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Hancock County women remembered for overseas World War I service

Mary Sample of Greenfield worked in a YMCA canteen in France in World War I and later studied in Berlin, Germany, according to Linda Dunn’s new book. Photo provided

HANCOCK COUNTY — Writing a history of women in Hancock County was not on Linda Dunn’s list of things to do in retirement.

But she was frustrated that there was so little history on them and wanted to make it easier for the next person doing such research.

She also knew August 2020 marks the 100th anniversary of the ratification of the 19th Amendment, which gave women the right to vote, so she was curious about what women in Hancock County were doing around that time. 

Dunn spent several weeks in the Hancock County Public Library and researched online from home before self-publishing “The Extraordinary Women of Hancock County: Suffragists and Trailblazers.”

The suffragist movement was coming to a head as World War I got under way, and Dunn realized that six of the women she’d studied served overseas during the war.

With a father from Wales and a mother from Scotland, Lydia Lewis Wills, who was born in Brazil, Indiana, enlisted in the British Expeditionary Force as a front-line nurse and served in France until the United States entered the war. Then she transferred to the U.S. Army Nurses Corps, where she remained until 1919. Later, she moved with her husband to Greenfield, where he started a Ford dealership and later sold Hudsons. Wills kept the dealership open after his death. A fire destroyed the building that housed the business on Main Street in 1954.

Eva Lois Reeves Parsons of Hancock County did hospital work for the Red Cross in France in 1918 and 1919. She died in rural Napa, California, in 1959. The lines of her headstone read, “Indiana, Nurse, Army Nurse Corps, World War I.”

Nellie Baldwin, a Greenfield High School graduate, served in the Women’s Overseas Unit during World War I. She also taught in Indiana, Tennessee and Georgia.

Joe Skvarenina, Hancock County historian, told the Daily Reporter in an email that Baldwin and her sisters were unique in Hancock County history.

“In the 1930s, they were the braintrust of Greenfield,” Skvarenina said. “Vernie promoted the library and literary circles in Greenfield. Margaret was the first woman to be a principal of a school in the county’s history. Nellie was an adventurer, and she served in the Red Cross in Paris on the front lines during World War I. After the war, she returned to Greenfield to be a Latin teacher.”

Mary Sample, also of Greenfield, was a secretary in the overseas canteen service in France in 1918. The Indiana University graduate also studied in Berlin, Germany, for a year

“At a time when women were expected to marry, raise children and devote their lives to their husbands and families, Mary lived life on her own terms without any apologies to anyone,” Dunn writes in her book. “She traveled widely, contributed to society in ways that may have shocked many of the older and more conservative generation and taught at least two generations of women how to live life on their own terms.”

Carolyn Newhouse, who was born in Hancock County, sailed to Italy on a ship that carried steel rails and 500 horses for that country’s army. She later served in the international executive office of the American Red Cross in Paris during World War I.

Lillian Mae Baker, another Red Cross volunteer, lived in Greenfield after the war. A 1936 Daily Reporter article identifies her among local women who served overseas during the hostilities. She and her sister were accomplished dancers who occasionally entertained at social events. Baker worked as a teacher and held several other jobs before retiring to Arizona.

Dunn told the Daily Reporter in an email that while working for the Department of Defense’s Defense Contract Management Agency, she had many co-workers who volunteered to fill civilian positions overseas to support troops. Conversations with them made her more aware of how critical supply lines and support services are for the success of military efforts.

“Thus, while these women were not on the front lines, dodging bullets (with the possible exception of Lydia Lewis Wills), they served to the limit they were allowed during that era,” Dunn said. “I think they are worthy of remembrance and recognition along with Hancock County’s World War I military veterans.”

One thing that stood out to her throughout her research, she said, was that none of the women left any descendants.

Skvarenina said women who served overseas during World War I “were courageous.”

Their efforts were also strong stateside, he continued, explaining that the Red Cross was organized in each township of the county with chairpersons and officers. A widespread membership of women made surgical dressings, sweaters, socks, underwear, men’s nightshirts and women’s house gowns for use in hospitals as wounded made their way back from the front, Skvarenina said.