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An engineering mind kept Flem Ellis’ life interesting

In 1895, the Chicago, Burlington and Quincy Railroad tracks cut a diagonal line across the Charles F. Ellis’ farm, located near Barkley Station in northwestern Miller Township. Some three miles to the north was Palmyra. And 10 miles to the southeast was Hannibal.

A curious and industrious son of the pioneer farmer, Flem S. Ellis, had lived his entire life in Marion County, Missouri. He looked at those railroad tracks and pondered the possibilities.

Born in Marion County in 1867, by 1895 Flem Ellis was 28 years old. His father had died in 1888, and he and his brother Stanley had taken over the family farming interests. Flem looked at the tracks cutting across the land and observed a direct route to the two nearest towns offering commerce and entertainment.

At the time, the dirt roads in the county meandered between the farms that dotted the landscape. Those roads were sometimes impassable during wet weather and during periods of drifting snow.

Flem Ellis concocted an idea. He built a contraption that he could easily attach to his bicycle, allowing him to literally ride the rails.

The Palmyra Spectator, in its May 9, 1895, edition, described the device. “The invention is simple and can be put on and taken off (a bicycle) with little or no trouble.” The invention allowed Flem Ellis to “ride on the railroad track and make about twice the time he can on an ordinary dirt road.”

The newspaper article mentioned that Flem might seek out a patent for his invention. There was no response offered from the railroad.

Early farmers

Jean Ellis Powers of Hannibal shared information that the John Ellis family came to Marion County, Mo., in the early 1830s from Fayette County, Ky.

John Ellis and his wife, Mary Rogers Ellis, were parents to four sons: William, Charles F., John C., and Clifton Ellis; and one daughter, Mrs. Mary V. Taylor.

Two of the sons went back to the Lexington, Ky., area to marry. One of those men was Charles Fleming Ellis, father of Flem S. Ellis.

The Palmyra Spectator of July 31, 1878, carried a mention of the Ellis family farming operation. (Presumably, the reference to the Ellis family members are to brothers Charles F. and John C. Ellis, sons of John and Mary Ellis.)

“Messrs. John and Flem Ellis raised 24 bushels of Pultz (Fultz) Wheat to the acre on ordinary prairie land, which weighs 64 pounds to the bushel, and is of very superior quality. It is a new variety in this vicinity.”

(Report of the Commissioner of Agriculture, Pike County, Missouri, for the year 1875: Fultz wheat proves to be an early, hardy wheat, standing the winter better than any other in the county – the best wheat for this soil and climate.)


Flem S. Ellis led an interesting and adventurous life, according to newspaper mentions throughout his lifetime.

In 1893, Flem Ellis went to work for the Hannibal Electric light company. April 13, 1893, Palmyra Spectator.

In 1908, Flem Ellis was badly injured while working as an engineer for the Iowa Central Railroad. Two freight trains hit head on near Abbott, Iowa. Seven rail cars and two engines were demolished.

In 1912, Flem Ellis caught a gang of men, who were passing through the area, helping themselves to wheat from a neighboring farm, in order to feed their horses. The Palmyra Spectator reported on Sept. 4, 1912: “He ordered them to put the grain back, but instead of doing so they assaulted him, one man by the name of Hipkins striking him with a tree bolt. He was seriously hurt, in fact it was thought his injuries would prove fatal, and Hipkins got on a horse and attempted to make his escape. He was followed by John R. Taylor and Cliff Ellis, however, was finally caught and marched to jail covered by two shot guns.”

Three years later, Flem Ellis was in Palmyra, showing off his automobile. The Palmyra Spectator reported on Sept. 29, 1915: “Flem Ellis of Miller township was in Palmyra Sunday with his automobile, one of the first owned in the county, but still in active service. It is a roadster of the White Steamer type, and as the name indicates, steam is used as motive power. He has had it about twelve years and it is an excellent illustration of the changes in the make of automobiles in that time. A rod, instead of a wheel, is used for steering, there is no top, and the seat is about twice as high as in the ordinary machine although the wheels are no larger. It is a queer looking vehicle and attracted a great deal of attention while here.”

Fast forward two decades. In June of 1934, Flem Ellis was injured “while working on a hog watering tank of his own design,” the Marion County Standard reported on June 21, 1934. And two weeks later, “Flem Ellis, of the Mt. Zion vicinity, who was recently painfully injured when a gun on a burglar alarm was accidentally discharged and struck him in the abdomen and who later submitted to an operation for appendicitis in St. Elizabeth’s hospital in Hannibal, was removed from the hospital to his home last week and is recovering satisfactorily.” (July 4, 1934)

At rest

Flem Ellis died June 18, 1935, in Marion County, Mo., and was taken to Lexington, Ky., for burial. His sister, Ethel Josephine Ellis, died Dec. 17, 1926, and is buried beside her brother in Lexington Cemetery. Stanley G. Ellis died Nov. 13, 1952, and is buried along with his father in Greenwood Cemetery at Palmyra.

Sallie H. Smith Ellis, mother of Flem, Stanley and Ethel, died Sept. 29, 1939. She is buried alongside Flem and Ethel in the Smith family plot in Lexington.

Jeanie Ellis Powers contributed the following information about Flem Ellis and his family following the publication on Oct. 1, 2016. She has agreed to share this information for future researchers. Flem Ellis was her grandfather's cousin.

Ellis notes from Jeanie Powers

I enjoyed your article about Flem Ellis. I wasn’t aware of any of that. I wanted to mention a couple of additions—just for your records and information.

In your article, you mentioned Flem being attacked by a gang stealing wheat. The two men that followed his attacker (John Taylor and Cliff Ellis) were his uncles.

Also John and Mary (Rogers) Ellis had 6 sons and 1 daughter rather than four sons and a daughter. The two oldest sons are missing from your list. James Rogers Ellis (1829-1856) was born in Fayette Co. KY. He was a doctor. In 1850 he is listed on the census as teaching school. I have his diplomas from medical schools in St. Louis, MO and Philadelphia, PA. He married Jane Barkley, the daughter of Levi Barkley. Jane died in 1854, after the birth of a son. The baby died in 1855 and James, the father, died in 1856—a very short-lived family. They are buried in the Barkley Cemetery on the Barkley (now Landis) farm.

The second son, Robert Dudley Ellis was born in January of 1832 in Missouri and died in 1857. He is also buried in the Barkley Cemetery. He never married.

My Ellis family evidently came to Marion County in either late 1830 or in 1831. They are listed in the Fayette Co., Ky 1830 census and Robert was born in January of 1832 in Marion County, MO. John and Mary (Rogers) Ellis’ son, William, is my great grandfather. The generations for my line are rather spread out because my grandfather was a child of William’s second marriage. William was 47 when my grandfather was born.

Again, I appreciate your historical research.

Jeanie Powers

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