograph of Viola Nesfield Owen and her accordion. It also contains user instructions for a digital collection of Viola Nesfield Owen's letters and photographs [d0077].

The Correspondence series (1911-1963) consists mainly of correspondence between Viola Owen and her parents and sisters. The majority of the letters were written 1920s-1940s. Frequent topics include holidays and birthdays, the challenges of living with unstable employment and limited income, and the health and medical treatment of family members, including both professional medicine and home remedies. Viola Owen often wrote about domestic work, professional work, and her children. During the 1930s, she wrote about receiving Soldiers and Sailors Relief and her involvement in the Royal Neighbors of America. Her father, who wrote most prolifically during the 1930s and 1940s, often addressed local, national and international politics and economics, for example strikes at the Rath Plant in Waterloo.

This series also includes letters from Viola, Betty, and Nita Mae Owen to Charles Owen (1928-1952). Most of these letters were written while Viola and the children were visiting relatives, and contain family news.

Finally, this series contains letters written from missionary Grace Van Duyn to Viola Nesfield (1911-1917). Grace Van Duyn worked for the China Inland Mission (Toronto, Canada) and was stationed in Yangkow, China. Her letters discuss her "native work," studies, and religious contemplation. Her correspondence also includes several missionary pamphlets.

The Sheet music series (1919-1945) contains popular works for piano and voice, such as Billy Hill's "The Last Round-Up." Some pieces also include guitar and ukulele parts.


  • Creation: 1911-1963


Conditions Governing Access

The papers are open for research.

Conditions Governing Use

Copyright held by the donor has been transferred to the University of Iowa.

However, copyright status for some collection materials may be unknown. Transmission or reproduction of materials protected by U.S. Copyright Law (Title 17, U.S.C.) beyond that allowed by fair use requires the written permission of the copyright owner. Works not in the public domain cannot be commercially exploited without permission of the copyright owners. Responsibility and potential liability based on copyright infringement for any use rests exclusively and solely with the user. Users must properly acknowledge the Iowa Women’s Archives, The University of Iowa Libraries, as the source of the material. For further information, visit

Biographical / Historical

Viola Hannah Nesfield was born July 12, 1896 in Jesup, Iowa. Her mother, Richa Metzler, died in 1900 and Viola was raised by her father, George Robert Nesfield, and step-mother, Glendora Mae Holdiman Nesfield. George Nesfield was an English immigrant who worked as a farmer, carpenter, and groundskeeper. Viola Nesfield had two younger half-sisters, Elnita and Vidella. The family lived in Waterloo Iowa, where Viola Nesfield received her high school diploma at Iowa East High. She was a pianist, and played for events at her school and Catholic Church.

In 1921, Viola Nesfield married Charles La Verne Owen. Since Charles was divorced, George Nesfield disapproved of the marriage. The couple eloped to Valpariaiso, Indiana, and moved to Milwaukee, Wisconsin. Financial hardship caused the family to move frequently, and they occasionally stayed with Charles Nesfield's parents in Victory, Wisconsin. The family struggled during the Great Depression, for a time living in a tar paper shack with no electricity or running water. Eventually, they settled in Janesville, Wisconsin. Viola and Charles Owen had three children, Robert Harrison (born 1928), Betty Lolene (born 1930) and Anita Mae (born 1933). Betty nearly died from kidney disease when she was two years old.

Viola Owen worked as a pianist, piano and accordion teacher, transcriber for the WPA Braille Project, and later at Parker Pen. Her husband worked several jobs, including brakeman, cook, carpenter, and housekeeper, but was frequently unemployed. Viola and Charles Owen divorced in 1941. She took custody of their two daughters, and Charles of their son. Later, Viola Owen became caretaker for her ex-husband, who was paralyzed by a stroke in 1948 and moved back in with her in 1950. He died in 1953. Viola Owen died in January, 1981.


9.00 linear inches

One DVD [d0077] boxes

Language of Materials



Mother and piano teacher living in Wisconsin, cooresponding with family in Waterloo, Iowa.

Method of Acquisition

The papers (donor no. 1238) were donated in 2011 by Gary Whitehead, Viola Nesfield Owen's grandson.

Audrey Altman
Language of description
Script of description
Language of description note

Repository Details

Part of the Iowa Women's Archives Repository

100 Main Library
University of Iowa Libraries
Iowa City IA 52242 IaU
319-335-5900 (Fax)