Four brides, one hand-me-down gown

  • Article by: KIM ODE , Star Tribune
  • Updated: April 3, 2009 - 9:48 PM

A $75 wedding gown from Dayton's, bought in 1946 with the winnings from a prize coon hound, just had its fourth bride, wed barefoot on a beach. In between, romance always clicked.

the four women who wore the wedding gown, starting with Maxine Smith ('46) front left, white sweater, Diane Stoneking ('70) middle, left, Margaret Koeing ('09) top left, and Marion Mulvehill ('49), right

Photo: Tom Sweeney, Star Tribune

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This is the story of one wedding gown and the four brides who shared it over 63 years, who stood wishing for patience as each satin-covered button found its loop, who ate their cake with care over its seed pearl bodice, and who each time packed it away, sure that it had made its last memory.¶ Some might call this the height of recycling. Certainly, it's the soul of thrift. But worn over three generations, from Maxine to Marion to Diane to Margaret, the gown gained a sense of tradition, whether the bride wore pumps or went barefoot on a beach. In all likelihood, its work is not yet over. Here, bride by bride -- and with one important savior -- is its story so far.

June 15, 1946

Maxine Collins was engaged to be married. So was Henry (Bunny) Smith. He'd just gotten out of the Marines, having earned a Purple Heart in World War II. Despite both having grown up in Madison Lake, Minn., they didn't know each other, but met at a party thrown by one of Maxine's sisters. Something clicked. It was, people said, love at first sight.

Three months later, they were married. Maxine, worried that this story might sound a bit scandalous, hastened to explain that their families knew each other, that it was more a case of reconnecting at the right time.

In a postwar economy, she couldn't afford much of a dress. Then Henry came forward with $75 he'd won when his hunting dog quickly treed its coon in a weekend's field trials, taking first prize. Maxine went to Dayton's, of course, and can't recall trying on anything but this gown. "I knew this was the one as soon as I saw it," she said. Its shimmering satin with long sweep of train was the essence of romance, although the bodice's delicate seed pearl scrollwork was overwhelmed by the spectacular bouquet.

"Oh, that was too big," said Maxine, now 86 and living in Minnetonka. "It covered up the dress," she added, looking at her wedding photo, yet smiling. Her four sisters stood alongside her as bridesmaids that day. Later, when the dress was carefully packed away, one sister took note.

May 7, 1949

At 25, Marion Collins was growing weary of the tired jokes about her ending up an old maid. She was waiting for the right guy, but never imagined she'd have to go back to the old hometown to meet him.

Philip Mulvehill had also grown up in Madison Lake, Minn., left to serve in the Navy, then returned home. Marion worked in Minneapolis, but came back on weekends to visit. One weekend, she was at the Point, listening to whatever band was playing that night, and met Philip. Something clicked.

She wrote to Maxine, who knew the family, to ask if she knew Philip. "I told her we were getting engaged and should I? Was he a good guy?" said Marion, now 85 and living in Minneapolis. Reassured, she then put an equally important question to her sister. "I was broke and I couldn't afford my own dress -- and I knew hers was available."

So the gown was unpacked and ironed. They rented dresses for the bridesmaids. Marion's bouquet was smaller, but no less lovely.

Like Maxine before her, she wore the gown for the ceremony, then changed for the reception. The dress was carefully packed away, sent back to Maxine's house and stored in the attic.

June 26, 1970

Diane Smith met Gary Stoneking in high school. "He crashed a Halloween party I had in my garage," she said, laughing. He lived in Robbinsdale; she lived in Edina with her parents, Maxine and Henry. Something clicked.

After graduation, he enlisted in the Marines, while she enrolled at Mankato State University. After his tour of duty ended and a month after her graduation, they were married.

"I didn't even doubt I would wear that dress," Diane said. Her mother was pleased, as was her Aunt Marion. The creamy satin was gaining a yellow cast by then, but the gown still had been barely worn. That changed with this wedding. "I wore it the whole day, through the dance and everything," Diane said. "And I love to dance."

The dress suffered some for her exuberance. A few seams gave way and her jitterbugging elbows had their way with the gown's long, slim sleeves, but Diane had a great time at her wedding. When the dress was carefully packed away into her mother's attic, Diane figured it had had its last dance.

Feb. 21, 2009

"Well, who's got the dress?"

That question, from Margaret Stoneking to her mother, Diane, came as a shock. "She's a traditionalist, I'm finding out," Diane said.

Margaret just smiled. "I'd always planned on wearing it."

Margaret had met Lucas Koenig while attending a cousin's wedding in California last May. Luke was in the Marines and, although living in California, was a native Minnesotan. He was drawn to her immediately. "You kind of know Minnesotans, even when they're in California," she said. "But I'm 23, so I wasn't looking." Yet he was persistent, calling and writing while she attended the University of St. Thomas, studying health education. Soon, something clicked.

He proposed in January and they made plans to marry a month later.

Unfortunately, the dress was in sad shape, yellow as a maple chair. The seed pearls were dingy and some of the fabric-covered buttons had frayed.

Margaret knew at the very least the gown needed professional cleaning, and in her research found a listing for Karen Boehne and her gown restoration business, Wedding Gown Care Specialists, in New Hope.

Restoration is more than cleaning, said Boehne, who started her business seven years ago after 35 years in the dry-cleaning game. Now she deals with wedding gowns exclusively ( In Minnesota, she is one of two specialists certified by the national Association of Wedding Gown Specialists. (The other is St. Croix Cleaners,

With improved restoration techniques, Boehne said, more brides are wearing heirloom gowns. Tradition is a great motivation, but the bridezilla cost of weddings also makes a recycled dress appealing. Restoration costs vary widely depending on the condition of the dress, Boehne said. "Each dress is so individual." A rather romantic portion of her business is in restoring wedding gowns that husbands have sneaked into the store as an anniversary present.

Margaret is the tallest of the gown's brides, so a swatch of the train was cut and moved to lengthen the front of the dress. Boehne recovered the buttons and brought the yellowed pearls back to white. Most important, Margaret said, "the dress had the original sheen that it had when my Grandma wore it. My great-aunt and mother couldn't believe it."

Margaret and Luke were married on Coronado Beach in San Diego, where he is stationed. (His Marine unit is scheduled to be deployed in September to Afghanistan for seven months.) The bride was barefoot, wore a flower in her hair and carried several stalks of calla lilies. Some of the dress seams gave way, and Margaret stubbed her toe on a dock, dappling the gown's hem with drops of blood.

But it cleaned up well, as it has over what now accounts for about 150 years of marriage among the generations. The gown is packed away in a special box under Diane's bed, awaiting its next bride.

Kim Ode • 612-673-7185

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