Edna Odell

Edna Odell in her nursing uniform with Red Cross pin

The Odell House on Ridge Road in Hartsdale is known for its role in the American Revolution. 

During the summer of 1781, it was the headquarters of the Comte de Rochambeau and his French forces as George Washington and the Continental Army were camped in Ardsley. From there, the two generals forged the strategy that won the colonies’ independence.

Until 1965, the house had been owned by generations of the Odell family, which included the remarkable Edna Odell, a prototype of the modern, liberated woman. The 100th anniversary of her death will be this August. 

To raise Edna Odell’s profile, the Friends of Odell House Rochambeau Headquarters, the nonprofit group involved in the current restoration of the house, posted a research article about her on the organization’s website on March 1, the start of Women’s History Month.

Titled “Edna Odell, A Story of Perseverance,” the article was authored by Tessa Payer, a recent William & Mary graduate now working with a historical society in New Jersey, with contributors Susan Seal, president of the Friends, and Susan Werbe of Hartsdale, a former vice president of programming and development for the History Channel.

“I thought her story resonated with the modern world,” Seal said. “Of all the stories about the family, many of them have focused on the Revolutionary War and the men, so I wanted our first article to be about a woman, about her life, which bridged two centuries, and about what she did, which was quite extraordinary. I wanted it to be about a woman who was not part of the Revolutionary world, so everybody could understand that this restoration was not just about the Revolutionary War but about the life of an American family.”

Odell, one of seven children, was the single mother of two adopted children and the fourth Odell generation’s only female member to serve during a war.

Her great-grandfather, Col. John Odell, was one of George Washington’s guides; her grandfather John Jackson Odell served in the War of 1812; her father, Dyckman Odell, was a member of the Lincoln Brigade in the Civil War; and her brother Otis volunteered for the Spanish-American War in 1898.

That same year, Edna entered the Cochran Training School of Nursing, which opened in Yonkers in 1894. The school is connected to St. John’s Riverside Hospital, and continues today as the oldest nursing school in Westchester County. Odell joined the American Red Cross and served in France during World War I, from 1918-19.

One artifact the Friends discovered at the Odell House, which the Town of Greenburgh bought in 2019 from a chapter of the Sons of the American Revolution, provided a type of 3-D rendering of Edna. 

“I found her uniform all crumpled up in a corner of one of the storage containers on the Odell property,” Seal told the Enterprise. “She was about 5-foot-6. She was tall; she was not a tiny woman, but she was quite thin. In the photos she’s attractive.” In the photographs accompanying the website article, Odell wears her nurse’s uniform.

Photos and letters that were moved from storage containers outside the house to the Westchester Historical Society earlier this year tell much of Edna Odell’s story, along with financial records, luggage tags, passports, and other artifacts. The Odell siblings exchanged letters often, especially while Edna was in nursing school. 

She recounted her long hours and the dirty working conditions. Nevertheless, in 1900, while living in New York City, she enjoyed her time on a children’s ward before graduating in 1902. She then took a job as a district nurse in the Bronx.

During her time with the Red Cross, Odell was assigned to the Paris office of the Children’s Bureau’s. The plight of refugee children affected her so much that she returned to the U.S. in 1919 with 4-year-old Roland Lotte, whose mother was hospitalized and too ill to care for him. Odell adopted “Rollie” and then adopted another French child, Simone, in March 1920.

Edna and two of her sisters, Margaret and Elizabeth, had a home built at 65 Circle Drive in Hastings, where they lived with Rollie and Simone. Elizabeth was a public school teacher while Margaret was a filing clerk, later a librarian. 

“It was unusual for single women — they all worked,” Seal noted. “They lived independent lives.”

Edna died during gallbladder surgery on Aug. 10, 1921, at the age of 46. She is buried at the Old Dutch Church in Sleepy Hollow, along with other members of her family. Simone moved to Rochester in the 1940s and had a family; she is now deceased. Roland lived in the Odell House as its caretaker from 1973 until his death in 1990. The New York Chapter of the Sons of the American Revolution acquired the house from the Odell family in 1965. 

In January, the Town of Greenburgh hired a contractor to stabilize the Odell House, which was built in three sections in 1732, 1760, and 1855. In 2019, the Town was awarded a $600,000 matching grant for the restoration from New York State. The house will be turned into a museum, projected to open in 2023. For more information, visit odellrochambeau.org.

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