Ellis, Anne

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Born 1875, Missouri; died August 1938, Denver, Colorado

Daughter of Albert L. and Rachel Sweareangen Heister; married G. Fleming, 1895; Herbert Ellis, 1901

When still a child, Anne Ellis traveled with her family behind an oxen team to Silver Cliff, Colorado. As Ellis remembers: "I went up the gulch at the age of six and came down at the age of sixteen." When she came down, a seasoned veteran of life in Colorado's mining towns, it was with the first batch of experiences that would make her a writer.

Soon after the family's move from Missouri, Ellis' father left his wife for a job in Buffalo and never came back. One of Ellis' earliest memories is of the abject poverty that drove her mother to take one of her pieced quilts door to door trying to trade it for food. In 1882 her mother married a miner and the family moved to Bonanza. Here, though never free of want, they survived the ups and downs of the mining business chiefly through her mother's ingenuity as a cook and seamstress. Miners (with names like "Si Dore" and "Picnic Jim"), fancy women, cliff-climbing, first love, a first milk cow, dances, tales of women's rights, and dresses made of cabin curtains—all these filled Ellis' life and later her writings. Though school consisted primarily of home mastery of a fifth grade reader, Ellis remarked that "when one cannot read, one thinks a lot."

Shortly after her mother's death in 1893, Ellis married and moved to a new mine, the Only Chance, to stake a claim. Living from hand to mouth most of these years, Ellis spent much of her spare time writing. In 1938, her friends rallied to pay for the necessary clothes and traveling expenses, when she received a telegram invitation to appear at the University of Colorado to receive an honorary Master of Letters degree. At that time, she had published her three autobiographical works: The Life of an Ordinary Woman (1929), Plain Anne Ellis (1931), and Sunshine Preferred (1934).

The Life of an Ordinary Woman gives a valuable firsthand description and analysis of the mining West. It focuses on the variety of characters and activities characteristic to a mining town: "A New Mine," "The Baby's First Bed," "Theatricals," "Seeing a Prize Fight," "Cripple Creek Troubles," and "The First Telephone." In Plain Anne Ellis, Ellis details house-building, contracting with the government to travel with and cook for a telephone gang, sheep shearing, race relations, Indian maneuvers, county politics, and equal rights conventions. Sunshine Preferred, though not as interesting as Ellis' earlier works, nevertheless offers a rare insight into sanitariums of the 1920s and 1930s and a few glimpses of life in Albuquerque and Santa Fe, New Mexico.

One of the most refreshing rewards of reading Ellis' books is the abundant humor that characterizes her style. She also has a talent for putting herself in perspective, which greatly enhances the psychological insight that her works provide. Ellis' observations are often straightforward accounts of an active mind and a vibrant body for whom the Victorian mores of her era fell by the wayside. Of her political experiences, she writes: "These men, who were supposed to be my friends, tried to make it hell for me; but I, who recognize no hell, was neither worried, frightened nor disturbed; in fact, I rather enjoyed it; holding the whip hand was for me a new experience." It's no surprise that this is the same woman of whom Irene McKeehan, professor of English at the University of Colorado, said: "Out of hardships and limitations she had made comedy and tragedy, touching the commonplace with the magic of interest, transmuting ordinary life into literature."


Colorado Quarterly (Summer 1955). NYT (30 Aug. 1931, 19 Aug. 1934). NYTBR (29 Sept. 1929).