Tennessee friends Lindsy Wolke and Ellen Grant were on a weekend getaway in Sevierville when they stopped at Smoky Mountain Knife Works to browse. One wouldn’t expect a store that’s motto is “If it cuts, we carry it” to be the preservation place for a historic romance. However, the specialty shop happens to have a relics room for old, unique finds and it was there that the friends found a stack of World War II-era love letters that they could not stop reading.
So compelling was the love story within the pages, Wolke and Grant purchased the 21 letters for around $80 and hurried to the car to finish reading them all. “It was better than any book I’ve ever read,” Grant told The Washington Post. As soon as the women put the letters back into their envelopes, they knew they had to find out more about both of the authors, Elias Maxwell and Ilaine Murray, and their fates.
The Search Begins
In 1944, 19-year-old Elias Maxwell was part of the Navy Corps stationed in New York. Down the coast in South Jersey, his 18-year-old girlfriend Ilaine Murray tended the home fires in their hometown of Blackwood. When Wolke and Grant searched for traces of the pair online, via Ancestry.com, they found that the two had married after WWII, had four children, and settled in the New Jersey town where they had met.
The fact that the scribes were actually reunited after the war convinced the friends they had to search further. They took to Facebook to find the Maxwell kids, though when they reached out the received no reply. Finally, they received a lead after posting images of the letters to a group called “Weird Secondhand Finds That Just Need To Be Shared.” As is the new norm on social media, a friend of a friend saw the letters and brought them to the attention of the Maxwell children. Maxwell’s daughter, Barbara, explained she thought the original message from Wolke was spam.
To New Jersey And Back Again
When Wolke, Grant, and Elias and Ilaine’s children finally connected, they made a plan to meet in Blackwood. Wolke and Grant did not trust the post office to transport the precious letters, and they wanted to see where the childhood sweethearts met, fell in love, and raised their family. They drove from Clarksville, Tennessee to Blackwood, New Jersey in two days. The four siblings greeted Wolke and Grant together, escorting them through the town to their parents’ favorite haunts, and even bringing them to the family homestead. (The house had been liquidated by the bank when Ilaine was placed in a nursing home in 2000; however, daughter Barbara bought it back as a precious piece of family history.)
The traveling friends and the Maxwell siblings all spoke of feeling an instant connection upon meeting each other. Though Wolke and Evans only knew Elias and Ilaine through their 75-year-old writings, they still felt close to the family. In the Facebook group post she hoped would reach the Maxwell children, Wolke wrote “The letters are funny, sweet, and just heartfelt. […] And Ilaine’s closing on her letters just warms my heart.”
While no one knows how the carefully preserved letters ended up in a knife shop 800 miles from home, all parties are excited to have the correspondence back to their rightful place. Maxwell’s son Tom told South Jersey KWY radio, “Had this been 20 years ago pre-social media, these girls may never have found us and we [wouldn’t] have the letters. But today, the world’s a little smaller place.”
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