The Ellis Empire: Three Generations in Real Estate

A big house like this . . .

situated on several acres and surrounded by smaller houses on small lots in the middle of a big city often has a story behind it.

And the house at 4445 Rolling Hills Drive in southeast Fort Worth is no exception.

It’s a story of three generations of a family who bought and sold real estate in Fort Worth for more than a century.

But let’s begin the story in 1846—before there was a Fort Worth.

Joshua Newton Ellis and Artimisa Brown Ellis, like so many others in the 1840s, traveled westward in a wagon train, bound for Texas. They had left Missouri to settle in Denton County, where they probably had a Peters Colony land grant. With them was son James Franklin Ellis, age eight. The Ellises began farming in 1846. Another son, Merida Green Ellis, was born in 1847. But within months both parents died, orphaning James Franklin, Merida Green, and five siblings. Joshua and Artimisa may have been buried in unmarked graves on their farm. Anglo settlers, one Ellis biographer says, were sometimes buried in unmarked graves to prevent discovery by Native Americans.

Fast-forward to 1850. Also living in Denton County were Samuel P. and Elizabeth Loving. Elizabeth was Artimisa’s sister. The Denton County census shows Merida, age four, living with Samuel P. and Elizabeth Loving. Living close by was Routh (Ruth) Brown. She was the mother of Elizabeth and Artimisa. James Franklin Ellis, now age twelve, lived with her.

Historian Julia Kathryn Garrett says the Lovings and Merida soon moved to Tarrant County and settled on Sycamore Creek. Merida’s brother James F. perhaps also moved with the Lovings.

This county map of early surveys shows the J. F. Ellis survey south of Fort Worth near the survey of Samuel P. Loving on Sycamore Creek. Living nearby was W. R. Loving, brother of Sam Loving.

At the top of the map, near the survey of W. B. Tucker, was the survey of J. N. Ellis. After Joshua Newton Ellis died his heirs may have had his land grant transferred from Denton to Tarrant County when they moved. See the label “E. S. Ellis”? Edward Smith Ellis was a brother of Merida G. and James F.

The Lovings may have moved to Tarrant County for the protection offered by the military’s Fort Worth. According to James F. Ellis’s grandson, J. Merida Ellis, “My grandfather . . . arrived here while Fort Worth was still a military outpost” and as a teenager earned money by selling pies and buttermilk to soldiers and to immigrants in passing wagon trains.

“Occasionally someone from a wagon train would give him a calf that they couldn’t take along on the trip or a pig,” J. Merida Ellis said.

Look back at the survey map. See the label “J. Asbury” near the J. F. Ellis survey? Jerimiah Asbury’s daughter Delilah Jane married James F. Ellis in 1860. (Photo from Private Collection of the Ellis and Blanton Families.)

Ellis enlisted in the Confederate Army in 1862 and served to the end of the war.

He returned to Fort Worth and did what so many of Fort Worth’s early businessmen did: He bought real estate. Lots of real estate. He and other family members already had land grants south of town. He added to that.

The descendants of James F. Ellis would use 1859 as the date of the founding of the family real estate business. That’s when Ellis made his first deal. Land was cheap back then. How cheap? Grandson J. Merida Ellis in 1950 recalled that his grandfather traded 160 acres of land south of town for a yoke of oxen and a wagon. J. Merida Ellis estimated the value of that land in 1950 at $800,000. That would be $8 million today.

In 1870 Ellis began a partnership with another future land baron: William J. Boaz.

At first Ellis and Boaz operated a general store. Then they sold lumber. They later branched out into banking, buying the interest of Martin Bottom Loyd in the California & Texas Bank. They also were founders of Traders’ National Bank.

Both brothers—James F. in 1877, Merida G. in 1878—partnered briefly with Walter A. Huffman in a farm implements store. After the Texas & Pacific railroad began serving Fort Worth in 1876, the town boomed. Real estate was at a premium. Immigrants were living in tents awaiting permanent housing. The Ellis brothers were in the right place at the right time.

Both brothers soon moved from selling plows to selling lots and houses.

The year 1880 brought more diversification for James F. Ellis and Boaz: They bought City Mill, located at Bluff and Commerce streets. Murray Percival Bewley became a partner in 1882. After the mill burned, Bewley started his own mill.

Then Ellis and Boaz began buying and selling real estate together. They partnered until 1885, when Boaz founded his own real estate company.

In 1887 Ellis built the Ellis Hotel at West 3rd and Throckmorton streets. The Ellis and the Pickwick were two of Fort Worth’s most elegant hotels. The Ellis covered half a city block, had a mansard roof and a stone exterior. It was four stories high. For guests who didn’t want to trudge four stories, it had a passenger elevator—rare for 1887.

Rooms of were heated by steam, and there were “bath-rooms on every floor.”

Note the mule-drawn streetcar. (Photo from Jack White Photograph Collection, University of Texas at Arlington Libraries.)

But on September 21, 1891 the hotel burned. The Fort Worth Gazette published an extra edition at 4:25 a.m.

One theory is that the hotel burned to the ground because firefighters did not have enough water to fight the fire. Another theory is that firefighters spent too much time saving the hotel’s inventory of liquor.

By 1896 real estate was an Ellis family affair: Merida Green Ellis was buying and selling land north of the river. His brother James F. was selling south of the river. Working with Merida Green was Jerry F. Ellis, son of James F. Another son, James M., was a stockman.

James F. Ellis prospered in real estate. He was an early resident of Quality Hill, living in a big house at 528 Henderson at the corner of Pennsylvania Avenue.

In 1929 the lot became the site of this distinctive building.

Eventually Ellis would own land that stretched from Old Mansfield Road in southeast Fort Worth west to TCU. Look back at the survey map. See the railroad passing through the J. F. Ellis survey? That was the Katy railroad. Katy Lake and later Seminary South/La Gran Plaza mall would be built on Ellis’s land. See the Thornhill survey? Today a Thornhill Street is just south of the mall.

James Franklin Ellis died in 1899. With his death the second generation, James M. Ellis, took over the family real estate business.

James M. Ellis was an early Cadillac owner. In 1909 he wrote a letter that a Dallas Cadillac dealer used in an ad. Ellis wrote that he always carried a rope when he drove in case his Cadillac needed to be towed. He had never needed the rope in 9,263 miles.

Land is land, no matter the dimensions. James M. Ellis was an early promoter, along with attorney William Capps, candyman John P. King, and future mayor William Bryce, of Mount Olivet Cemetery.

In 1917 Ellis partnered with C. R. Vickery, son of Glenwood developer (and Vickery Boulevard namesake) Richard L. Vickery to develop the College Heights addition east of Texas Woman’s College in Poly. Half-acre garden tracts offered “room for chickens, hogs and cows upon your own premises.”

Ellis also was instrumental in the city’s acquiring fourteen hundred acres to offer the federal government for its narcotic farm (U.S. Public Health Service Hospital).

In 1939 Ellis and Vickery developed the West Morningside addition.

By 1947 the third generation, James M. Ellis’s son J. Merida Ellis, had joined the family business. Father and son lived and worked on land in southeast Fort Worth that had been the ranch of James F. Ellis.

In 1947 they platted three hundred acres of that land and began developing the Rolling Hills addition.

But they held onto block 9 of the addition: 13.7 acres of the Ellis ranch. Note Ellis Ranch Trail.

When James M. Ellis died in 1952 the third generation, J. Merida, took over the family real estate business.

The third Ellis continued to develop Rolling Hills.

The Star-Telegram interviewed Ellis in 1950. He said his father told him some history of the family land being developed as Rolling Hills: Caddo Native Americans had built a “guide mound” of rocks on the highest hill overlooking Sycamore Creek. The Caddo used the mound as a lookout tower and landmark to guide them as they traveled.

Ellis said the mound had been torn down several years before, most of the rocks used to build nearby Glen Garden Country Club.

He said the mound had been located in what by 1950 had become the backyard of Mr. and Mrs. Lawrence P. Hoover at 2300 Timberline Drive.

Ellis said that some of the smaller rocks could still be found in the Hoover backyard.

A quarter-mile from where that mound stood, about 1952 block 9 became 4445 Rolling Hills Drive when Ellis built his fine house on 13.7 acres of his grandfather’s ranch.

Ellis lived there until about 1968.

A later owner was city councilman Dr. Edward W. Guinn.

Also part of the Ellis empire was the land at Riverside Drive and Berry streets where Towne Plaza South shopping center and Ward Plaza were built.

J. Merida Ellis in 1967.

The third generation of the Ellis real estate business died in 1973.

The house he built still stands on land that had been in his family more than a century.

Fort Worth’s Street Gang

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12 Responses to The Ellis Empire: Three Generations in Real Estate

  1. RM Jackson Black Jack Baby Girl says:

    Those were the Days
    My Dad had bought Land for $10.00 in 1961
    .Im 64 Hey I’ve been looking for that Land.
    What you say lol. Looking for Lot and Block.
    God Bless Us Fort. Worth Texas. Born and Raised

  2. A Webb says:

    The nightclub where this happened was the Electric Circus and my 20 month old cousin was murdered there on May 4th 1971. The medical examiner ruled her death a homicide but nothing was ever done about it. Supposedly her death was at the hands of someone that worked there.

    • hometown says:

      Thank you. That crime either was not reported in the Star-Telegram or slipped through the “net” when I searched the archives using likely keywords when researching the Electric Circus.

    • A Webb says:

      There was a write up in the Fort Worth Star Telegram regarding the beating death of a child. The suspects were not named and neither was the location. The address is on her death certificate and that’s how I put two and two together. I also always knew the backstory from my relatives. Personally, I think there was a big cover up of the incident due to the popularity of the place at the time.

    • hometown says:

      I saw the Jennifer Arnold stories, which indeed had no details (address, business name) to tie the crime to the nightclub. Robert Ray Cole was indicted for murder, but I find no further coverage after his indictment.

    • A Webb says:

      Thank you. I actually never knew his name. Anyone in my family that did has passed on. This still haunts me because no on was ever held accountable for the death of Jennifer Lynette Arnold.

    • hometown says:

      I have e-mailed you three clips.

  3. John Holman says:

    A friend of mine has been getting rid of stuff. He found a token in his coin collection, and he mailed it to me. I guess because I live in Fort Worth. It’s a token for the “Ellis Hotel Bar, one drink, Ed Muller, Fort Worth, Texas.” It’s made of a creme colored material. It’s not metal.

  4. Justin Tate says:

    I drive by Riverside and Berry and wonder what happened all the time. How long did Wards stay for? I remember the old vacant shopping center where the ITC is now.
    I also heard that a FW police officer was killed at Riverside and Berry by a youngster and the article said he shot the officer from apartments. Where were those apartments? Without sounding completely insensitive, was it the demographics that whites werent comfortable shopping that kept it from being successful?

    • hometown says:

      Grew up on Burton about a mile east. Ward Plaza was our go-to department store. Ward Plaza closed in 1980. Officer Edward Belcher was killed by a sniper, David Nelson, while answering a call about a shooting at the Electric Circus night club at 3140 South Riverside Drive in 1971. Star-Telegram said sniper apparently was at a hamburger stand about 200 yards away. The rifle was found at the Riverside Village Apartments, where Nelson lived. The apartments were north of the night club across Berry. Nelson was detained, released, later surrendered. Nelson was paroled in 1983. I left home in 1971 and don’t know much about the history of the change in demographics or the decline of businesses in that area. When I go back to Poly today, nothing is where I left it!

    • hometown says:

      That was the Electric Circus, 1971.

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