Caspian community Tree

Estate Stories: The Dodge-Wilson Tradition of Holiday Giving

The holidays were always a special time for the Dodge-Wilson family. We’re sharing some of their favorite memories and traditions in a special holiday edition of our Estate Stories series.

Denby House with Christmas gifts

Giving from the Heart

The holidays at Meadow Brook meant more than presents and treats for the Dodge and Wilson family. With her wealth, but also with her time and caring, Matilda brought holiday cheer to underprivileged children with a special visit and personal gifts.

For 24 years, Matilda was president of the Women’s Auxiliary to the Children’s Work of the Salvation Army, which was founded by her sister-in-law, Della Dodge. In 1929, the Women’s Auxiliary took part in the Salvation Army’s $3 million fundraising project for new buildings including 2 hospitals, women and children homes, and an education building. 

The creation of the Denby Home, a home for children and unwed mothers in Detroit, was closest to Matilda’s heart. She provided some $100,00 for its 1931 construction. Every Christmas Eve after – well into the 1960s – the Wilson Family would visit Denby House with 60 or so wrapped presents. Matilda and her family would watch the children’s play and distribute gifts.

Matilda would spend weeks in advance personally picking out an outfit and toy for each child. Later, children recalled the pockets of their new dresses would be filled with candies, trinkets, or an orange grown on Meadow Brook Estate.

“Mother would stay up until four or five in the morning wrapping gifts. She also addressed by herself the 1,500 Christmas cards the family sent out each year. We were never allowed to go to the third floor where the wrapping took place.” — Richard Wilson, 1980

Frances continues the Giving Tradition

Fred and Frances Von Lennep
Frances and Fred Von Lennep

Frances Dodge continued the family tradition of generosity during the holidays, just like Matilda has taught her. 

Frances founded Dodge Stables at Meadow Brook Estate but later moved her equestrian enterprise and her family to Castleton Farms in Lexington, Kentucky.

At every Christmas at Castleton Farms, Frances would send a letter to each employee and tell them to pick out a gift their children wished for that year. Castleton Farms would have a large staff party for all the children to receive their special gifts. 

Richard Wilson said she was so generous, no gift was too much to ask and Frances never said no. 

When Frances noticed children outgrowing the bicycles she had given them, a staff member would secretly go around and let Frances know when new bicycles were needed. Her husband, Fred Van Lennep, recalled that one year she gave out 43 bicycles!



Be captivated by the people, places and tales that make Meadow Brook Hall so remarkable. Our Estate Stories series unlocks the vaults, dives into the archives and seeks out tales of the Great Estate to pique your interest and enrich your life.