Part II – Wm C ELLIS & SONS, Memphis, Tenn

This is the second photo essay in a series chronicling an important piece of Memphis history.

Crossing Peabody, past a vast and soulless parking lot, down the hill through the intersection at Beale, and across the street from a utilitarian parking garage, one finds the grace, elegance and modesty of the William C. Ellis & Sons Machine Shop, a block-long warehouse and machine shop that has stood since the days of yellow fever, serving the growing agricultural and transportation needs of the Memphis industrial renaissance after the Civil War, through the turn of the century and beyond. 

Ellis & Sons building
Mark Fleischer, February, 2017
2017 and 1982. View looking south at the corner of Front and Beale, as photographed by the author (top) and in 1982 by Mary Baker for the building’s nomination application to the National Register of Historic Places

As mentioned in last month’s introduction, the warehouses and shops of the one hundred and fifty year-old Wm C Ellis & Sons were sold late in 2016 to the Carlisle Group. As of this printing, most indications are that the developer intends to demolish the historic warehouse to pave way for parking, or as part of their high-rise One Beale development. (the Carlisle Group has not responded to a request for comment on this story)

The Memphis Daily News, January, 2016
The evolution of the development of One Beale, January (top) and April, 2016 (The Commercial Appeal)

The Commercial Appeal reported on its sale in November, 2016.

During the last few months, as various individuals weigh in on the building’s fate, a liquidation of sorts has been ongoing. Memphis’ Metal Museum gathered a number of pieces of machinery in the fall of 2016, crews from a local scrap metal dealer have purchased and have been hauling off various large machine parts and other items, a local antiques dealer has purchased and gathered sets of large foundry and other significant pieces, and the former ownership has gathered and hauled off personal family effects.

Yet as of this date there are still hundreds of tons of scraps left to be salvaged: large presses and milling machines; mounds of gears, pipes, and scrap metal around every corner; piles of century-old office supplies, paperwork and manuals in the main buildings.

After the scrap is gone, only a handful of folks around the Carlisles know what will become of the historic structure. This ongoing photo essay is a way of documenting and preserving what’s left. A love letter of sorts, it has been captured here by local photographers Mike Kerr and Thomas Woodley, along with the author. Archival photographs came from a variety of sources, as credited.

For this second installment, we’ll take you on a tour around the building, take a few peeks inside its windows and walls, and explore changes in the immediate surroundings over the years. (Photographs were taken between November 2016 and February 2017)

Ellis & Sons building and property
The Ellis & Sons property sits just south of a parking lot at the corner of Beale (top) and Front St (right). M.L. King Jr Ave – formerly Linden Ave – runs to the south (bottom), and Wagner Place to the west (left) (Apple Mac Maps)
Front Street panorama, view to the south (Mark Fleischer)
Morning shade. Front St (MF)
Front St frontage, from the MLGW garage (Thomas Woodley)
The 1890 Pattern House, as seen from MLK Jr Ave. Patterns are large wooden molds needed in sand casting. (MF)
Pattern House, from Wagner Place at MLK Ave, looking north (MF)
In this circa 1930s aerial, looking north-east toward downtown, we can glimpse the backside and roofline of Ellis & Sons when warehouses still lined the freight rails overlooking the bluffs. Ellis & Sons can be located by that steeple-like furnace stack just lower-right of center. (photo from Charles W. Crawford’s 1976 book “Yesterday’s Memphis”)
From Apple Mac Maps, approximately the same view today. The warehouses that lined the freight lines are long gone.
Another aerial off of the bluffs, this one taken in 1978, clearly shows the familiar roof of Ellis & Sons, at right-center. Many of the old warehouses along the freight lines are still here in this photo. However surrounding this corner of Beale and Front, the devastation brought on by blight-removal is on full display, as the Orpheum Theater sits alone across from the MLGW building top-right. (Memphis and Shelby County Room, Memphis Public Library & Information Center)
Back to ground level. Along the freight lines, the backs of the warehouses facing the bluffs, in 1972. View north, “Ellis & Sons Machinery Since 1862” can be seen on the back of the warehouse. (Memphis and Shelby County Room, Memphis Public Library & Information Center.)
The Pattern House, from inside the Ellis & Sons’ yard (Mike Kerr)
Yard Panorama. The backdrop, from left to right: the edge of the Pattern House; the pitched “monitor” roof of the Foundry Building; the smoke stack of the iron furnace, built in 1970; the gray monitor roof (center) of the original 1879 Blacksmith’s Shop; the flat roof of the two-story brick 1905 “Front Street addition”; the second, and last, machine shop, (far right) built in 1925. (MF)

To step inside the yard of Ellis & Sons – or anywhere else in the complex for that matter – is to step back in time. It is jaw-dropping. It leaves one speechless, unable to put into words the sheer mass, variety, and tonnage of the machinery, scraps, dust, molds, boxes, paperwork, equipment – history – that surround every step, in every direction. It is almost as if it speaks to you, and you cannot help but to just listen.

To make a solitary walk under the archways and past the brick and the steel, one is not alone. No one is alone in this place. A lone worker long deceased and dressed in blue has been seen by many, observing the salvaging efforts and slamming doors. But ghosts or no ghosts, you can still sense the hydraulics kicking in, steam pumping through pipes overhead, furnaces burning hot, sledge hammers clanking away, and men working. Men. Working.

Memphis being built by raw hands.

Machine Shop back doors. (TW)
Hook. (TW)

Photographers Thomas Woodley and Mike Kerr are longtime Memphians passionate about capturing Memphis in all its beautiful glory. Thomas “photographs it all” and can be found on Instagram at @yesiwood. Mike Kerr goes by @f8inmemphis and does freelance work or print sales at

2 Replies to “Part II – Wm C ELLIS & SONS, Memphis, Tenn”

  1. My Grandfather started at Wm C. Ellis in 1912 and worked until 1972. Sixty years. He was down to three days a week when l he was forced to retire. He did not want to retire at 90 years. His name was C.P. Maynard, known as “Bud”. His oldest son was working there in 1929 when he died of pneumonia. I believe it gave him comfort to be in that place where he spent his days working and having his first born son with him. He never drove a car. He rode the bus everyday and before that the street car. He wore blue work clothes most of the time. I would like to talk to some of the workers who have seen the man in blue. I have a photo of him in work clothes I would like to show them to see if he looks like the man they saw. I have been inside taking photos in the last few weeks and felt a sense of comfort while there. Interesting.

    1. Thanks William for reading and commenting. It is my hope that, whatever happens to the building, our tribute allows folks to remember how great this place was, and how important. Memories like yours are to be cherished. As for the man in blue, if you go to the StoryBoard Memphis Facebook page you can share the photo in the comments on this article, and perhaps someone may be able to recognize him.
      Again, many thanks!

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