Elda Ann Williams Orr

The information below has been compiled from a variety of sources. If the reader has access to information that can be documented and that will correct or add to this woman’s biographical information, please contact the Nevada Women’s History Project.

At a Glance:
Born: August 31, 1846, Indianapolis, Indiana
Died: April 4, 1916, Reno, Nevada
Race/Nationality/Ethnic Background: Caucasian
Maiden name: Williams
Married:  Japtha E. Simpson, Sept. 12, 1870;  John T. Orr, Oct. 2, 1888.
Children: Three daughters: Iva, Alameda, and Elda
Primary City: Reno
Major Fields of Work: Suffrage, volunteerism

Reno suffrage advocate also supported libraries, downtown development

Elda Ann Williams Orr was a dedicated Nevada suffragist and volunteer for numerous endeavors to better her new Northern Nevada hometown.  

Born in Indianapolis in 1846, she married her first husband, Japtha, in Calhoun County, Illinois, in September 1870 at age 24 and followed his pharmacy career west first to California, and then to Reno.  He was a well-known druggist and businessman, and together in 1870 they built a house on the corner of Fifth and Virginia Streets.  She had two children with him, Iva and Alameda, before he passed away a mere seven years later at the young age of 31 in February 1877.  

She stayed busy raising her girls before she met and married mining executive John T. Orr, 11 years later in October 1888.  His name later graced one of the most prominent agricultural irrigation ditches in Reno, the construction of which he led.  With him, she had her third daughter, named after her.

Her interest in women’s right to vote started to grow at this time.  By 1895, she joined as a signatory on a letter also signed by Susan B. Anthony inviting anyone interested to a “State Mass Meeting of the National American Women’s Suffrage Association” in Reno at the end of October to organize a Nevada State Suffrage Association.  The invitation called on all western states to follow the lead of Wyoming, which had allowed women’s votes for 30 years, providing an “unanswerable argument for the advantages of a government which knows no sex.”  Elda was the contact person for anyone wanting hospitality during their stay in Reno.  During that meeting, a state suffrage league was first organized and a constitution adopted.

A year later, in 1896, Elda Orr was nominated to be the first woman on the local school board.  She lost that race, despite an endorsement from the Reno Evening Gazette.

 By 1897, she was the president of the state Suffrage League and ordered the local county suffrage groups to send petitions to the legislature regarding equal voting rights.

Orr was also involved in the 20th Century Club in Reno, and was a proud supporter of public libraries.  In 1899, she spoke for the club in favor of a public library in Reno, saying “The ladies are pledged to…do anything in their sphere to bring about this result they so desire.”  In 1902, she served on a committee considering Andrew Carnegie’s offer of a free library in Carson City.

In 1900, she served on the Reno Improvement Committee’s “Ornamentation and Public Taste” subcommittee.

During this time, she was also dealing with the illness of her husband John, which caused some paralysis.  He must have foreseen ill fortune, because he sold numerous Reno properties to Elda for a pittance and “love and affection.”  In 1902, he attempted suicide more than once by jumping into the ditch behind the Reno Evening Gazette building.  The paper noted that “his mind is a little unbalanced.”  He died a year later of “a lingering illness.”

The following years brought more volunteer work for Elda as part of the establishment of Trinity Church and in the Women’s Relief Corps, and travel.  In 1909, with her youngest daughter Elda, she went to Seattle, Wash., for the Alaska-Yukon-Pacific Exposition, a World’s Fair-type attraction, meant to tie into the discovery of gold in the Yukon and to promote development of the Pacific Northwest.  Three years later, after a grand sending-off party that included much of Reno’s elite, she and young Elda sailed to Asia for a three-month tour of China, Japan, Korea, and the Philippines.

She also helped develop parts of Virginia Street, including, in 1915, a $10,000 building to house the first Ford dealership in the area.  

At the end of 1915, she traveled to Yreka, Calif., to visit her daughter Alameda.  While there, she was in a serious car accident, wherein she was thrown from the car and did serious damage to her knee.  Her subsequent convalescence led to serious illness, which took her life in April 1916 at the age of 69.  She died in the same house she and her first husband built on Fifth and Virginia Streets.

She was survived by her three daughters, two of whom interestingly also married men named Orr, and six grandchildren.

She and husband John are both buried in the historic Hillside Cemetery near the University of Nevada in Reno.

Researched by Mona Reno and written by Kitty Falcone

Sources of Information:

Ancestry.com. Illinois, Compiled Marriages, 1850-1900 [database on-line], Provo, UT, USA: Ancestry.com Operations Inc. 2005.

“Attempted Suicide.” Reno Evening Gazette (Reno, Nevada), May 26, 1902, p.3:3.

“Committees Appointed, The Reno Improvement Association Makes Its Selections.” Nevada State Journal (Reno, Nevada, April 28, 1900, p. 3.

“Committees Chosen for the Free Library.” Nevada State Journal (Reno, Nevada), April 2, 1902, p1:1.

“Death of An Old Resident.” Nevada State Journal (Reno, Nevada, January 14, 1903, p. 8:3.

“Elda Orr first woman nominated for School Trustee.” Weekly Gazette and Stockman (Reno, Nevada), May 28, 1896, p. 4:4.

“Equal Suffrage, Interesting Communication Regarding the Matter.” The Morning Appeal (Carson City, Nevada) January 30, 1897, p. 2:2.

“Equal Suffrage Meeting.” Weekly Nevada State Journal (Reno, Nevada), November 1895, p. 5:4.

Find A Grave, database and images (https://www.findagrave.com: accessed 13 August 2019), memorial page for Japtha E. Simpson (29 Jan 1846=19 Feb. 1877), Find A Grave Memorial no. 13160352, citing Hillside Cemetery, Reno, Washoe County, Nevada, USA; Maintained by Mark’s Mom (contributor 46620026).

“Free Public Library, How to Obtain This Institution.” Nevada State Journal, Reno, Nevada, May 24, 1899, p. 2:4. 

“John T. Orr to Mrs. Elda A. Orr, lot 1 block H.” Reno Evening Gazette (Reno, Nevada), p. 3. 

“Many New Homes Being Built in Reno; Permits Issued for Buildings Amount to $418,740 [new Ford garage being built by Mrs. Elda Orr].  Reno Evening Gazette (Reno, Nevada), October 16, 1915, p. 5:1.

“Mrs. Elda Orr and Miss Elda Orr are going to China and Japan….” Reno Evening Gazette (Reno, Nevada), March 2, 1912, p. 8:1.

“Mrs. Poly Martin, of Sparks, entertained…[Elda Orr, Woman’s Relief Corps].” Nevada State Journal (Reno, Nevada), August 1903, p. 3.

“Orr-Simpson.” Reno Evening Gazette (Reno, Nevada), October 23, 1888, p.2:6, Sec. Married.

“Pioneer Resident is Called by Death.” Nevada State Journal (Reno, Nevada), April 5, 1916, p. 8:1.“The School Election, A Heavy Vote Polled and Much Interest Taken.” Nevada State Journal (Reno, Nevada), May 26, 1896, p. 2:2.