Las Vegas Sun

September 25, 2017

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Seeing beyond sepia

Las Vegas freelance writer Robert Morrow collects interesting stories about Nevada - its intriguing ghost towns, its colorful Old West past.

That might be somewhat lost on those who live in Las Vegas, a transient city in a state where just 10 percent of residents are natives.

But Morrow, 52, who has lived in Las Vegas for 30 years, says it is important to preserve our state's stories - our heritage - especially given the frequency with which many of the structures of Nevada's largest city are reduced to dust to make way for something bigger, bolder and flashier.

"These true stories must be periodically resurrected to be retold so that others may benefit from their timeless messages," Morrow said.

One such true story - although it reads like a ghost tale - is that of a 10-year-old girl who, 100 years ago, died in the mining camps of Goldfield, about 180 miles northwest of Las Vegas.

Morrow figures that, even in a state filled with newcomers, inspiration can be found in the story of "Little Joy" and her mother , Anne Ellis, whose desire to have her daughter remembered left an indelible snapshot of the strength and determination of Nevada's settlers.

On Aug. 30, 1907, Mildred "Joy" Fleming, suffering from nasal diphtheria - a disease preventable today with immunizations and curable with antibiotics - asked her mother for a glass of water. But Joy died before Ellis got her that drink.

Joy initially was buried in an unmarked grave with her rag doll clutched in her hand.

Legend has it that Ellis, a native Missourian who lived much of her life in poverty, could not afford a proper tombstone for Joy so she pulled her daughter's little wooden wagon to the construction site of Sundog Elementary School and stole a sandstone block.

She then pulled the stone-laden wagon a couple of miles to the cemetery on the outskirts of town. There, she set the block on Joy's grave and chiseled "JOY" into the stone as the sun rose over the town, which today has a population of 302.

"The legend unfortunately makes a much better story than the truth," said Morrow, who has made several trips to Goldfield, researched Joy's family at the Boulder City Library and traded correspondence with officials at the Central Nevada Museum in Tonopah.

First, Morrow said, Ellis apparently was as much haunted by guilt as motivated by grief to have her daughter remembered.

In her first of three autobiographical books, "The Life of an Ordinary Woman," Ellis wrote that she delayed getting her child water because she was too busy reading "The Count of Monte Cristo," Morrow said.

"I believe Anne was writing the truth because it was an unburdening," Morrow said of the book published 22 years after Joy's death.

Morrow further discovered that the wagon was not Joy's, but rather was borrowed from a neighbor, and that Ellis pulled the stone only a short distance from Sundog Avenue to her shanty home on High-grader's Hill.

Ellis chiseled the name on the block at her home, not at the cemetery near dawn as has been more sentimentally told, Morrow said.

And Ellis did not pull the heavy block to the cemetery. Instead, Ellis paid the driver of a horse-drawn freight hauler 75 cents to take it there, Morrow learned.

And Morrow, who does not believe in ghosts, does not buy into the story that when winds howl across the dusty cemetery at night you can hear the faint voice of a little girl asking for a drink of water.

Schoolchildren from the Esmeralda County town and others have long decorated Joy's grave with flowers on Memorial Day. Members of the Goldfield Elks Lodge and Nevada Highway Department in the early 1960s replaced the crumbling stone with a proper tombstone that features the girl's nickname and a toy wagon, Morrow said. Goldfield residents later added a flat marble marker over the grave that tells tourists about the legend.

Ellis, who taught herself to read and write, went on to become a fairly well-known author of early Western lore. She followed up her 1929 book with "Plain Anne Ellis: More About the Life of an Ordinary Woman" in 1931 and "Sunshine Preferred: The Philosophy of an Ordinary Woman" in 1934.

She and her second husband , Herbert Ellis, left Goldfield shortly after Joy's death and settled in Bonanza, Colo., where they raised two other children from Anne's marriage to George Fleming, Joy's father, who had been killed in a mining explosion near Cripple Creek, Colo.

Ellis taught school, operated a boarding house for miners and became Bonanza's first telephone operator. After Herbert Ellis died during surgery, she became a women's rights activist and politician, serving three terms as the elected treasurer of Saguache County, Colo. In 1938, she died in Denver at age 63.

Goldfield Chamber of Commerce President Peggy Carrasco said although the story of Anne and Joy is sad, it also is one of redemption.

"All her mother wanted was for Joy to be remembered," she said. "The people of Goldfield still remember Joy. And a century after her death stories are still being written about her."

That satisfies Morrow as well.