Her father, Andrew Bonney Robbins, founded a first-ring Minneapolis suburb in 1893 — naming Robbinsdale after himself. Her mother’s brother, lumber baron Thomas Barlow Walker, created a museum for his art collection — naming the Walker Art Center after himself.
Amy Robbins Ware was born in 1877 in her uncle’s art-filled home in Minneapolis. A daughter of privilege, she could have lived a life of leisure like many ladies of her era. But Ware made a name for herself on the trench-pocked battlefields of France during World War I as a Red Cross canteen worker, radio operator and front-line nurse.
When she came home to Robbinsdale in 1919, she published her war diary of poems and prose. Titled “Echoes of France,” the little volume is available online (tinyurl.com/AmyWare) and offers an oddly poetic glimpse of the horrors of the Great War.
“To one who knows them well, there is as much difference in the sound of a German and an American plane, as between the spoken words of language,” she wrote on Sept. 17, 1918, at Field Hospital 41 near the Western Front.
In a poem written the same day, “Birds of the Night,” she describes watching her first air battle — observing flying maneuvers for her radio work at the aviation center. “I crouch down one step further Into the oozing trench, And my heart takes up the rhythm With a terrifying wrench … ”
It’s not always easy reading. On Nov. 10, 1918 — the day before the armistice that would end the war that left more than 16.5 million civilians and soldiers dead — Ware wrote three paragraphs from the Brizeaux-Forestière where she staffed Evacuation Hospital No. 11 in the Argonne region. “I thought of the boys in the trenches enduring the bitter chill and the wounded lying waiting while their life-blood ebbed away.”
She was 41 at the time and far from the comfortable life she left behind in Minnesota. In the book’s introduction, written in Robbinsdale 96 years ago this month, Ware says she hopes her presence did some good on the bloody Western Front: “To Mothers of boys ‘Gone West’ and those who returned, I hope this assurance that American women were at the scene of action may be a comfort.”
Based on her lineage, it’s no surprise she offered to help on the battlefield. Both her mother and grandmother — Adelaide Julia Walker and Mary Shaw Robbins — served as Civil War nurses. Ware’s ancestor, John Howland, was a Pilgrim who arrived on the Mayflower. Her great-great grandfather, Capt. Abraham Shaw, fought against the British in the Revolutionary War. And when her dad was 17, he joined the Eighth Regiment of Minnesota Volunteers in 1862 — fighting in the Civil War in Tennessee as well as in the U.S.-Dakota War.
“Her family history indicates … it was but natural, therefore, when her own country became involved in the great World war that Mrs. Ware should at once devote herself to the cause,” according to a 1923 book on Minneapolis history.
After studying Morse code and radio telegraphy in 1917 when America joined the Great War, Ware taught classes in both forms of communication. On March 14, 1918, she sailed for France on the La Touraine, — “crossing the submarine infested Atlantic,” according to the 1923 biography.
It wasn’t her first trip to Europe. In 1913 and 1914, she was in her mid-30s when she joined her mother for seven months in Europe, studying handiworks and architecture. That journey was merely the latest step in her lofty education.
She began studying violin at age 8 and went into architecture after graduating from East Minneapolis High School in 1896. She added a bachelor of science degree in 1901 and a masters in arts in 1907 from the University of Minnesota — studying everything from wood carving to design, drama to archaeology.
“She early found that keenest joy which arises from the intellectual stimulus that comes through comprehensive study, research and investigation,” said that 1923 book, “History of Minneapolis, Gateway to the Northwest.”
She married a lawyer named J.R. Ware in 1907 and they moved to a house they called the Orchards — a pretty parcel in Robbinsdale that her parents gave them as a gift. The Wares had no children and soon divorced. The 1910 Census shows the couple living in Robbinsdale. By 1920, the Census taken after her return from France listed her as living with her mother, not her husband. And when she died May 5, 1929, from a cerebral hemorrhage at 51 at Abbott Hospital after a week feeling ill, her death certificate listed her as divorced. It said she was working in real estate and insurance. She’s buried at Lakewood Cemetery in Minneapolis.
Her first bout of ill health came just after her stint in World War I. “In her zeal, Mrs. Ware overworked, and … was sent to the Riviera to recuperate,” according to a 1921 book, “American Biography: A New Cyclopedia Vol. 9.”
Back home, she taught soldiers at Fort Snelling, became a member of the Hennepin County Speakers’ Bureau and was considered an expert on international relations. But her war chronicle, “Echoes of France,” became Ware’s legacy.
“Gifted with a rare clarity of vision, Mrs. Ware vividly portrays the horrors of war, but also pictures clearly the wondrous beauties of the sights and sounds of the great adventure, and pays feeling tribute to the incomparable spirit of the American soldier,” William Richard Cutter wrote in his 1921 “American Biography.”
“In this little book is revealed the inspired devotion of American women who went with the boys to the very end of the journey, and it must ever be a solace to bereaved and aching hearts, for it is a veritable message of hope.”
Curt Brown’s tales about Minnesota’s history appear each Sunday. Readers can send him ideas and suggestions at firstname.lastname@example.org. A collection of his columns is available as the e-book “Frozen in History” at startribune.com/ebooks.