To my sons, Jeff and Chris, to my grandsons, Max and Andrew and to anyone else who may exhibit future interest; this is written to serve as a link to our family roots before they pass from memory. Perhaps in time I will write about other family members, but none are so colorful as my maternal grandfather, Hollis Irl Ellzey, Sr. He was a page right out of the old west; a character larger than life who people admired and respected, but also hated and feared. He was the dominant force in his family and his community. This is his story, as best I can recall from personal memories and family legend.
Hollis was born on June 5, 1888, in Marion County, MS. There is no record of the exact place of his birth, but it was most probably on the on the family farm located on the banks of the Pearl River. That part of the local community was known as “the Bend”, referring to a large bend in the river, just across the way from a geographical feature known as Red Bluff. The house is supposed to have been located at a point in the river called the “Big Eddy”. In later years it was a popular swimming hole. The geographical coordinates 31N20.1, 89W55.7 on Google Earth satellite imagery will probably place you within 1/8 mile of the location of the house. In later years a fellow named J. B. Ivy, a survivor of the Bataan Death March, had a house located in close proximity.
He was the son of Robert May Ellzey and Sarah Susannah Buckley. I do not know much about his father other than the fact that he died at an early age when Hollis was very young. I do know a bit about his mother, Sara Susannah, who was a hard woman and not very well liked. Family lore holds that she had such a reputation for being difficult that no one would marry her until her father convinced newcomer Robert Ellzey to marry her. Whatever the case, I do know that my own father barely tolerated her. She would be the dominant force in Hollis’ early years.
Soon after Hollis was born his father died leaving his widow to care for 4 children, the oldest of whom was only six. Hollis was shipped off to live with a relative, Jarred May. May and his wife raised him as a part of their own family, treating him kindly and with compassion. At about age 9 or 10, however, his mother came and got him and put him to work on the family farm. Being a strong willed person and having been raised in relative comfort so far, Hollis did not easily submit to hard nosed discipline from someone he hardly knew; especially someone who had a mean streak to begin with. He ran away.
I am not very clear on the details, but I do know that he ran away twice and twice Sarah Susannah sent her Negro farm hands to find him and bring him back. She made them hold him while she whipped him with a plow rope. I suspect these beatings were a bit excessive, especially the second time. These two incidents colored how he felt toward black people for the rest of his life. Although I never saw it, family lore holds that he kept a KKK robe and hood stored in an old wardrobe. I do know that he held black people in a bit of contempt, requiring them to come to the back door if they wanted to conduct business with him or his family.
At sometime in his teen age years Hollis contracted typhoid fever. Given the sanitary conditions in rural America in those days this is not surprising. His condition was life threatening, and for a time he was so sick that he did not know who or where he was. The only thing he could hold down was eggnog, and thus developed a lifelong fondness for that drink. He always gave credit to eggnog to saving his life and usually had several cups at Christmas time. It got to be kind of a family joke (behind his back of course) that he had such a taste for it because he always disliked (even hated) alcohol in any other form. I will come back to this later.
In spite of his dislike of alcohol he had a sense of humor about the subject. He wrote a poem which was published in the Clarion Ledger, probably in the late 40’s or early 50’s. It had a satirical tone in which he compared the longevity of various animals who never touched whiskey to man who did. Notably all the animals had short life spans while man had a lengthy one. Somewhere in family archives a copy may still exist, but I have been unable to locate it.
Hollis attended Prine Springs School, a one room structure that was located about 3 miles from his home somewhere in the vicinity of geographical coordinates 31N22.0, 89W52.6. I know this because once when I was a teenager he pointed out the site to me while we were on a hunting trip. I can recall approximately where we were at the time and have used that knowledge to guesstimate the location of the site. I remember it was just
South of an abandoned road bed that ran parallel to the current road, which still exists.
While Prine Springs may have been the typical one room school house of earlier days, it provided an unusually good education to its students. It was here that he met my grandmother, Carrie Fletcher Hitt; and it was her oldest brother, Joel (nicknamed Juddy) who was the school master. He must have been a very well qualified for this position because he later became head of the Department of Mathematics at Mississippi College in Clinton. At any rate, the education that Hollis received was good enough to get him into college, and he became one of the few people in Marion County to have a college degree in those days. I know that he first attended Mississippi State College, and later Soule College in New Orleans where he received his degree.
It is told that the played football while at Mississippi State, but that rumor needs to be checked out. He never talked about it in my presence that I remember. On the other hand he once told my sister, Becky, that he would “pull for Red China before he would pull for Ole Miss”.
I don’t know what his degree was in because I never saw a diploma or other evidence of his college education. I can only judge by the result which would seem to indicate it was in English or Liberal Arts. He was a stickler for the use of the English language. I give him and my grandmother credit for shaping part of my early childhood education. I was never permitted to use incorrect sentence structure or inappropriate use of words in their presence. As a result, English in both high school and college were fairly easy subjects for me.
He was also a whiz of sorts in math. He had all kinds of tricks and short cuts he used to show us kids that were quicker ways to do such things as square roots. Too bad we did not write them down. They were great to know. He would sit on the front porch in the evenings and grill all the grandkids on a number of things that included math, history, grammatical usage and spelling. Becky remembers that he knew the order and year each of the various colonies and territories entered the union. Spelling lessons were a hoot. He had a few “off the wall” words that he made sure we all knew the meaning of as well as how to spell. We both remember the word “syzygy”, which he found once in the newspaper. It refers to an alignment of the planets in which all are either in conjunction or opposition.
Soon after college, Hollis entered the Army and was commissioned as a Second Lieutenant. I know very little about the specifics of his Army service other than the fact that it spanned about 3 years, and he spent a year or two in the Philippines. This was during the time of the Moro insurrection which was being put down militarily. I am attempting to locate his military records, but offer little hope of ever finding anything. About 80% of the records from that period of time were destroyed in a fire in 1967. If his records were lucky enough to survive, and I can find them I will update this part of his history later.
He was fond of using occasional native phrases in his interactions with his family in later years. He taught my sister and me and to count to ten in Moro. I can still remember the words today. One of his favorites (spelled phonetically) was gotta-gotta-ma-hop-on, which meant hurry up, or get moving.
Upon his return from the Philippines and his discharge from the Army, he returned to Marion County where he married my grandmother in November, 1914. On his draft registration a year or two later he listed his occupation as “farmer” and his employer as R.M. Hitt who was my great grandfather. He also listed one child as part of his family. This would have been my mother. Soon after, he took a job teaching school in Oklahoma. Unfortunately, I do not know the location or circumstances. He moved his family to his new job, but for some reason my grandmother did not bond with that area and soon moved back home. He followed at the end of the school year after his contract expired. Soon thereafter, my uncle Hollis Irl Ellzey, Jr. was born.
It was probably about this time that he acquired farming acreage across the road from my grandmother’s father, R. M. Hitt and built a house for his family. This is the house I remember growing up in. As houses go in that part of the world in those days, it was a grand structure with a wide wrap-around front porch. Its best feature, for kids anyway, was a level and expansive front yard; making it a great place to play.
Upon his return from Oklahoma, World War I was just ending and soldiers were returning home from the war. Because most veterans were entitled to such benefits as education, Hollis took a job with the Veteran’s Administration working at Mississippi Normal College (now University of Southern Mississippi) in Hattiesburg. He continued to live at home and commuted several days a week by bus to Hattiesburg. It was during this time that he wrote the famous letter (within the family, at least) that so eloquently portrays the kind of character he was. I have attached a copy for reference. Note his sentence structure and use of language. But particularly note his conclusion that Jim Robbins “needed killing” and (words to the effect) he would have killed Robbins himself but someone else beat him to it.
When the Veterans Administration work played out, Hollis returned to farming and soon took a job in law enforcement as a deputy sheriff for Marion County. Significantly, this was in the days of prohibition, so much of his time was spent chasing bootleggers. It was during this time that he gave full vent to his hatred of alcohol. He (according to family sources) developed a reputation for being a ruthless enforcer of the law. I have been told that if he got wind of someone rumored to be bootlegging, he would just send word to that person that he needed to come in to talk. If his informal summons did not produce the desired result, the guilty party was in for some pretty rough treatment when Hollis tracked him down. Most folks complied.
By way of possible explanation, Hollis was famous for having a temper that when provoked usually led to some sort of physical violence. If he was mad, someone was going to pay. When he was a young man, he fell out of a boat which turned over and fell on his head with enough force to knock him unconscious. My Aunt Carol always speculated that this may have affected his behavior in some way. Perhaps, but we also have to remember that he was also a child of Sara Susannah, who had a bit of a temper herself. In any event, people walked softly around Hollis Ellzey.
Much of the illegal whiskey activity took place in the Morgantown area of the County, which had a reputation for being a pretty wild place. Morgantown is difficult to get to, being across Pearl River and thus in a rather isolated part of Northwest Marion County. It still is. To get to Morgantown, one has to drive south to Columbia, cross the river to Foxworth; and then about 15 miles North over some pretty poor roads (in those days). Ironically, Morgantown is just across the river from where Hollis grew up, being not more than a mile from his home. I’m guessing that Hollis probably knew a lot of those folks from his childhood days. This connection would play out significantly later in his life on at least two occasions.
In the first, Hollis decided to run for the office of County Sherriff, and apparently conducted an effective campaign. In those days, before the era of voting machines, the polling places used paper ballots which were placed in a locked box once they were marked. When the polls closed, all of the boxes remained locked and were transported to the county courthouse to be unlocked, opened and counted. The results of the various races were posted for observers to see, and updated as the ballot boxes from the different precincts were delivered to the courthouse. Because of the poor nature of the roads and the distances involved, it took awhile for all of the ballot boxes to make their way to be counted. According to family lore (I heard this from several folks), all of the ballot boxes, except the one from Morgantown, had been received and counted reasonably early in the evening, and Hollis was leading the race by a comfortable margin. The one from Morgantown did not show up until after midnight, and when opened and counted was overwhelmingly in favor of his opponent. Hollis lost by a few votes. There was always a suspicion (probably with justification) that his Morgantown enemies rigged the election to keep Hollis out of office.
In the second, the end result was the loss of his right leg just below the knee. He had previously lost his left arm below the elbow, but more about that later. The story Hollis told to his family and polite company was that on a dark night he walked off a washed out bridge and fell to a sandbar below, causing a compound fracture in the process. The wound never healed so that it became necessary to amputate the leg later on. That was a simple explanation that left a lot unanswered.
Years later, long after he had died, someone (whose name I was told, but cannot remember) approached my Aunt Carol with a tale he wanted to get off his chest. According to Carol, this person, who was an active participant in the events, wanted to tell her the “real story” of how Hollis lost his leg. In short, it was a set up; an attempt to kill him in order to end his relentless pursuit of local bootleggers.
The story was that a certain bootlegger from the Morgantown area whom Hollis had been seeking sent word that he wanted to surrender. However, he was afraid someone (for unknown reasons) would try to kill him. He would only surrender to Hollis and only under specific circumstances. In those days, the gravel road from Foxworth to Morgantown crossed a portion of the Pearl River swamp via a long, two lane, wooden bridge. I remember that this bridge was at least a half mile or more in length, and was elevated above the swamp by 12 to 15 feet (higher if you count the top of the guard rail). A date was set for Hollis to wait at one end of the bridge on a dark night for a signal (believed to be a flashing of car headlights) from the other end. He was then instructed to walk alone to the center of the bridge, where the bootlegger would meet him and surrender. I may not have all the facts straight, but that was the essence of the plan.
What subsequently happened was this. After Hollis got far enough out on the bridge so he could not run back to the end, he was greeted by the headlights of two cars speeding toward him side by side. At the same time two cars came at him from the opposite end. They were going to try to run him down. There was no way out but over the bridge rail. He jumped, landing on the ground below resulting in a compound fracture to his right leg in the process. As he later told it, the bone punched through the skin and stuck into the sand. I am inclined to believe the substance of this tale because it fits with his character, and it fits with the nature of settling feuds in rural Marion County in that era. I am inclined to believe that he told a false tale about the circumstances of losing his leg in order to protect himself and his family from retribution by the guilty parties. At any rate, soon after he left law enforcement.
He became the Principal of Goss School which was located on the site of the present day location of Goss Baptist Church. Goss School hosted grades 1 – 8. It was not your typical country school because it had 4 classrooms and a cafeteria. My grandmother taught grades 3 -4, and Hollis taught grades 7 – 8. He held this job until the school burned in the summer of 1946. But he always kept his love of law enforcement and used to read every detective magazine he could get his hands on. He wrote a number of stories about local murders that were published in a few of these journals. They have been lost to history, but perhaps someday someone will find and republish one or two.
After the school burned, for the next several years he worked as an administrator of sorts at USM, commuting to Hattiesburg during the week and coming home on weekends following his earlier practice. Since this was right at the end of WWII, I am guessing this work had something to do with the Veteran’s Administration and GI Bill benefits for returning veterans.
As I have said previously, Hollis also lost an arm. This was the result of a hunting accident; or more precisely, a post hunting accident. After returning from a hunting trip, Hollis was sitting on the front porch of the family home cleaning his guns. In those days (the porch was later screened in) there was waist high banister running its length with support columns every 12 feet or so. Several people were there, probably his children and my grandmother. For unknown reasons, Hollis propped one of the shotguns up on the banister leaning it against a support column. One of the kids ran by and the vibrations on the floor caused the weapon to slide and fall. Hollis reacted instinctively by reaching out to grab the gun with both hands. One hand missed and passed in front of the barrel just as the other hand grabbed the stock and triggers discharging at least one of the barrels into his left forearm about six inches above the wrist. The arm was completely severed except for some skin which remained attached. He was immediately driven to the hospital in town, where there was nothing left to do but finish the job of detaching the arm.
I remember late in life he had a sense of humor about losing both limbs. Visitors to the Ellzey household very often included young children. Invariably, they would notice the absence of one or both limbs, and being naturally curious would ask questions. His impish response was “a mule bit it off.” Modern prosthesis devices have come a long way, but his artificial leg was made out of cork and was hollow below the knee. About midway above the ankle, just above his sock, there were a couple of holes on either side about the size of a quarter. As the young kids were playing on the porch while the adults were talking he would start sneaking his pants leg up a bit at a time until the hole was showing. This never failed to pique their interest, but I remember one occasion where a 3 or 4 year old got wide eyed and ran screaming to his mother. Hollis thought it was great fun. My grandmother was less amused.
Hollis was the one who taught me to hunt. At an early age (7 or 8) he would take me out into the woods along the creek at the back of the farm to hunt for rabbits and squirrels. I believe he enjoyed these trips as much as I did. He taught me the signs to look for and the best places to hunt. When we had a dog along, which was most of the time; he taught me what to look for and how to flush a treed squirrel. He was very skilled at hooting like an owl and cawing like a crow. We would often sit on the side of a hill while he alternately hooted and cawed. The response from hawks and owls was amazing. Hawks would come screaming in looking for the fight. Owls would do likewise. Crows were smarter and stayed away.
He was a nut about gun safety. This is understandable given the loss of an arm to a gun accident. Hunting with him was a constant lecture about gun safety. He had an old double barreled 20 gauge shotgun which is the weapon we always used. He would make me carry it unloaded and broken down until I got ready to shoot. Only when I had a well identified target would he let me load and prepare to fire. Shooting at flash targets was strictly forbidden. I always had to positively identify what I was shooting at and had to check to see if there was anything within range in the background before he would let me shoot. On the occasion when we had a .22 rifle along, every time I prepared to shoot I was reminded that the bullet could travel up to a mile. His methods later reminded me of the range safety officers I encountered in my Army service.
I remember the last time I hunted with him. I had a high school friend up from New Orleans for the week end and planned a hunting trip. “The Man” (a nickname bestowed upon him by an uncle) wanted to tag along. By that time he was getting up in years and was not able to get around as well as he had in earlier times. I remember he had some considerable difficulty getting up and down the hills and over the deadfall in the woods. At one point we had to physically push and pull him up a short steep slope. I think he realized this was probably his last venture into the woods.
Having found no game up to that point, we sat down to rest on a small hillock. My friend and I decided to take the opportunity for a little target practice with the rifle we had brought along. We cut a small blaze with a pocket knife in the side of a beech tree about 30 feet or so away and took turns testing our marksmanship. After he caught his breath, Hollis asked for the rifle and instructed us to cut a fresh blaze on the tree. From a sitting position he took careful aim and squeezed off a shot. He hit the blaze dead center. He then lined up a second shot and squeezed it off. When we went up close to the tree for an inspection we could not find a second bullet hole anywhere near the first. We could only conclude that he had achieved the remarkable feat for placing his second shot exactly in the same hole as the first.
He also had a dark side reflective of his volatile temper. This is perhaps best illustrated by what I will call “the preacher incident”. This incident is memorialized in Mark Lowry’s book “White Pilgrim from Sumac Ridge”. Although Mark (a childhood playmate and fellow West Point grad) heard it second or third hand and relates the incident a bit differently, he still manages to capture the spirit of the moment very well. I was an eyewitness (probably the only one) to the events from start to finish.
A bit of background is necessary. It seems one night my three of my uncles (H. Irl and Jack Ellzey, and Charles Fortenberry) decided to go partying. There was a “juke joint” just up the highway from Goss, and that is where they went. Their wives got wind of what they were up to and it did not sit well with them. They cooked up a “we’ll just show you” scheme and drove up to the joint, went in and spent the rest of the night partying right along with their husbands.
Goss being the small, church going community it is, this event did not go unnoticed. Tongues were soon wagging and word got to the preacher that his choir director (Carol) was out sinning and partying on Saturday night before she was scheduled to lead the choir on Sunday. He then had the extremely poor judgment to call her out by name from the pulpit in his next sermon. This did not sit well with Hollis who could nurse a grudge for a long time. Word soon got to the preacher that Hollis was not a happy camper, and I guess he figured he had better try to make amends. What happened next is what I observed.
Hollis was hoeing in the garden which was located behind the house. I was playing in the detached garage located next to the garden and at the end of the driveway. The preacher drove up in his shiny new Plymouth, parked beside the house and got out. Hollis saw him coming as soon as he turned into the driveway and came storming out of the garden waving the hoe like an axe and yelling “I’m going to kill you, you son-of-a-bitch” (or words to that effect). At this point the preacher clearly recognized he was in deep trouble, beat a hasty retreat to his car, cranked it up and started slinging gravel in reverse. Hollis flipped the hoe around with his one arm and hurled it like a spear at the car. It covered a good 30 yards and struck the side view mirror on the driver’s side shearing it off. Hollis stood there shaking his fist and cursing as the preacher sped off down the road.
It took my mother, Aunt Carol and my grandmother quite awhile to get Hollis calmed down. I’m not sure they succeeded for long. Later that day he dressed up in his Sunday clothes (as he always did when he went out in public) and wanted to go to the store in Goss. However, he insisted on taking his pistol. My grandmother spent the better part of an hour without success trying to talk him out of taking the gun. He put it in a paper bag, tucked it under his arm and headed out. He was clearly going looking for blood. Fortunately, the preacher decided to take a quick vacation until things settled down. Carol resigned as choir director, Hollis stopped going to church, and the incident soon passed into history. Within 6 months the preacher found another calling.
Hollis had friends in high places, and because of this I probably owe him much of the credit for getting me an appointment to West Point. Living in New Orleans, I had been exposed to things military in the Civil Air Patrol and my high school Junior ROTC unit. I don’t know exactly how things went down, but I am pretty sure Hollis called on his life long friend, Circuit Judge Sebe Dale for help. As politics work in that part of the world, I subsequently became the principal appointee (there are a number of alternates) of Senator James O. Eastland. That was a huge step in the process, but I still had to pass the entrance exam which I was able to do after spending a year at Columbian Preparatory School in Washington, D.C. While he never said a word about it, I am absolutely certain that I would have never gone to West Point without Hollis’ help.
Advancing age eventually overtakes us all. As I was preparing to go to Vietnam in 1966, Martie and I made a trip south to visit relatives. While in Goss, we decided to make a day trip to red bluff across the river. Hollis wanted to go so he made the 30 mile trip with us, driving south to cross the river at Foxworth and then north to Morgantown, passing over the bridge along the way where he jumped over the rail to avoid being killed. We brought along a folding chair and set it up at the edge of the bluff facing east. I don’t know how good his eyesight was at that time or how much he could really see. He just sat quietly for the better part of an hour looking out on the countryside where he grew up and spent his life, probably recalling many past memories. Reluctantly, we soon had to tell him it was time to go. This was his last trip to red bluff.
There were great changes in the economy and national lifestyles taking place in those days. These changes resulted in the breaking up of extended families as individual family members sought better jobs in distant places. Farming was unprofitable and there were no jobs of any consequence in Marion County. My aging grandparents were left alone to fend for themselves. Hollis was unable to care for himself and it soon became clear that my grandmother could no longer handle the task. He was placed in a nursing home in Tylertown and my grandmother went to live, first with Carol and then with my parents in New Orleans.
When Jeff was about a year old we visited him there. He was coherent, mentally alert and thoroughly enjoyed our visit. The next time we saw him was soon after Chris was born. He had been moved to a nursing home in Picayune to be closer to my parents in New Orleans. On one of our trips south we dropped in to visit him. What a change! He was in a wheel chair, and had to be strapped in. He did not recognize us and had little to say. He was clearly in the advanced stages of Alzheimer’s disease. It was a painful visit.
Hollis died in Picayune on September 25, 1975 and is interred in Woodlawn Cemetery in Columbia, MS.