A history book’s minor character becomes the author’s editorial sidepiece, resulting in an essay that includes log cabins, net neutrality, research methods, Twin Peaks, romance, politics and one very good dog.
My initial encounter with Arthur Ellerman was rushed. I was researching my first book — the story of how log cabins shaped America — and had already spent three hours poring over National Historic Registry records on dozens of protected structures scattered coast-to-coast. There were dossiers on slave cabins, hippy commune cabins, cabins the government set up during the Great Depression; a file on the cabin where abolitionist John Brown hid before being hanged for raiding Harper’s Ferry; folders on the home of Hair Conrad, a mixed-race Cherokee-white businessman forced off his family land during the Trail of Tears, on tourist cabins and on post office cabins, too. And then there was the record for Ellerman’s cabin, an erection like none other.
Ellerman’s log cabin wasn’t the first structure in some untamed wilderness; nor was it a financial endeavor or the site of a historic event, good or bad. Built in 1912, in Yankton, S.D., a town founded in 1869 and whose early economy rested on mining and a mental hospital, Ellerman’s log cabin wasn’t really a log cabin at all: rather, it’s concrete shaped and painted to look like log. What the what?!
I knew instantly Ellerman’s abode would fit well into my narrative, specifically in my discussion of nostalgia in early-20th century pop culture. Even as Model-T’s rolled off the assembly line, as radio waves broadcast across the land, and even as the States were growing into a superpower, Americans were idolizing the log cabin as an idealized emblem of the past. They were looking forward and backward both at the same time.
An amalgamation of nostalgia and modernity, Ellerman’s cabin perfectly encapsulates how the zeitgeist was vacillating at the nexus of past and present. As the edifice’s 1980 historic registry application notes, “The Ellerman House both disguises the fact that it is made of concrete by heightening the log like characteristics, and at the same time excentuates [sic] that fact by revealing the extreme plasticity of the [concrete] material.” It was witty and weird and oh-so utilitarian for my purposes.
Theoretically that should have been the end of my time with Ellerman. I should have noted his usefulness and moved on with my research. Yet I kept his file out, only half-consciously determined to devote a little while longer to him. Yes, I had a deadline. Yes, I had nearly 400 years to cover… Sure, I told myself to stay focused, to keep my head down and move on, to resist my desire to delve deeper into Ellerman’s life, but it was all in vain. Ellerman and his house were too engrossing to ignore. I was too enamored with his brazen, almost garish appropriation of tradition. I had to know more about this Arthur Ellerman fellow.
And so began a nearly three-year expedition into the life of a long-dead water and sewer engineer from South Dakota.
The logical first step in my quest was to dig up as much basic biographical information as possible. That sounds easy enough, but it wasn’t that cut and dry. While public census records found at Ancestry.com say Ellerman was born in 1885, his 1918 draft card reads “November 16, 1883,” which, considering Ellerman filled it out, seems more accurate — until you look at his 1942 draft card, also filled out by Ellerman, and which dates his birth as 1884. That said, Ellerman’s exact D.O.B. is T.B.D.
But two things are for sure: Arthur’s parents were Herman and Emelia (née Rudolph) Ellerman, German immigrants who moved over in the late 19th century, and Arthur was the fourth youngest of seven children: he had three brothers, Otto, John, and Ernest, and three sisters, Anna, Alice and Emelia, who also went by Amy. A talented pianist profiled in McCall’s, she toured the States a in 1930.
I also know Herman Ellerman was one of Yankton’s first businessmen — the South Dakota Historical Society notes he was co-owner of the local newspaper, the Dakota Freie Presse –, so it’s safe to assume that the Ellerman kids came of age comfortably, and it’s clear Arthur spent much time playing sports growing up: the Argus-Leader reported in 1903 that Arthur, then 18 or 20, was managing the Yankton Scalps, the local high school’s crassly-named football team.
All this exercise clearly left Ellerman quite fit: his 1918 draft card describes him as tall with medium build, brown eyes and dark brown hair, and dark complexion, and I like to imagine many of Yankton’s young women —and probably some of the men — were left pining when Arthur married Carrie Bea Steelman of Ottawa, Kansas, on November 12, 1912. The couple moved into the concrete log cabin shortly thereafter.
Arthur and Carrie had a lot to celebrate their first winter as a married couple: 1912 was the same year Ellerman and friend Dan McClain opened their eponymous engineering company, Ellerman and McClain. Within months the young businessmen won a contract to build a concrete bridge over nearby Rhine Creek. Still standing today, that crossing paved the way for a decade-spanning career that also included political activities: Ellerman was elected in 1932 as Yankton Water Commissioner, a role he held until 1948. (He also ran, unsuccessfully, for mayor in 1915.)
But Ellerman was more than just a football-playing, concrete-laying, politics-loving good old boy. He was a crusader for social justice, too, a fact I learned about him late one night, when I went cruising Google Books to see if a casual search — “Arthur Ellerman, Yankton, 1900-1950” — wouldn’t turn up a little something and came across a 1916 discrimination suit Ellerman filed against the local phone company. Click.
The suit, Ellerman v. Yankton Telephone Company, mirrors contemporary debates over net neutrality, actually. According to Ellerman, the company was charging wealthy and poor customers the same monthly rates for vastly different services: Rich subscribers paid $1.50 monthly fee for clear, private lines, while work-a-day folk paid the same for crackly, crowded party lines, unaware that they could have something better at no extra charge. Ellerman knew this was wrong and called it out, and the then-powers-that-be, the South Dakota Board of Railroad Commissioners, agreed: “We find that the practice …. constitutes discrimination.” Like digital activists today, Ellerman believed all Americans deserve equal access to equal service, regardless of socioeconomic status. An inventive and irreverent architect, he also stood up for what was right and true. Swoon.
Further, old news reports also suggest Ellerman was a nurturer, as well: He raised prize-winning chickens — the Argus-Leader reported in 1922 that his Rhode Island Reds wowed the crowd at the Sioux Valley Poultry Exhibit, winning three top prizes — and the South Dakota Horticulturist praised his peach-growing acumen in 1924. And Ellerman had a remarkably close relationship with his dog, a chow named Chow. Just look at this anecdote from the January 16, 1930, edition of the Argus-Leader:
“Like a lot of modern day people, [Chow] spends a good deal of time away from home, frequently at the home of friends of the Ellerman’s down the street.
Tuesday was a cold day, and stormy, but the dog was out on its usual ramblings. When it failed to show up late in the day Ellerman suspected Chow might be down at his friend’s place. But it was too cold and stormy to go after him. So he telephoned.
Yes, the dog was there, and reluctant to go out and home.
‘Put him on the phone,’ said Ellerman. Chow was persuaded to climb upon a chair and the receiver placed at his ear.
‘You come home, Chow, it’s supper time,’ Ellerman ordered, and then hung up.
With wagging tail, Chow dashed out when the door was opened and was soon back at his own fireside.”
Now that’s a good dog — and human, too.
My relationship with Ellerman came to an end not long after I finished the book. Emerging from months of research and editing, disoriented and bleary-eyed, I was eager to put my life back in some semblance of order. But, just as with real relationships, I needed closure, and spent a few final hours sifting through links saved in a Microsoft office document in the dedicated “Ellerman” folder nestled in my Dropbox.
I admit, there were no major revelations to be found. The 1930s and 1940s chugged along for Ellerman as they had for decades: He and McClain won more engineering contracts — their crew repaired a leaking pool in 1935, saving sweltering citizens from summer heat—, and Ellerman partook in some more politicking —he was a candidate in 1933 to be a local postmaster, but a presidential transition from Herbert Hoover to Franklin Roosevelt scuttled that plan.
And there was even another lawsuit, one more lengthy and labyrinthine than the phone company claim: In 1943, The Northwest Engineering Co. sued Ellerman and McClain for breach of contract after the duo raised the rate on a subcontract for work on the Rapid City Army Base, which is today known as the Ellsworth Air Force Base. Ellerman and McClain said the rate went up because of new costs and considerations; Northwest balked and sued, resulting in a three-year legal battle that wound its way to the state’s supreme court, which ultimately ruled in Ellerman and McClain’s favor. The suit has been cited in dozens of similar cases ever since and is available at CaseMine.
The final bit of information about Arthur Ellerman available online is naturally the grimmest and most inevitable: Ellerman’s obituary. According to the Argus-Leader, Arthur Ellerman died in Rochester, Minnesota, on February 2, 1956, two weeks after an unspecified surgery. He was 71. Or 72. Carrie Ellerman died 26-years later, in 1982, two years after selling the concrete log cabin in which she and Arthur had lived together for over forty years. They had no children.
And, just like that, my impossible-to-requite liaison with Ellerman came to an end. Barring a visit to Yankton or harassing distant grand-relations, Ellerman is now again mostly in the past. But not completely, because his life will remain an inspiration of sorts for me. As much a dichotomy as his home, Ellerman refused to go along with the crowd, preferring his own beat. He had his own read on the world, and he writ it in concrete.
Ellerman never explained why he built his uncommon and odd home. Not on the record, at least. Nor did he explain why he created a concrete teepee in the backyard, beveled his rustic home with English-inspired diamond windows, or why he chose red tiles for the roof.* One could easily assume the engineer simply used the materials he had on hand from the office, but having learned so much about Ellerman, it seems to me his house wasn’t a pragmatic choice; it was practical joke. He was being ironic before irony was so widespread, and I think that’s worth noting.
That said, this whole experience has made me wonder whether writers of tomorrow will have the same sense of discovery and mystery I felt in pursuing Ellerman’s backstory. With our every moment telegraphed over social media, our biographies will be open books for future generations. Will any of our stories, Instagram or otherwise, capture their imaginations? Will future researchers have the same thrill of piecemeal discovery as one who delves into the pre-digital past, or will they drown in information, overwhelmed to the point of exhaustion and resignation? And will our biographies deserve attention, anyway? Will they inspire and captivate? Or will future generations look at our feeds in disgust, repulsed by a visual litany of vapidity, self-interest and superficial woes? Will our experiences and decisions compel, excite and inspire future generations, as strange and incredible Ellerman’s did me? Will yours?
*Note: The building’s historic registry suggests the red tile was inspired by the Spanish vernacular movement popular at the time of the house’s construction, a 1981 Fine Home Building claims inspiration came from the asylum alluded to above: The South Dakota State Hospital for the Insane that opened in 1882 and which currently houses the Human Services Center. It’s not far from the failed liberal arts college-turned-federal prison where dark Dale Cooper was kept on the recent Twin Peaks revival.