Ellen Davies was influenced by dynamic factors which were to impact her entire community, leaving an enduring legacy for us all. Born in the early 20th century to parents who inspired confidence, drive, education, advocacy, charity, and wisdom, she was a woman before her time. Although she was never blessed with children, Ellen nurtured the young, maintained a dedicated family life, preserved “the plantation life,” and served to educate others. Historian, author, educator, philanthropist, advocate, community organizer, preservationist, genealogist and founder of, or leader in, civic, and political circles, she continues to stand as a role model. She was known as “Miss Ellen” and was, in the mid 20th century, regarded as one of the most influential women in the State of Tennessee.
Frances Ellen Davies was born on November 13, 1903, in The Oaks home on her family’s historic plantation in Brunswick, Tennessee. The only child of Frances Ina Stewart and Gillie Mertis Davies, she lived her entire life at The Oaks, a white frame house close to the family’s historic 1807 log home, Davies Manor, on the plantation she was later to inherit. “Turns Again Home,” Ellen’s autobiography, describes how those influences of family, friends, land and customs, impressed since childhood, shaped the woman she was to become.
Hillman Philip Rodgers and Ellen Davies were married on December 21, 1932. They were often seen on horseback actively farming the land, raising cattle, and working together on community projects. Together they formed the first SAR chapter in the county and battled the TVA and won for which she was nicknamed “The General.” His career was in the paper industry but his passion was raising prize Black Angus cattle. “Hill’s Barn” (later renamed “Hillwood”) was converted by Ellen to accommodate social and business gatherings after his death. They raised four foster daughters, affectionately referred to as "the Gandy girls," on the plantation.
Ellen’s passion for genealogy and historical preservation began early in her life while playing on the grounds that had sustained her family for a century. As a child, family stories, the original log cabin (Davies Manor) and Indian mounds and relics near her home encouraged her to preserve the history of the area. She went on to research and compile those stories in her books and articles of the history of Shelby County. As the first Shelby County Historian, Ellen ensured much of the first documentation and organization of the county’s history. Her books, “Along the Old Stage-Coach Road” and “Turns Again Home” remain standards in West Tennessee libraries. Davies Manor, believed to be the oldest house in Shelby County dating to 1807, was placed on the National Register of Historic Places in 1975 and remains open to the public. Ellen assisted countless people in developing their own family lineages and encouraged participation in historical, religious, and civic groups. One of her favorite sayings was “Each of us is History” and she treated each individual as a significant part of that history.
Originally a member of the Watauga Chapter of the DAR, in 1945, Ellen became the Organizing Regent of a new DAR Chapter to be named Zachariah Davies in honor of her Revolutionary War ancestor. The chapter soon became the largest in the state with nearly 300 members. In 1956 she was elected State Regent of the TSDAR, Tennessee Society Daughters of the American Revolution, leading 6,500 Tennessee Daughters in the work of the Tennessee DAR. By virtue of her office she was a member of the National Board of Management, maintaining a high level of involvement. She entertained National Officers at her home and often traveled to Washington where her opinions were sought and her advice was well-respected. Following her death, the Ellen Davies-Rodgers/Zachariah Davies Scholarship was established by her DAR Chapter to honor her memory and to recognize the legacy left to its members.
Ellen and Hillman were, for many years, members of Calvary Episcopal Church in downtown Memphis. They were close friends of, not only the ministers of Calvary but also, the Diocesan bishops that served during their lifetimes. She was one of the organizers of St. Philip Episcopal Church in the Brunswick area of Shelby County. Miss Ellen gave the land and donated the church building of St. Philip, giving the pipe organ, and, later, land for a school. She turned one of her barns into a retirement home, the "Glebe House," for the founding rector of St. Philip parish, the Rev. and Mrs. Gordon Bernard. After the formation of The Diocese of West Tennessee she gave over one hundred acres of her plantation to the Diocese to be sold for the benefit of a land bank for the purchase of new mission property. The Church of the Annunciation and The Church of the Redeemer are built on property purchased with part of the $500,000.00 received from the sale of the land. During Miss Ellen’s lifetime she established the “Ellen Davies-Rodgers Library” at Barth House Episcopal Student Center at the University of Memphis. She endowed this work when she died. She was a great church historian. Her works of the history of the church continue to provide documentation of the church’s early history: “The Great Book: Calvary Protestant Episcopal Church,” “The Romance of the Episcopal Church in West Tennessee,” “The Holy Innocents” (Episcopal Church, Arlington, Tennessee) and “Heirs Through Hope, The Episcopal Diocese of West Tennessee,” the proceeds of which went to support missions of the Diocese. Ellen was honored by The University of the South at Sewanee with a doctorate degree for her work as an outstanding member of the Episcopal Church, a historian and an educator. “She was a benefactor whom God used to be a blessing to many.”
Influential throughout the state, Ellen never encountered a challenge she was unwilling to meet “head on.” From civic controversies to school board policy, she often lent her vision and insight to organizations in need of leadership. Whether participating or organizing, Ellen involved herself in countless community endeavors. Reared “when good manners and entertaining were hallmarks of the southern lady,” she held elegant events or called politicians to “back porch meetings” for refreshments, conversation, and mobilization. While she might be described as having characteristics seldom appreciated in women of the time, those who knew her had a profound respect for her abilities and vision. She used her insight, keen common sense, drive, influence, time, and money to “fight for her visions and goals.” She considered many of life’s callings to be “challenges.” And, Ellen “took them on” without hesitation; bridges were built, TVA lines were relocated and scholarships were endowed. During her lifetime her opinions and ideas were sought and highly valued.
While Ellen worked tirelessly for the church, community, and education she also helped countless individuals. Regardless of her demanding schedule, she would stop any activity to help someone in need. Whether solving a problem for a neighbor or accommodating bus schedules for rural students, Ellen was always ready to help those in need to prosper and grow. Troubled teens were counseled and guided into professions, farm help were cared for and friends and strangers alike were accommodated. Well-educated and confident, she was comfortable in any setting and around those in high positions or low. She believed in her community and supported it with relentless effort.
Devoted to all aspects of education, Ellen spent many years teaching -- in the classroom, in a supervisory position, or as a volunteer. She received a B. S. at George Peabody College (Nashville, 1924) and a M. A. in Early Elementary Education and Child Psychology from Columbia University (New York, 1927). After graduation she taught nursery through college level and became the Principal of Arlington High School (1928-29). A professor of Early Elementary Education at West Tennessee State Normal College (1929-1938), she was the first State Supervisor of Elementary Education for West Tennessee (1938-1940). In 1954 she was the Principal of Lausanne Collegiate School. Ellen was a member of the Shelby County Board of Education (1961-65) and was a Director of the Tennessee School Boards Association (1962-1965). The recipient of two honorary doctorates (Humanities and Civil Law), Ellen was self-taught in the law due to her political interests and often advised others (from the lay person to highly placed politicians) in this capacity. Role models to whom Ellen referred in her books were educators, attorneys, community activists, and family. Ellen built and supplied the Davies Memorial Library for Children in 1937 (later renamed Davieshire Library). The library is now the home for the Tennessee Genealogical Society and has over 10,000 books. She provided scholarships to Bethel College, Rhodes, University of Memphis, University of the South at Sewanee and Vanderbilt.
By the end of her 90 years Ellen was known and respected by young and old, powerful and powerless, wealthy and poor. Because of her vision, influence and tireless efforts Ellen established DAR and SAR chapters, wrote over a dozen historical books and articles, founded a historical library, built a church, endowed a historical home and sponsored numerous scholarships. Many of her gifts to groups and individuals were small and received little notice; these legacies continue to influence families for the next generations. “Miss Ellen” was known as the “Grande Dame” of Shelby County who inspired others to get involved, take action and leave a legacy.
Ellen Davies-Rodgers died March 17, 1994 in Memphis, Tennessee. She and her husband, Hillman, are buried in Pleasant Hill Cemetery in Brunswick, Tennessee, a historical cemetery of Shelby County pioneers.
Lt. Col. William J. Armstrong
Last updated April 10, 2006