By JOHN KIENER
Who was Rhea Wells? That was the guiding question for Brenda G’Fellers and Kristin Pearson of the Bristol Public Library as they researched local artist and children’s book author Rhea Wells (1891-1962). As explained in their History Happy Hour presentation titled “Rhea Wells of Jonesborough, Artist, Author, Actor, Soldier, Philanthropist” on Thursday, Aug. 16, at the Chester Inn, he was “well-known, yet reclusive.”
G’Fellers said, “Rhea tended to be protective of his private life even as a public figure.” Biographical research of events in Jonesborough, Alabama, New York and Europe presented a challenge for the two researchers in a project that began in 2015.
G’Fellers explained the reasons for taking on the task. “He was very successful. A man who endowed the town’s library deserves recognition.” She was working on a post-graduate degree at the University of Tennessee when she first began the research.
Approximately 25 people attended their power-point and lecture presentation that would have been instructive to any individual interested in genealogy. Pearson and G’Fellers skillfully used census records, city directories, a draft registration, a master’s thesis written at East Tennessee State University, publishers’ materials and newspapers, including an obituary from the Herald & Tribune. In their research, archival materials were discovered in both the states of Arkansas and Oregon.
Rhea was born in Jonesborough on Sept. 24, 1891, the son of Rufus and Lida Wells. The Wells family was well-known in the community and his mother, Mrs. Lida Simpson Wells, became the first president of the Schubert Club in 1898. The Schubert Club celebrated music, art, and literature. It continues in Jonesborough today. He spent part of his childhood growing up at 703 West Main Street in a house named Rose Hill.
Wells was surrounded by art and literature on the family’s small farm in Jonesborough. In The Junior Book of Authors (published 1951), Rhea described his early art, saying: “When I began to go to school most of my writing paper was used for drawing. These drawings, as I remember them, had little, if any, merit. A few years later I began to paint. My mother still preserves some of those efforts of my early adolescence. They are deplorably bad. It was not the quality of my work that interested me, it was the work itself.”
The Wells family, according to the researchers, was “moderately wealthy.” However, they have not been able to discover why the family moved to Birmingham, Alabama in 1901. Wells’ father died on Feb.15, 1903. By using census records, the researchers learned that by 1907 Rhea’s mother was remarried to Ernest G. Goldsmith. She was again widowed by 1920.
The children’s book author studied at Maryville College in Maryville, Tennessee and then at the Art Institute of Chicago. In her research, Pearson discovered that following his studies, Wells worked for a Birmingham newspaper for a year. Wells moved to New York City where he participated in the professional theatre scene as a costume and scene designer. In 1917 he volunteered for the draft and served in World War I as a cook. In his draft registration form, he stated that he was supporting his mother. He was 5 foot, 5 inches tall and had brown eyes and hair. Wells was discharged from the Army in 1919 and returned to New York City.
A passport issued on June 4, 1920 provided a wealth of information, G’Fellers said. “At that time,” she told her audience, “a new passport was issued each time you left the country.” Rhea’s passport included “his wife Mildred along with a photograph of the couple.” The U.S. Census, Pearson said “listed Rhea as 28 years old and Mildred as 25, with his occupation stated as ‘advertising.’” Other research indicates that Mildred was a psychologist.
Further research showed Rhea Wells married Mildred Stiebel, born in New York City, on April 9, 1919. She was a graduate of Columbia University. Her brother attended New York University and was active in the theater, which would explain (G’Fellers and Pearson believe) his later participation in theatrical productions. In 1925, he co-authored with Elizabeth Grimball a book on theater costuming.
Mildred and Rhea Wells traveled the world. Rhea ventured far and wide throughout his life from the Austrian Alps to the coast of Sicily to a village in Spain as documented in the literature he wrote. He was writing in the 1920s and 1930s, when the field of children’s literature was just developing. The travels influenced his writing, and his first children’s book, “Peppi the Duck” (published 1927), was set in the small town of Tyrol in the Austrian Alps.
He published nine books, six animal biographies – “Peppi the Duck,” “Beppo the Donkey,” “Ali the Camel,” “Coco the Goat,” “Zeke the Raccoon,” and “Andy and Polly.” He wrote two stories about Washington County, “An American Farm” and “Judy, Grits, and Honey.” The books don’t directly say that’s where they’re set, but they were definitely influenced by his childhood in Jonesborough. Wells also illustrated for other authors. His work continued through the early 1940s. He carefully renewed his copyrights, the first of which expires in 2025.
Pearson said “Changes in Rhea’s life in the 1930s were sad. Mildred died in 1934. Her occupation at the time of her death is listed as ‘housewife.’ She is buried in Fresh Pond Cemetery. In the 1940 U.S. Census, Rhea is listed as ‘single.’”
While living in New York City, the children’s book author and illustrator also kept in touch with the people in Jonesborough. After a career writing and publishing children’s literature, he retired to Jonesborough in 1940. He lived at the Chester Inn for five years, ironically the site of the August lecture. Later he moved to a home in town on Second Avenue.
While living in town, he visited the Library Service Department at ETSU at least once a year to lecture on children’s literature. He appeared on local TV programs, like “Talk Time,” and he directed a play called “The Nativity” at Jonesboro High School.
There are several unfinished manuscripts written by Rhea Wells in the collection at the Jonesborough Library. He did most of his painting before returning to Jonesborough. Once he returned home, he advocated for children’s literature and libraries with the observation “You cannot learn to read from a computer – you learn to read from a book.”
During the time he returned to Jonesborough, several residents remember visiting Wells. The late Alfred Greenlee followed Rhea’s advice to purchase a home. As a Jonesborough town employee involved in installing water pipes and mains, per Wells’ suggestion, Greenlee omitted writing down the exact location of his work. Wells told Greenlee, who began his town employment digging ditches and retired as superintendent of the Water Department, that it would be hard to discharge him if the town did not know where their mains and pipes were located. G’Fellers also said Wells encouraged Greenlee to get his high school diploma. Since the races were segregated and Jonesborough lacked a high school, he had to travel to Johnson City where he attended Langston High School.
Local resident John Lyle calls Wells “our unsung hero of Jonesborough and a very generous man.” Lyle would visit Rhea to talk about German art after World War I. He said, “If I had something in art history class, I would go and talk to Rhea. We discussed a number of artists. I saw him just before he died at the Veterans Administration at Mountain Home.”
Wells passed away on March 7, 1962. His body was donated to the University of Tennessee Medical College in Memphis and later his remains were buried there. In his will, he left his home to the Town of Jonesborough for use as a public library. The rest of his estate was left for the maintenance of the library.
Inspired by her research G’Fellers has written a children’s book titled “Rhea Wells: Boy of Jonesborough.”
G’Fellers said, “He was the beginning of children’s literature. We have gathered enough material in our research to write a comprehensive adult version of the Life of Rhea Wells.”