Issacher Wells of Lower Village Kennebunk was blessed with musically gifted daughters. Bertha and Mildred toured internationally with the Imperial Entertainers of Coit Lyceum Bureau. Their younger sister Edna put her musical talents to use in the service of her country at the end of World War I.
Edna Frances Wells was a thinker and a doer. She pursued higher education at a time when it was considered unladylike for a woman to express intellectual independence. It was her belief that self-sufficiency, strong character and a respect for nature and the environment should be encouraged in girls. At 26 years old the unmarried pianist was elected president of the Maine Camp Fire Girls Association.
South Boston-born Edna was also one of a small group of Kennebunkport and Lower Village women who in 1915 formed the Olympian Club as a place for curious women to educate themselves in peace. At first they explored subjects like botany, politics and Maine history. When it looked as though the United States would enter the war in Europe, the ladies of the Olympian Club searched for ways a male-dominated society would permit them to assist.
Authoress Margaret Deland, who had served in France as a canteen worker for the Red Cross, spoke to the ladies of the Olympian Club about her experiences abroad. She expressed disappointment that many of the young women that volunteered with her were mostly interested in meeting prospective husbands and that their service had not been beneficial to the soldiers. Some of the soldiers probably would have disagreed.
Edna Wells was inspired to serve. She submitted an application to the Red Cross in June of 1918 but red tape delayed her departure. Then her sister Bertha became afflicted with influenza while on a concert tour of Canada. She returned to the family home in Kennebunk to recuperate and Edna did all she could to make her sister comfortable. An epidemic of influenza had killed more people than did the war and the Kennebunks had their share of victims. The Red Cross could not risk sending a possible influenza carrier to the front.
On Nov. 1, 1918, 10 days before the Germans and the Allies signed The Armistice, Miss Wells left Kennebunk for New York City and around the 15th of November she sailed for France. Technically, the war had ended but there was still much work to be done. Edna’s first assignment was in Allerey, France. The Allies had set up three enormous hospitals in temporary structures there. The makeshift wards were bursting at the seams with some 25,000 wounded men. As the recovering soldiers awaited stateside passage their restlessness became problematic for the military police.
Edna Wells and fellow Red Cross worker Miss Ruth Reed of Waterloo, Iowa, found a large, vacant two-story building near the hospitals and set it up as a recreation center. Miss Reed told a reporter from the Waterloo Times Tribune that according to the captain of the military police, “the opening of their recreation center had lessoned the arrests for drunkenness by about 60 percent. French people came to the center for tea with the soldiers and pressed them with invitations to visit them in their homes.”
Officers and nurses had use of the second floor and the enlisted men were entertained by Edna’s piano on the ground floor. She had the uncanny ability to play a song after only hearing it once and the soldiers enjoyed singing along. The familiar music made them think of home. Edna stayed in touch with some of the soldiers she met in Europe that winter for the rest of her life.
Her final assignment before returning home aboard the Bohemian on July 19, 1919, was entertaining the troops at Is-sur-Tille, a village about 20 miles north of Dijon with a pre-war population of 5,000. It had become the busiest spot in Europe as wounded soldiers were processed through the transfer station there on their way home.
Service people from Kennebunkport, Lower Village and North Kennebunkport were welcomed home with an elaborate celebration and parade on Sept. 1, 1919. Edna’s friends from the Olympian Club, who had first suggested the event to town officials, swelled with pride as their “Over-There” girl rode by on the parade route to Emery Square. Judge Luques presented bronze medals to those who had served their country. The medals were used as free passes to all events of the day.
Edna F. Wells was the only woman so honored in Kennebunkport that day and thanks to Phyllis Cluff, ex-treasurer for the American Legion Auxiliary to Post 159, Edna’s medal has been preserved.