|Vol. VI NO 2.||THE ELLER FAMILY ASSOCIATION||MAY 1992|
--- Courtesy of the Library, Mars Hill College, Mars Hill, N.C.
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A review by J. Gerald Eller
THE GEM OF THE BLUE RIDGE is the title of the book by Ruth Cozart Eller written after 1966 about her husband, J. Ben Eller, a prominent Baptist Minister who was born in Madison County, North Carolina.
J. Ben Eller graduated from Mars Hill College (Latin English Diploma), Wake Forest College (A.B., Ministry), Southern Baptist Theological Seminary (4, Master of Theology) He pastored churches in Danville, VA, Durham, NC, Salem VA, Statesville, NC, Greensboro, NC, Coats, NC. He is remembered by hundreds as a man of remarkable personality, beloved and respected by his parishoners and others whom he met along the way. He made a major impact on his church and community where ever he served.
|Jacob Eller, Sr. -||- (b. Germany, d. Rowan Co., NC; m. 1753, Montgomery Co. PA, Eva Goettge)|
|Jacob Eller, Jr.-||- (b. c l754-?; m. 1776, Rowan Co., NC, Mary Biffle)|
|Adam Eller -||- (1795-1872; m. cl9l7, Buncombe Co., NC, Elizabeth Fields)|
|Rev. Joseph P. Eller -||-(1820 -18921 m. 1845, Buncombe Co., NC, Susannah Anderson)|
|William Elbert Eller -||-(1846-1911; m. l867, Edith Elizabeth Branson)|
|Jesse Benjamin "J. Ben" Eller-||-(1882-1966; m. Arkansas, Ruth Cozart)|
Following are: 1) excerpts from the book; 2) a questionnaire answered by J. Ben, and 3) news stories & bulletins with pictures.
"J. Ben was born 1 Oct. 1882 seventeen miles north of Asheville, North Carolina, in Madison County... on a mountain farm, near Jupiter, N.C. He was the seventh child of nine children of William Elbert and Judith Branson Eller of Madison County, N.C.
"His paternal grandfather, Reverend Joseph Eller was a Methodist Protestant Minister; his maternal grandfather was Reverend Luke Labon Branson, a Missionary Baptist Minister. Both were pioneer preachers to western North Carolina.
"If an imaginary line were drawn from Asheville to Marshall and to Weaverville, in Western North Carolina, it would encircle all the lesser places where the Ellers lived in their restricted area. Madison and Buncombe counties, Jupiter, Sugar- Camp, Hayes Run, Forks of Ivy, French Broad River and Mars Hill figured in the daily community life. A half-day's motor trip would touch all these easily today; out in '80 and '90's, it took two days and a night's camp beside the road, to travel the twenty miles to Asheville and return. In winter, horses strained at their load in mud and ruts. In summer, traveling was care-free and leisurely, and of course, slow enough for anyone to drink in the wonders of nature. So why shouldn't J. Ben Eller boast of 'My mountains?'
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"Just as William Elbert Eller, Ben's father was German, his mother was English. She was Judith Elizabeth Branson." A genealogy of the Bransons, written in long hand by Robert Newton Branson... says: "Three Branson brothers came to America... one settled in North Carolina, one in Virginia, and one in Tennessee...
"Luke Labon Branson came to Madison County about the year 1830, as a schoolteacher-. In 1834 he married Miss Malinda Bryan, daughter of Lewis Bryan. He commenced preaching that same year.
"Grandfather Luke Branson had a homeplace on Walnut Creek, where he died on July 19, 1873... Ben recalled that much of his boyhood was enlivened with the visiting of the Bransons, Bryans, and Ellers. Big dinners, corn-huskings, barn-raisings, candy-pull parties and just-spend-the-night visits, furnished sufficient social events to punctuate time and work. No work was done on the 'Lord's Day.' Only necessary tasks of feeding the family and stock were countenanced."
"Grandfather Joseph Eller, the Methodist Protestant preacher, was a successful farmer. His home, near Weaverville, was fifteen miles from the Branson settlement. The commodious, two-storied structure stood, white and impressive, among humbler mountaineer homes. Reflecting the owner's pride and concern, it. was built for gracious living. Well-built barns, a spring house, where milk and butter stayed icy cold, a smoke house, filled with cured meats, and a workshop, all painted white and enclosed in a white picket fence were the signs of a careful provider. Flowering shrubs, flowers, and trees were in abundance. Guineas, turkeys, and other fowls roamed the fields. Peacocks strutted in their brillant plumage and sounded out their piercing cries and passersby paid attention to the 'Reverend's fine house.'
"One certain visit to the fine house stood out in Ben's memory. After a long, long wagon ride to see the sick grandfather, he found the house silent. The adults were quiet and shushed the children at every turn. The whole family was awed by the approaching death of the saintly man, so beloved by old and young. Ben never forgot it.
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"The Joseph Eller home place was lett tu the youngest son, Lucius, a bachelor, and an unmarried daughter, Kate. After eight years of courtship, Lucius married 'Aunt Becky' and brought her there. The three lived serenely long lives together. "Lucius Eller, in later years, became the honored patriarch who promoted family reunions. At a Methodist or Baptist church in the community, the kin and friends gathered for fellowship, worship, and feasting, on the third Sunday each August. Kinship thrived."
[J.G.E.- In late August, 1991, Olivia Daniels Cunningham of Asheville, NC, a descendant of Buncombe County Ellers showed EFA Board Member Vance Eller and me the old Joseph P. Eller house in Weaverville, NC. Olivia remembered many happy visits there when Lucius and Kate were still living. The house today, owned by others, has been recently renovated and is a magnificent structure. Later that day, Blanche and Jim Robertson showed us the grave of Joseph P. Eller in the Jupiter Cemetery.
Olivia recovered an old trunk that came from the original Joseph Eller house. It contained 175 photographs, believed to be of members of the Joseph P. Eller family. Unfortunately none were dated or labeled. She is seeking identifications while she is preparing a story on him for a later issue of he Chronicles. The five pages of photos appear in this issue. A lesson here: date and label all your family photographs for the benefit of future family historians.]
"As a young adult, Ben purchased a book, entitled JAMES HOOK AND VIRGINIA ELLER by James William Hook, of New Haven, Connecticut, published in 1925. This information helped him place himself more accurately on the family tree... Ben had considerable correspondence with the author."
[J.G.E.: Much of the genealogy in this 1925 book by Hook was superseded by his 1957 book: GEORGE MICHAEL ELLER AND DESCENDANTS OF HIS IN AMERICA, reprinted by the Eller Family Association in 1990.]
"While J. Ben Eller was a student at Wake Forest College, Mr. James Eller of Bina began a correspondence with him on the subject of genealogy and asked, 'whose son are you?' In the correspondence the younger man was inspired by the elder to lend his efforts to keep the name of Eller honorable.
"While pastor of the First Baptist Church in Statesville, N.C., J. Ben was holding a revival in Winston Salem, N.C. 'What kin are you to our Mr. Eller?' was a frequent question. Ben proudly always answered, 'Undoubtedly I am. All North Carolina Ellers are descended from the same three brothers. Many years, many marriages, and many moves have pretty well covered the state, with the family.
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[J.G.E.: J.W. Hook in unpublished notes in the N.C. Department of Archives and History mentions letters from J. Ben Eller about the Ellers of Buncombe County, NC. I have tried without success to locate these letters.
The above James Eller was the same James Eller of the "Bushwhacker" story of Vol. VI, No. 1, P. 49-53 . He was also the father of the Adolphus Hill Eller featured in The Eller Chronicles Vol.III No.1, pp. 1-63
While in Winston-Salem, J. Ben visited with Adolphus Hill Eller. "The host presented the guest with a copy of the Memorial volume,, FRANKLIN PLATO ELLER and JOHN CARLTON ELLER, which was authored by his kinsman, Jay Broadus Hubbel of Virginia in 1910. Holding the book reverently, the younger man read the dedication and turned pages, seeing their life sketches, excerpts from their writings and tributes to Mr. A.H. Eller's two younger brothers, who had died quite young from the ravages of typhoid."
[J.G.E.: The book, FRANKLIN PLATO and JOHN CARLTON ELLER, will be reviewed in a future issue. Its author, Jay Broadus Hubbel is the author of the "Bushwhacker," story in this issue. EFA Patricia Beck of Salisbury has donated a copy of this book to the Eller Family Association]
"One day, J. Ben read in the Greensboro Daily News of 28 June 1925 a feature story on the 97th birthday celebration for the Patriarch James Eller at his Ashe County home... The singular thing about the feature was that in Clay Center, Nebraska was a simultaneous reunion of Eller's in celebration of this North Carolina relative's birthday. They were keeping in touch with 'home folk."' One hundred and fifty of the Eller clans from Iowa, Nebraska and North Carolina were gathered round "a festal board with the empty chair marked and decorated for the absent honoree at Clay Center."
While shopping one day in Greensboro, a voice said in J. Ben's ear, "At last I've caught up with you. My name is Vance Eller. I live in Greensboro. I am a druggist's salesman and I see your doctor son often." J. Ben, his wife Ruth, and Vance chatted and the discussion was continued over lunch at J. Ben's home. Later Vance received a note from J. Ben which appears at the end of this review.
[J.G.E.: Vance Eller reports that his visit with J. Ben and Ruth was most pleasant. He remembers especially the charming and gracious Ruth Cozart Eller. Vance knew Dr. Luke Eller, son of J. Ben and Ruth Eller, Luke was a physician who practiced in Liberty, N.C. before his accidental death in 1966. Vance has tried without success to establish contact with descendants of J. Ben and Ruth.]
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"The father, William Elbert Eller, a small man with sandy hair, wore a reddish goatee- a popular mark for men in those days. He was always in a hurry, going somewhere, mostly an mule-back, to see his increasing -Farm-acreage, some tenant, or other business. He was typically of the German mold.
"The mother, Judith Branson Eller, was a quiet, gentle, genteel person of soft voice, great patience and, what one would recall, regal bearing. Though limited in formal education, she had inate refinement. The children adored their mother and showed her respect. She was as English as her husband was German. Each child had features and disposition traits of both parents.
"In the home, Judith Branson Eller, literally kept the home fires burning. It was she who spoke the soft answer and kept down family friction. It was she who most felt the absence of ready cash money to put shoes on little feet. She managed her household with real executive ability and never spared herself in the effort. She plied her needle with diligence and taught her daughters to do the same. The yearly making of bed-quilts for so many was a staggering item. There was always plenty of food -home-grown, country fare.
"When Ben was born seventh into his family, the oldest child was Lavinia, who was twelve. Rufus, the oldest son, was eleven. After these two, the other children came spaced two or three years apart until there were nine. They were in order of birth: Lavinia, Rufus, Oscar, Roburla, Osborne, John, Ben, Cora, and Zack.
[Children of William Elbert Eller and Judith Branson in order of birth with notes gleaned from the book, and additional information supplied by Thomas White, 3267 Stepney St., Edgewater, MD 21037 (301-956-3459), grandson of William White and Lavinia Eller.
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*[J.G.E. Thomas White, Grandson of Lavinia Eller White, reviewed this account and says that as a very small child he remembers a visit from J. Ben Eller. He said J. Ben could be quite stern and serious but around children he was a real comic who kept the children laughing.]
"An epidemic of typhoid fever swept the mountainous region in 1897. Ben's oldest sister, Lavinia... was one of the first to be stricken. A new baby was expected. The baby was stillborn, but Lavinia slowly recovered. During the nursing, Ben's mother sickened. For days she could scarcely drag herself through the duties of the household. Finally, she gave up, went home to bed and died an February 3, 1897.
"The first death in the family had been that of the brother-, Osborne, (d. at age 24) when Ben was seven years old. That had been difficult for the Ellers; but it was nothing compared to the loss of the gentle mother. Judith Branson Eller bequeathed to her- family a pattern of unselfishness and faith. Also they saw in her a yardstick by which to measure all women.
"Roburla, the oldest, stepped into her mother's shoes in mothering the youngest Ellers, three brothers and one sister. She postponed her marriage to Larkin L. Roberts, a neighbors.
"The bereaved Ellers seemed to get adjusted to their new routine. Then, without preparing his children for a change, Elbert Eller walked in with Mrs. Sarah Hayes, on March 2, 1898, a neighbor, window, and said, 'Here is your new mother.' This eventually led to a split in the family; Elbert and his second wife lived an one of his farms and the children by the first wife on another...
"On April 5, 1911, Ben's father died at his home in Western North Carolina, in Madison County."
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"When Oscar Eller, left Weaver College, he went to work in a mercantile store in Asheville. He sent Ben a gift book entitled LIVES OF GREAT MEN. The book was a compilation of biograpahies of great men. Many of them had been presidents of the United States. Those stories stimulated Ben as nothing else had ever done. He longed to do something 'Great,' too.
The Northern Presbyterian Church established a Mountain Mission School near Ben's home at Jupiter. It was called Madison Seminary. Two very capable single women teachers were in charge of the venture... Ben enrolled as a student and came under the spell of Miss Ora Yates... she made Ben see opportunity peeping in at his door,, when she declared, again and again, "Any young person, who is willing to pay the price, can get an education today." ...inspired by Miss Yates .. he (Ben) said, "I will go to college." Later, he amplified his statement to, "I mean to go to College, if I am forty and bald-headed when I finish.
"A wonderful school was beginning to rise only seven miles from Ben's home. Mars Hill Academy, the forerunner of Mars Hill College, under the leadership of the beloved Professor Robert Lee Moore offered self-help to industrious students.
"On Christmas of 1902, Ben mounted Old Jack the plow-mule, and for the first time in his life rode to Mars Hill to see Professor Moore. Arrangements for work were made and Ben enrolled at Mars Hill Academy as an ungraded pupil. At Mars Hill Ben joined the Philomathians literary society and soon was elected its president. Illness and other problems caused Ben to drop out after only one year but in 1905 he reentered Mars Hill College. Ben resumed his studies and his work with the literary society and soon was elected to be an Intercollegiate Debater. "While a student at Mars Hill College young Eller was elected Commencement Orator in his senior year. He called his oration about his mountain people, 'The Unpolished Gem.' His declaration was based upon his sincere belief in and admiration for mountaineers." Ben along with brother Zack graduated from Mars Hill in 1908.
[J.G.E.: Ruth Cozart Eller based the title of her book an this declamations.]
Ben entered Wake Forest College to study for the ministry in 1908 as a sophomore. His roommate was H.T. Hunter, a classmate from Mars Hill College and like J. Ben the product of Madison Co., NC. Dr. Hunter later became president of Western Carolina Teachers College in Cullowhee, NC, now Western Carolina University.
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[J.G.E.: Dr. H.T. Hunter was President of Western Carolina Teachers College during my matriculation (1939-1943) and was still president when I was hired as a member of the faculty in 1947. During a 12 year period his widow, Glenn Weaver Hunter, who was reared on Reems Creek near Weaverville, NC only a short distance from many Eller families, was our next door neighbor and surrogate grandmother to our children. One day she said to me, "I think we are related." I brushed it aside because I thought she was jesting and I think she really was. Soon after I began genealogical research well after Mrs. Hunter's death, I discovered that she and I were indeed related. She was a descendant of Adam and Catherine (Henckel) Biffle whose daughter, Mary, married Jacob Eller, Jr. my 4th great grandfather and another daughter, Elizabeth, married John Weaver from whom Mrs. Hunter descended.]
At Wake Forest College Ben soon became a leading member of the debate team. In those days intercollegiate debating ranked in interest and prestige very nearly with football on today's campuses. In her book, Ruth Cozart Eller describes in vivid detail Ben's debating experiences including an occasion when Ben and his partner won a debate over the team from Davidson College. "As the train pulled into town, gala lights flared everywhere. An avenue of oil flares led from the railroad station to the college auditorium. Each flare was a keg of sawdust saturated with kerosene. Each flare was attended by two students. The flares were lit simultaneously as the train arrived. From the crowd milling around, two strong 'giants' stepped forward and lifted Eller and his partner to their shoulders."
On a visit home at Christmas 1909 from Wake Forest, Ben was ordained. The BIBLICAL RECORDER, state Baptist paper, carried this account: “... On Sunday, December 16, 1909, a presbytery was called by the Jupiter Baptist Church for the purpose of examining Brother J. Ben Eller, and if found worthy to ordain him to the full gospel ministry. The Presbytery consisted of Pastor E. Allison, Elder James M. Pickins, and Elder Alfred Bradley."
"After a careful examination, the presbytery reported to the church that J. Ben Eller was well qualified for ordination. The Church then requested the presbytery to proceed to ordain Brother Eller. He was ordained by prayer and the laying on of hands of the presbytery. We considered Brother J. Ben Eller, who is now in school at Wake Forest College, one of the rising young ministers of Western North Carolina." This prophecy was more than fulfilled by the successful career of J. Ben Eller.
"While at Wake Forest Ben took his first pastorate at Wilson's Mill in Eastern Carolina," where he preached once each month... his second once-a-month pastorate was at Leesville, near Wake Forest ... Later he served the Berea Church near- Durham, NC"
In his senior year Ben was elected Class Poet and won the medal for his winning story, published in the Student Magazine. Soon after graduation Ben took up the full-time pastorate at Lee Street Baptist Church in Danville, VA.
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In 1913 Ben resigned his pastorate at Lee Street Baptist Church and entered the Southern Baptist Theological Seminary at Louisville, KY. "On the evening of 16 October 1914 Ben attended a 'get-acquainted' party sponsored by the downtown Baptist Churches of Louisville. There he met his future wife, Ruth Cozart of Little Rock Arkansas, a student at the W.M.U Training School."
On May 30, 1916, the Southern Baptist Theological Seminary conferred upon Ben Eller the Th.M. degree, Master of Theology. He had already accepted a call to th West Durham Church, Durham, NC. On September 13, 1916 he and Ruth were married in Camden, Arkansas and left for their honeymoon in Western North Carolina where Ben showed off his bride to his many Eller, Branson and other mountain relatives.
"In the spring of 1919, Ben was honored again at Mars Hill College. THE LAUREL, the College Annual, was dedicated to him. On the dedicatory page was Ben's picture. On the opposite page was this tribute, part of which read: The strength of his native hills is in his veiws; the will of the mountain boy to do and be is his in a large measure; and his usefulness grows with the passing years." Soon afterwards came a call to the First Baptist Church of Salem, VA.
After a highly successful three years at Salem, Ben had become well-known in Baptist circles of several states. In 1922 he received calls from Wake Forest, West Asheville, Elizabeth City, French Broad Street Asheville, Smithfield, Rutherfordtan, Weldon and Statesville- all in North Carolina. Among many other calls was one from Bennettsville, SC, and Martinsburg, WV. On October 29, 1922, Ben preached his last sermon in Salem and accepted the call to the First Baptist Church in Statesville, North Carolina.
In the same year Ben was elected to the General Missions Board of the North Carolina Baptists and a trustee of Mars Hill College. On November 20, 1927 he was elected President of the North Carolina Baptist Pastor's Conference. Many calls from other churches were to be dealt with during his years in Statesville. He remained there until July 15, 1934 when he announced that he had accepted a call to the Ashboro Street Baptist Church in Greensboro, NC effective September 2, 1934.
After over 15 years in Greensboro, Ben preached his last sermon on February 26, 1950, expecting to retire but then came a call to a smaller church at Coats, N.C., thirty miles south of Raleigh in Harnett County. Ten years later on March 1, 1960 he resigned again. He and Ruth moved to their retirement cottage at 2317 Millbank Street in the Lockwood section of Raleigh, N.C. where he was living at the time of his death on 6 June 1966.
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[J.G.E.: This review fails to do justice to either this delightful book or its principal character. Left out are many amusing events and anecdotes, mention of many friends, and the successes and failures experienced at each church. Many of the insightful and revealing things that only a wife can say about a beloved husband is missing from this review. The gripping story paints in vivid detail a man of immense faith and great personality. Ruth Cozart Eller's book is obviously the work of a sensitive, educated lady who loved her husband and shared with him a c great and abiding faith but was able to write about her husband in an unusual candid and open manner.]
[J.G.E., Ed: I am indebted to Janine Eller- Porter for a copy of the book; to Vance Eller for his letter from J. Ben Eller; to Jerri Eller Cathey, my eldest daughter, for materials obtained form the Baptist Archives at Wake Forest University, Winston-Salem, NC; to John Marshall (husband of EFA V-P Charlotte Eller Marshall) for photographic assistance; to Mars Hill College Library staff for material from the 1919 LAUREL LEAF and especially to Thomas White 3267 Stepney St., Edgewater, MD 21037, great grandson of J. Ben Eller and the closest relative to respond to our call for information. We hope readers with other knowledge of J. Ben Eller will share their information with us.]