Ellis Family House | Columbia County, FL | c. late 1800s
Roper was born in Fort White in 1883 just one year before the railroad tracks were laid in town. In 1912, he married Fannie Hollingsworth, and together in 1914, they moved to Waycross Georgia where he had a job with the railroad working as a carpenter. Unfortunately, Fannie would pass away in 1919 while they were living in Waycross and within the year, Roper had moved back to his hometown of Fort White to be closer to his family.
In 1922, he would marry again, this time to Effie Riggins. The couple bought this house beside the railroad, that Roper still worked for, and they began to build a family within these walls, raising four children here, Roper Jr., Jennings, Imogene, and Carolyn.
A Family Tradition
Even after Roper and Effie’s children grew up, they continued to return to this home. In the 1950s, their sons Roper Jr. and Jennings enlisted in the military and went off to fight in the Korean War. And when their son-in-law enlisted too, their daughter Imogene moved back into the house, working at the Fort White Post Office while her husband was deployed.
The family posed in front of the house just before the men left for their assignments overseas. When I visited the home in 2013, the jacket you see Roper Jr. standing in was still hanging in the back room.
Luckily, both sons and son-in-law returned to Florida after the war and in the following years, their families grew too. And as the next generation of Ellis’s came up, they continued to gather here for Easter, Mother’s Day, Summers, Thanksgiving, and reunions.
“Like Being Wrapped In A Warm Blanket”
was fortunate enough to have the chance to interview one of Roper and Effie’s grandsons, Bobby, about his memories here, which he described by saying: “Whenever I visited, it was like being wrapped in a warm blanket. I can still smell grandma’s cooking-especially her cathead biscuits.”
Recalling his numerous visits here, he was able to recreate for me what it was like inside the house back then. At each of these family gatherings, the cousins would all stay together inside the home, so the girl cousins stayed with grandma in her room while the boys stayed with grandpa. Both rooms had breadboarded walls and feather mattresses but one of his most vivid memories involved the trains. Because it sat so close to the railroad tracks, the house would shake in the middle of the night when the night train came through.
In the early days, the house had running water but no indoor plumbing so they used an outhouse located off of the back porch. Bobby shared that in 1956 or 57, his uncles ran pipes under the high porch to create an indoor bathroom for their mother, for which Effie was so proud.
But for some of the family, the old way was preferred. Bobby said that his grandfather, Roper, still preferred the outhouse and could regularly be found on the back porch, shaving his beard over a porcelain pan with a mirror that was attached to a nail.
When he was done, he’d dump the water from the basin into the yard, scaring the chickens.
House Layout and Modifications
Although the house has never been painted, modifications have been made to the building to help accommodate the family as time went on. According to another cousin, the home is thought to have originally had a central open hallway that was enclosed later, creating the dining and living rooms. And as was the standard at the time, the kitchen was a small enclosed room at the rear of the house to protect from fires, but as the years went on, Effie wanted a larger, more central kitchen inside the house.
Her new kitchen featured a porcelain sink and an old stove with a wood burner, with a simple table in the corner where Effie could usually be found making baked goods like the cathead biscuits and pound cake she was famous for. Today, one of her granddaughters still has the table.
For most of the 1900s, the Ellis’s owned the entire block where the home sits and the family planted oak trees, muscadine grapes, and dogwoods, which still bloom today. At some point, the railroad tracks were moved out of their yard and a bit to the north.
When Roper Ellis Sr. passed away in 1968, the town of Fort White had changed a lot from his days as a boy here. Agriculture shifted and then shifted again, followed by new industries that would dry up too. By the time Effie passed in 1986, most of the grandchildren were living in other parts of Florida where there were more jobs and opportunities for the next generation.
But after so many years as the focal point of family gatherings, it only made sense that the Ellis Family would hold their reunions here over the years, too. So the cousins who remembered fondly their time playing under the house, returned with their own children, creating another generation of memories here.
The End Of An Era
And while reunions brought them back from time to time, the younger Ellis’s had all moved away so the home sat vacant for many years. Once they realized that their future wasn’t in Fort White, the cousins decided to sell the home. The man who bought it did some initial work to fix it up, rebuilding some of the foundational piers, replacing the steps, and stabilizing a sagging porch, but efforts seem to have stalled after that. Since then, it has been empty- incurring damage from rainwater and squirrels who have made their home in the attic. In December 2021, I was contacted by a descendant to let me know that the house was for sale, but because of the commercial zoning, would likely be torn down by the buyer.
She will certainly be missed by those who knew her fondly, but they still have vibrant memories to cling to: “I can still smell the old house, the old wood, even this many years later. It’s like heaven to me.”