My father, Edwin Courtland Mulford, was born in East Hampton on March 16, 1896. He first saw the light of day in Congress Hall, the Mulford family homestead overlooking the village green, directly across from Home, Sweet Home and what became known later as the Mulford Farm. The land on which Congress Hall stands had been granted to William Mulford in 1650, and had never been out of the family. His parents were David Green Mulford and Elizabeth Osborne Mulford, and he was descended from virtually all of East Hampton’s founding families.
When he was 21 years old, the United States entered World War I, and he knew immediately that he would be a participant. He joined the Army in December 1917 and was sent to Camp Upton for training. From there he was sent to France, where he participated in some of the bloodiest fighting of the war. He survived, and was shipped home early in 1919, returning to the family farm. He married Charlotte Davis, his high school sweetheart, and I was their only child, arriving on the scene in 1931.
As a boy I knew my father had participated in the war, not because he talked about it, because he never did. It was as though that period of his life had never happened. I became aware of it when I found and subsequently pored over two books. One was titled “History of the 77th Division,” and the other “A History of the 305th Infantry.” These books, plus his Army helmet and uniform, which I discovered in the attic, opened up a whole new chapter in my father’s life that I scarcely knew existed.
That was only the beginning, however. Much later, some 80 years after my father returned from France, I discovered a packet of letters tied in a faded ribbon. They were letters exchanged between my father and his parents during his time in the Army. As my wife, our two adult children, and I read those letters, tears streamed down our cheeks. For those letters caught the horror and sense of separation experienced by those young men huddled in the trenches of France, as well as glimpses into life in East Hampton nearly 100 years ago.
The first group of letters and postcards, dated from Dec. 3, 1917, until April 9, 1918, deals with life at Camp Upton. A number of them refer to the trips home over the weekends, provided by Ed Schaefer, owner of a taxi service in East Hampton. On Dec. 18 Dad tells of a trip back to Camp Upton. “We spent 2 hours in Bridgehampton looking for one of the fellows. One of the headlights went out and we got a lantern. We got there at 4:30 a.m.”
As spring approached, the mood of the letters changed. He writes: “Oh, how I wish I was home beginning the spring work. Never mind, I will be home next spring anyway, don’t worry.”
Two letters, one dated April 29 and one May 2, indicate that the Atlantic had been safely crossed. From this point on the letters are heavily censored.
His thoughts went frequently to East Hampton and to the members of his family, as his letter of May 24 indicates: “France is a very pretty country but I think England has it beat a little. Tell Papa I have seen some of the best looking horses that I have ever seen. By the way the paper [The East Hampton Star] looked, I should think the Old Town was pretty lively. Two or three dances a week, what more do they want, but that isn’t doing me any good, is it?”
His almost casual references to the horrors of the trenches are interspersed with concerns about life at Congress Hall. He worries that the houses might not be rented for the summer, or that his father was working too hard. He asks how many chickens his father had raised that year, and whether the hay was in.
Since Dad knew his letters were censored, he would often write “I’ll tell you all about it when I get home.” One letter in the packet, written by his friend George Eichorn and somehow sent by George “on the sly,” paints a gruesome picture. George writes, “I am in a place called Fiames . . . and we captured a few towns and two big hills. It cost us a few men but it cost the Germans a good many more. We also captured a lot of prisoners. The gas the Germans send over us is awful. It burns the skin right off any place where you sweat.” George then mentions the names of some of “our boys” who were wounded, and then the name of one who “was blown to pieces as we could not find any trace of him at all after the battle.”
On Oct. 20, only a few weeks before the end of the war, Dad wrote to his sister: “Well, Sis, I have seen a little fighting but I didn’t mind much. You can tell Dr. Stokes [the former minister of the Presbyterian Church] I had the chance to get eight German scalps for him, but I took pity on them and took them prisoner instead. Tell Mother I have received her letters and, O, how glad I was to have Pop write those few lines.”
On Nov. 17: “Of course by this time you have heard of the wonderful news. Well, I was right at the front when the last shot was fired. I won’t bother to write much about the war, because I soon expect to be home to tell you all about it. Of course, after everything is over, I had to go to work and have a nice little boil come on the top of my instep caused by a bad shoe.”
That boil turned out to be more than Dad had bargained for, as it continued to bother him for months and led to his return home on a hospital ship. By March 1919, Dad was back in East Hampton. His parents, about whom he fretted while in France, both lived into their 80s.
The song “How Ya Gonna Keep ’Em Down on the Farm After They’ve Seen Paree?” certainly didn’t apply to Dad. During the rest of his long life, he left East Hampton seldom and always reluctantly. He maintained the family property on the corner of Main Street and Buell Lane meticulously until his death, at age 80, in 1976.
David E. Mulford is a retired Presbyterian minister who continues his fascination with family and East Hampton history. He and his wife live near Princeton, N.J.