—A Lakeside Literary Treasure
By Shep Lenchek
(Written in 1997, republished by request)
(Part of a series about those who have left us such a rich cultural heritage)
Ellis Credle Townsend is one of Lakeside’s most illustrious personages, and an inspiration to all who know her. Born in North Carolina around the turn of the 20th century, she has written and illustrated no less than 21 children’s books. Her first published book was her most successful, and has sold more than 4,000,000 copies since its first printing in 1934.
Speaking about her childhood, Ellis remembers that she first left home to attend Louisberg College in the Blue Ridge Mountains, a school her grandmother had attended during the Civil War. After graduation, Ellis taught school in the area, and there learned the folk tales and life styles that were to serve her well when she finally began to write.
But her first love was art, and giving up her job as a teacher, she traveled to New York City, where she enrolled in the Art Students League. She began to work at illustrating books, and soon was writing them herself.
“My first five tries at fiction were all rejected,” Ellis recalls. But in looking for work as an illustrator, she met an editor who suggested she try to write and illustrate a book for children. “So I went to the New York Public Library and read every children-type book they had. This sounds impossible, but at that time they had only about five hundred such books. They were short and I could read about ten of them a day. I soon realized that most were of the ‘See Spot Run’ variety. Few of them were really stories.”
Ellis decided that the folk tales and legends of North Carolina could be used as the backbone of a new kind of book for children. And use them she did. Her initial offering, Down, Down the Mountain was quickly published—but not without a struggle.
“I took it to an editor at an old-line British publishing firm. She liked it and said it might interest the Book of the Month Club, who was now adding children’s books to their list. This instant approval was the giddiest experience I had ever had with an editor.” But then the editor asked Ellis to leave the manuscript, promising to try to work something out. But Ellis had an appointment with another editor, and taking up her manuscript she marched out of the woman’s office. Luckily the lady caught Ellis at the elevator.
“Wait, don’t go,” the woman stammered. “I can place your book!” And place it she did, with the Book of the Month Club! “lt became the most successful book I ever wrote,” Ellis happily remembers. “It finally sold four million copies before going out of print.”
This was in 1934 and Ellis was off and running. Her literary marathon with this publisher would not end until 20 books later, when the firm finally went out of business.
In 1947, Ellis and her husband decided to retire to Mexico. She had visited here in the early 30’s and liked it, so off to Guadalajara they went. Traveling by car, it took 24 hours of steady driving from the Texas border over narrow, twisting two-lane highways.
“That trip could alone make for a book. Once, as we were crossing a mountain, our lights went out. Then along came an old battered truck. The Mexican driver told us to follow closely after him. But then his lights went out. I don’t know how we ever made it.” But reach Guadalajara they did, and soon they built the house in which they lived for the next 38 years. In 1947, Guadalajara was a small city with a miniscule ex-pat population. Very few cars, and little social life. Ellis again took up writing, but her books, now sporting Mexican backgrounds, never found the success she had achieved with those of her Blue Ridge Mountain heritage. Among those earlier books were two that have become classics: The Goat That Went to School and Tall Tales from the High Hills.
Many of her books have been translated into other languages. In 1947, no less a literary critic than General Douglas MacArthur asked that Down, Down The Mountain be translated into Japanese, so as to acquaint the children of Japan with U.S. styles and ideas.
About 12 years ago, Ellis, having lost her husband by then, came to live alongside Lake Chapala. And here she has remained, only leaving every now and then to lecture, or visit her son, who is the head of the Latin American Dept. of Archaeology at the Museum of Art in Chicago.
“I have never regretted coming to Mexico,” Ellis says. “I have always felt happy, at home, and strangely safe here.” When asked which writers might have influenced her style, she laughed and said, “I don’t really think I have a style. I just tell stories, that’s all.”
One of her books, Mexico, Land of Hidden Treasure, is in the LCS library. This valuable book, however, can be read only on the premises.
Now, as if all this were not accomplishment enough for any half dozen people, Ellis is also a recognized collector of authentic folklore, and has often been summoned to lecture in the U.S. Her most memorable visit was to address librarians from all over the country about the folklore of her native North Carolina. At this meeting, Ellis not only spoke, she played the guitar and sang many of the songs she had learned as a child.
Though now in her mid-90s, Ellis continues to look ahead. She is still writing articles and plans to do another book, all this in the midst of supervising the major remodeling of her home. She is also a regular at the Ajijic Writers’ Group. “I just enjoy being with other writers, and like to keep up with what’s going on.”
(Ed. Note: Ellis passed away some years ago but will never be forgotten by all those fortunate enough to have known her. In many ways, she resembled one of those indomitable early settlers who carved a country out of the American wilderness.)