Carlos Ellis went from making change to witnessing it in the early 1900s. A part-time bank clerk at 16, Ellis became a Rochester race-car driver and Dr. Charlie Mayo’s chauffeur in the early days of automobiles.

“Horses would rear and plunge when I came driving down the street or on a country road,” he recalled in 1979, six years before his death at 98. “From the Model T to these wonderful machines they’re making today — and to think I’ve lived to see these marvelous developments.”

Born in West Virginia in 1887, Carlos Fay Ellis was 2 when his family moved to Duluth and then Proctorknott — a city 8 miles west of Duluth that soon shortened its name to Proctor.

A skinny teenager with a warm smile and thick, curly hair, Ellis was working as a part-time bank clerk when the bank president promoted him to vice president in a publicity gimmick.

“It was strictly an honorary title but the boss liked to brag about having the youngest vice president of any bank in the country,” said Ellis, whose banking days were soon eclipsed by his love of motors chugging away in first-generation cars.

“He always said … that the beginning of the internal-combustion engine was the best time for a young man to be alive,” said his great-niece Mary Budde, who lives in Columbia Heights and has sifted through 51 pages of Ellis’ hand-written memoir, transcribed at the History Center of Olmsted County. The center’s archivist, Krista Lewis, provided old newspaper clippings and photos to further illuminate Ellis’ story.

Ellis said “garage” was a new French word in Rochester when his family moved there about 1905, when he was 18. His father and brother-in-law opened a machine shop — fixing steam engines and bicycle tires before hanging Rochester’s first garage sign.

“Rochester then was a town of about 7,500 residents with hitching posts on dirt streets, horse-drawn wagons and buggies,” wrote Harold Severson, a longtime Rochester Post-Bulletin editor. “Back in 1907, autos were about as scarce as giraffes on Broadway.”

Of course, there was also a growing medical business started by Civil War surgeon Dr. William Worrall Mayo and his sons, William James and Charles Horace.

Dr. Charlie Mayo hired Ellis at 20 to become his driver of two early Knox automobiles — a two-cylinder runabout and a massive seven-passenger touring model complete with a windshield, convertible roof and side curtains.

As Ellis began driving Will and Charlie Mayo home for lunch, he quickly learned “the brothers differed sharply, however, when it came to mechanical matters,” he said. “Dr. Will didn’t care about cars other than hoping they wouldn’t break down.”

His boss, Dr. Charlie Mayo, “on the other hand … was keenly interested in anything that had gears and valves. … Grease and dirt didn’t bother him in the least.”

Driving for Dr. Charlie was a family affair, with Ellis required to win the acceptance of his wife, Edith, a pioneering nurse anesthetist; their six kids, three housekeepers, nurse and cook.

Back then, Ellis said, road maps and winter driving were unheard of. So they’d mark up county maps with best routes and landmarks — jacking up cars in the winter for service. In those pre-snowplow days, most people preferred snowy roads for good sledding for their horse-drawn sleighs.

“The roads were not even graveled in those days,” Ellis said. “My first trip to the Twin Cities was quite an event — it took the larger part of the day.”

During Ellis’ 11 years as Charlie Mayo’s chauffeur, he moonlighted as a racer — winning the Olmsted County Fair’s first motorcycle race in 1906 at 45 mph.

Census rolls reflect Ellis’ similarly rapid career ascent. In 1910, he was listed as a chauffeur — quitting in 1918 over a salary dispute. By 1920, he was listed as a machinist in his own shop and, by 1930, he was the president and proprietor of Ellis Motor Co. — running the business with younger brother Earl Ellis. Carlos married lifelong Rochester resident Lenora Stedman in 1910. They raised two children.

By 1921, Ellis became Rochester’s Dodge dealer and ran his business until retiring in 1950 — never forgetting his teenage banking days, when he saw many businesses go belly-up because of shoddy accounting. “My two years in the little bank at Proctor helped me a lot,” he said.

Budde said her great uncle kept a fully equipped machine shop from age 16 to 90 — building his own lawn mower and snowblower after he retired. He especially loved working on motorcycles, having driven the first belt-driven one from Rochester to Duluth as a kid.

At 92, he was still lucid and busy with his hands — dismantling clothespins to make little rocking chairs.

“I knew Carlos as a gregarious host of large family get-togethers,” Budde said. “Even in his 90s he loved to share his enthusiasms for early motoring adventures and racing, and how Dr. Charlie was often with him up to their elbows to fine tune each new vehicle.”

 

Curt Brown’s tales about Minnesota’s history appear each Sunday. Readers can send him ideas and suggestions at mnhistory@startribune.com. His latest book looks at 1918 Minnesota, when flu, war and fires converged: http://strib.mn/MN1918.