They call her Miss Ellen
Published 12:08 am Sunday, August 15, 2010
PORT GIBSON — If you see a pretty girl driving down the street, and you want to know her name and where she lives, what do you do?
If you’re a highway patrolman, you might pull her over on some pretense.
That’s what Mac McCarley did when he saw Ellen Drake driving in front of the Baptist church about 65 years ago.
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And that’s how Miss Ellen, as most folks call her, became Mrs. H.A. “Mac” McCarley.
“Yeah, he found out,” she laughed. “I haven’t forgotten that one!”
It was a home wedding in the big house atop Drake Hill, where Miss Ellen was born Ellen Davis Drake III on Oct. 19, 1919, and where she still lives.
They got married at home, she said, because, “My daddy said he was getting old and couldn’t walk down the aisle at church.”
She believes the house was built around 1900. It was heated by coal-burning fireplaces, “but when my daddy got older and didn’t feel like hauling coal in every day, he had a furnace put in.”
She has 90 years of memories in that house, and with a twinkle in her eye and an infectious laugh, said she would have remembered more several years ago.
“I was a very privileged child,” she said, and one of her happiest memories of childhood is about Christmas on Drake Hill when the big celebration was on Christmas Eve and her mother invited all the Drake and Person relatives “and anyone else she had contact with.”
Her mother would go shopping in Vicksburg, riding the train as the road was gravel. They’d get off the train, climb the hill to Washington Street and go to the F.W. Woolworth Store that was near The Valley.
That was before the days of shopping carts, and Mrs. Drake had a large basket, maybe 4-by-2 or larger and at least a foot deep. She’d tie a rope on one end, somebody would pull it up and down the aisles, “and mother would take stuff and drop it in there and drop it in there and drop it in there” until the basket was full. Then they’d catch the train back to Port Gibson.
“My job was just to follow along,” Miss Ellen said, for she was about 5 years old and was mostly interested in Santa Claus. In the basket was a gift for everyone who came to the house, maybe as many as 75 people. Her mother wrapped the gifts and put names on them “but didn’t say who they were from, but everybody knew.” She made candy and had ice cream and cookies, all served from a large dining room table.
The most exciting moment was when the double sliding doors that led into the parlor were opened and there stood a huge tree, all decorated and complete with burning candles — and some of the men and older boys standing nearby in case of a fire. On Christmas Day, the family had a five- or six-course meal including fresh seafood, packed in ice in New Orleans and shipped by train, “and that was a while ago.”
She began school next door when she was 3 in a room upstairs in her Aunt Kate’s house. Miss Ellen and her sister Isabel were taught from about 8 until 11 each day and then went home. Aunt Kate, she said, saw to it that all the children in the family were educated. Miss Ellen was the youngest — “I brought up the rear” — and she feels sure Aunt Kate shouted in relief. Miss Ellen could read and write before she was 4, so when she entered public school at 7 she was placed in the third grade.
High school was pretty normal with one exception — she and another girl were the only females enrolled at Chamberlain-Hunt. It was just for one class, something needed to enter the college she wanted to attend but not offered in the public schools.
Several relatives had attended Randolph-Macon in Virginia, and Miss Ellen went there, too, majoring in Latin but admitting she really majored in Dr. Lipscomb, who was such a great teacher.
What did she do with her major?
“I learned a lot of words.”
She came back to Port Gibson after college, “not necessarily to work,” but did have a job for a while at the courthouse in one of the record rooms. Her brother, an attorney, tried to get her to go to law school but, “I wasn’t about to go back to college.” Instead, she worked in a law office, and she and Mac raised three daughters — Ellen, Isabel and Kay. For a few years, they lived at Yokena, then moved back to Port Gibson.
Behind the big house was a small one in the backyard, which was called the green house — because of its color, not that it contained plants — and “Mac used to hang out there every afternoon” when he was off duty. When Miss Ellen was a child, Lee Laws and his wife lived there and worked for her grandfather. Later, a friend of her father’s lived there, and after his death it was vacant.
That’s when it became a gathering place where Mac and friends told stories and spun yarns, stories like this one:
Signal lights on cars were a new invention and were quite a novelty because, until around 1950, an arm out the window indicated the direction the driver was going to take. One day, Mac was giving a driver’s test to a man when a new car in front of them, equipped with blinkers, gave a signal — on, off, on, off, on, off and so forth. Mac asked the man taking the test, “What does that mean?” He hesitated, then replied, “It’s got a shortness in it.”
There were plenty of places for Miss Ellen and the other children to play — pastures and trees and there was even a tennis court at the bottom of the hill, though she didn’t get to use it much “because the boys ruled the roost. They’d let me hit a ball sometimes,” but the younger ones usually played the age-old hide-and-seek and “Red Rover, Red Rover — and we never stayed inside.” Those games, she thinks were a lot more fun than video.
Miss Ellen was raised in the Methodist church, but began going to the Presbyterian when they lived at Yokena. In Port Gibson, she said, her mother got outdone with the Methodist preacher and she told Miss Ellen, “I was Presbyterian for 37 years and I’ve been a Methodist for 37 years, and I’m going back to the Presbyterians — and you’re going with me.”
It was an easy transition, she said.
Miss Ellen’s daughter Ellen lives near Hattiesburg, and Isabel lives at Tchula. Kay, who moved to Texas, died several years ago. Mac has also passed.
Though Miss Ellen is full of fun and loves to laugh, there’s a very serious side to her to which her “other daughter,” Kathleen Huff will attest. Kathleen was 14 in 1961 when her mother died. Her parents had been separated for some time, and Kathleen was going to live with her father some 10 miles south of Port Gibson. It would have been difficult for both of them, she said, but her dad was willing to work it out.
But things changed. At the funeral, Kathleen had no idea what to do and she prayed to God for guidance.
Not long after that, Kay McCarley, one of her best friends, told her the family would like for her to come stay with them for a while, to see if she liked it, if she would be happy there. It has lasted a lifetime.
They treated her like a sister, she said, “a total and complete blessing from God. Ellen is the most wonderful inspiration of my life.”
Kathleen, who lives in Clinton, is still as much a part of the family as if she, too, had been born on Drake Hill.
And Miss Ellen feels that she is the one who has been blessed.
Miss Ellen said that since she retired, “I sit in a chair and read a book or go out in the yard and pick up a stick or two — maybe.”
Yard work isn’t a problem “because there’s always somebody with their hand out wanting money.”
Life has been wonderful, she said, “and I haven’t had a single complaint as of right now” (1:46 p.m. on Aug. 6). “I’ve had a good life. Let’s put it that way.”
Gordon Cotton is an author and historian who lives in Vicksburg.