Ellis Funeral Home may have turned sixty this year, but its real history started in 1939 when Frank Harrison Ellis, Sr., died, and Frank, Jr., the oldest of the family’s three children was hired by Boxwell Brothers Funeral Home in Amarillo so he could help out with family expenses. Frank was thirteen at the time. And the rest, as the saying goes, is history.
Todd Ellis, Frank and Sally’s youngest son, shared some of that history with me. Like some of the other notable Muleshoe citizens I heard stories about when we moved here, “Digger,” sometimes “Pine Box,” Ellis was the subject of many legendary tales. But while he was having fun with some of his escapades, he was also an asset to the community as a whole, and it was important to him to help people who were dealing with the loss of loved ones.
When Frank’s dad died, it was Howard Boxwell who handled his funeral service. Sometime after that, Frank’s mom asked Mr. Boxwell if he would hire Frank to work at the funeral home since making ends meet was going to be a struggle for the family. It also seemed to be a struggle for Frank to step into Dad’s shoes at that young age. He took to skipping school and was expelled, but was allowed back in, most likely at the urging of Mr. Boxwell, who was willing to help this family in need. By the time he was fourteen, Frank was driving the ambulance and learning about embalming. He went on to graduate from Amarillo High School, and Mr. Boxwell saw enough promise in the young man that he was willing to send him to the Landig School of Mortuary in Houston. After mortuary school, Frank returned to work for the Boxwell brothers.
While Frank was working at Boxwell Brothers, Marcella Pingel, who went by the name Sally, was working as a paralegal for an Amarillo law firm. For one of their dates, Frank borrowed a Boxwell company vehicle, most likely without permission, Todd said, and was rushing at breakneck speed to get the vehicle back to the funeral home before it was missed, and unfortunately was seen by the police who took up the chase. He raced to one of the hospitals, pulled over and rushed up to the second floor where he was able to sweet-talk the nurses into telling the police that his wife was on the second floor having a baby. It worked. The police left, and the vehicle made it back to its designated space with nary a scratch or speeding ticket to its credit.
Sally went on to marry Frank in 1950 and he continued to work for the Boxwell funeral home until Mr. Boxwell’s son returned to town to work with his dad there, and things got complicated. So Frank took a job with Lemmons Funeral Home in Plainview in 1952. They lived above the funeral home and started their family with Trey (Frank III) and Dan who were born there. Todd came along later in 1961 after they moved to Muleshoe.
The funeral home in Muleshoe, by this time, had gone through several different owners and names, and in February of 1959 the name Ellis was added to that list when Frank and Sally bought Travis Reed’s interest in the Singleton Funeral Home in Muleshoe. Then in 1976 Frank and Sally bought full interest in the funeral home, and it became Ellis Funeral Home, as it is known today.
The funeral home had the ambulance contract with Bailey County for twenty-five or so years, and one of the legendary stories about Digger had to do with an ambulance he drove to the barber shop one day. It seems that Frank and Harmon Elliott got crossways that day in the barber shop. No one remembers now what the fuss was about, which really doesn’t matter here. What matters is that Harmon left the shop in a huff and came face to face with the parked Ellis Funeral Home ambulance. Harmon opened the unlocked door, a common practice back then-and even today in Muleshoe- slid into the driver’s seat, and turned on the siren, which the ambulance was equipped with, punched the lock button the door, slammed it shut, and went on his merry way, leaving Digger to deal with the noise and red light flashing.
These men traded tricks like this on each other all the time, including the time white patent leather shoes were all the rage in the 60s. Harmon went to St. Clair’s Department Store and bought a pair of those shoes but charged the purchase to Frank. Upon receiving the bill, Sally wasn’t real happy about it and fussed at Frank, who then went down to the store and bought his own pair of shoes and signed Harmon’s name to one of the counter checks that were common at the time, and then went to the bank and told banker/friend M.D. Gunstream that the check better go through. Harmon got to pay for the shoes, but I don’t know what he did next to Frank to return the favor.
Jess and Laverne Winn became good friends with the Ellis family when they moved back to Muleshoe in 1969. If Frank needed an extra driver on occasion, he would call and Jess would fill in. They became golf buddies and best of friends. Roy Whitt and Frank had been trading off playing Santa for each other’s kids and other friends’ kids at Christmas time, and Frank would come and be Santa for the Winn kids as well. Laverne said Frank was a very generous, thoughtful man, and Muleshoe was lucky to have him.
Something that Frank and Jess also did together was start something that came to be known as the Breakfast Club. Instead of coffee at McDonald’s, like many men take part in today, Frank and Jess and several other friends started meeting at the drug store soda fountain for breakfast. There were specific rules to be followed: meet every Friday morning; rotate every week as to who paid for everyone’s breakfast; if you show up even one second after eight o’clock, you pay the tip; if you have to miss a breakfast, you must have another member state your excuse for missing or you have to pay for the breakfasts next time.
Later as the group grew, they rotated going to the various cafes in town, still meeting every Friday morning. The story goes that Frank would order eggs over easy and always told the waitress, “If I want my yellow broke, I’ll break it myself.” If it was broken, he would sent it back. Once, when the Tutts owned the Dinner Bell, he sent an egg back and Mrs. Tutt appeared from the kitchen, butcher knife in hand, to see just how serious he was about this egg over easy business. The members varied over time, but the regulars were Harmon Elliott, M.D. Gunstream, Buck Campbell, Corky Green, Clayton Myers, Thurman Myers, Larry Hall, Charles Flowers, Connie Gupton, even son Todd, just to name a few. Most of the original members are gone, but the club lives on and still meets, only now it always meets at the Dinner Bell.
Something else Frank was known to do and had a good time doing was measuring perfectly healthy people for caskets. And even people who might not be healthy at the time. Even a good friend. Once when Jess had to be hospitalized, Frank showed up in his hospital room with a solemn face, pulled out his handy pocket-size measuring tape, compliments of the Federal Land Bank Association and my husband Bill Liles, and proceeded to record Jess’s length and width for a good fit in the coffin, and walked out without saying a word. Bill said Frank wore out at least one of those little measuring tapes with these bogus fittings and never grew tired of pulling the prank on unsuspecting friends. Digger was also in the habit of offering to tie a tie or readjust a tie, but only under the right circumstances: “If you’ll lie down, I’ll tie that for you.”
Player of pranks he was, but caring funeral director he also was. Case in point: I spoke with John Blackwell, who learned the funeral home business from Frank. John was working at the Blackburn Shaw Funeral Home in Amarillo in 1963 and had been thinking about going to mortuary school. Through a twist of fate, he wound up working for Singleton Funeral Home in Muleshoe, finished mortuary school in Dallas in 1965, and continued to work for Frank till 1980. John then moved to Friona to manage Parsons-Ellis Funeral Home there as well as helping out at the Ellis home in Earth. At this time son Trey was in partnership with his dad, John, and Percy Parsons at the Friona home, but sold his interest to them. Later Mr. Parsons sold his interest to Frank and John, and then five of six years later, Frank sold his half of the business to John, who then became the sole owner of Blackwell Funeral Home in Friona around 1990.
Now the reason for this little history lesson is that Frank was responsible for John becoming a funeral director, and in so doing taught him the value of taking a personal interest in the needs of families going through grief and loss. It seems that students of mortuary schools are taught this quote from British statesman William Gladstone (1809-1898): “Show me the manner in which a nation or a community cares for its dead, and I will measure with mathematical exactness the tender sympathies of its people, their respect for the laws of the land, and their loyalty to high ideals.” Frank took this message to heart, ran his funeral homes with sensitivity and respect for the grieving family, and passed that work ethic on to John, who followed the same path in his funeral home. John could see from Frank’s example that taking a personal interest in the family is especially important in a small town because you know people more intimately than you might in a larger city. He said Frank was willing to separate the emotional details of funeral services from the financial details necessary to conduct the service. Todd said he was taught the same quote when he went to school and was taught that same work ethic by his dad who had a knack for making people feel safe and comfortable in the difficult time of losing loved ones. And Frank must have been good at it, because more than one family vacation was cut short when the call came that someone in Muleshoe had died and the family wanted Frank there to handle it, not one of his employees. Todd commented to me that taking the weight off the family’s shoulders and gaining their trust just like his dad did is what makes the job worthwhile.
Trey worked with his dad from 1978 to 1984, but opted out of the business to become a state trooper and later a county judge. Brother Dan chose a career in banking from the beginning, and now deals in old West antiques and collections, but Todd chose to continue the family business after a side trip of his own. He was attending West Texas State University in Canyon, now West Texas A&M University, in his third year of studying for a degree in Ag Business and Economics when Frank had open heart surgery, and Todd quit school to come home and help out during Frank’s recovery. In 1983 he married Starla Black, decided to study at mortuary school in Dallas, and came back to work with his dad in the Muleshoe location as well as the other Ellis Funeral Homes. Frank may have given Todd a ready-made entry into the family business, but Todd said his dad also made him work for it, and in hindsight he is glad he was given that opportunity and glad he wound up right here.
Todd became the sole owner when Frank died in 2009. His son Colt attended mortuary school and bought into the business in 2018, which includes the Parsons-Ellis Funeral Home in Earth and Ellis Funeral Home in Morton and Sudan. Dan made the comment that he was always proud that his dad was a self-made man, and the fact that the funeral home is now a third generation family operation speaks well of the foundation that Frank laid for the business.
I could list all the organizations in town Frank was active in, all his awards and recognitions, but that’s all in his obituary. What you won’t read in the obituary is what a kind and generous man he was, and a kid at heart sometimes. And that may have been what helped him through a lifetime of helping other people when their hearts were heavy.
And I’ll bet he still uses that measuring tape even now.
Good job, Digger.
You can read more about the early history and past owners of the funeral home before it became Ellis Funeral Home in Tales and Trails of Bailey County, the first 70 years. The history is also available from Ellis Funeral Home.
Thanks to Todd Ellis, Trey Ellis, Dan Ellis, John Blackwell, Bill Liles, Laverne Winn, and Buck Campbell for their help with this story.