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Charles Ely

Established first lumber yard in De Smet, representing Empire Lumber Co. He was a businessman in De Smet for over thirty years.

Charles Ely is building two schoolhouses in Whitewood township. Ely gets there on bids and gives the people good school buildings. -1884 De Smet Leader.

Charles Edward Ely was born October 16, 1844, in Lancaster, Ohio, to the Reverend Edward E. Ely and Jane Wellington (Barker) Ely. The Ely’s were early settlers of Winona, Minnesota. In 1861, Charles enlisted in Company K, First Minnesota Infantry; he was shot in the abdomen at Gettysburg and although it was felt he wouldn’t survive, he was moved to a hospital nearby and cared for by a drummer boy until being moved to Philadelphia. His mother spent four months there, caring for him until he was able to return to his regiment. He was mustered out with his regiment on May 5, 1864. After the War, Ely engaged in business in Tennessee, then attended school in Connecticut.



I wrote the following for a blog in February 2007:

Find Mr. Ely’s Tent. A fiftieth reunion of the Battle of Gettysburg was held in June-July 1913. Lumberman Ely from the De Smet “Little House” books was there. July 2nd of the battle, Mr. Ely had been shot in the right chest, the ball passing through his body and exiting near his backbone. After the battle, he was carried to a field hospital, where he lay for four days before being seen. One doctor ran a handkerchief through the hole in Mr. Ely’s body before declaring that he couldn’t survive. Obviously he did. Mr. Ely was moved aside, and later sent to a hospital in Philadelphia. His mother came from Minnesota to attend to his wound. Most remarkable was the fact that Mr. Ely recovered enough to return to the fighting by the end of the year.

Mr. Ely’s wound bothered him for many years. It opened once, and he removed a piece of India rubber. He remembered that his rolled-up rubber blanket had been slung over his shoulder during the battle, and obviously a piece had entered his body when he was shot. Twice, his wound opened and he removed pieces of bone.

Mr. Ely was almost seventy years old at the time of the Gettysburg reunion, but he traveled to Pennsylvania with other South Dakota soldiers in the luxury of a train of steel Pullman cars, said to be “one of the handsomest trains to enter Gettysburg.”

Of his trip, all Mr. Ely said was that it was “a pleasure.” He didn’t mention the reunion camp covering 280 acres, the 173 field kitchens, the 50,000 attendees, or the 32 bubbling ice water fountains. He didn’t mention that the temperature was often 100 degrees, or that almost 10,000 men were treated by the medical staff during the event. He didn’t mention that he was issued a cot and bedding, or that he bunked with seven other men in a tent.

You can read about the Gettysburg Reunion in Lt. Col. Lewis E. Beitler’s Fiftieth Anniversary of the Battle of Gettysburg: Report of the Pennsylvania Commission (Harrisburg, Pennsylvania: William Stanley Ray, State Printer, 1914).

The Civil War and the Battle of Gettysburg has been on my mind because I recently watched (for the eleventy-seventh time) Ken Burns’ excellent documentary: The Civil War. What made me think of Mr. Ely and his Gettysburg reunion attendance was images from the reunion shown in the documentary. Mr. Ely might have been in that footage I saw!

On January 10+6, 1879, Charles married Caroline Moltzner, daughter of Fred and Annie Moltzner. The Moltzners came to America from northern Germany in 1851, settling in Madison, Wisconsin, where Fred was a printer. The Elys had four children: Helen Ely (born January 5, 1871; she died in infancy), Alfred Sully Ely (born February 21, 1872), Kirk Henry Ely (born March 7, 1874), and Ella May Ely (born November 29, 1879; she died at age four in De Smet).

Although only Charles Ely and his son Alfred are mentioned in the Little House books (and only Alfred’s first name is given), the Elys were some of the earliest De Smet settlers. Charles Ely came west during the summer of 1880, as agent for the Empire Lumber Company of Winona, Minnesota, operating in Huron and De Smet, selling lumber directly from railroad cars. He is listed on the 1880 census in De Smet as a lumber agent, but also in Winona with his wife and three children. What Laura Ingalls Wilder called Ely Lumberyard was located just north of the railroad tracks on the west side of Calumet.

Ely filed on a tree claim in Kingsbury County, the SD 31-110-58 (June 8, 1880), and a homestead, the SW 2-111-56 (December 3, 1880). Ely left De Smet in late December 1880 and was nine days by train to Winona, due to the Christmas blizzard and holiday traffic. He returned to De Smet on one of the last trains through, and he wrote the following on March 1, 1881, reporting that snow in De Smet was sixteen to eighteen inches deep, but was piled among the houses from sixteen to eighteen feet in depth. In March 1881, he wrote that travel between De Smet and Huron was possible.

Charles Ely was active in the G.A.R. and civic affairs in De Smet. He became the foremost schoolhouse contractor in Kingsbury and surrounding counties in 1883 and 1884. He was responsible for building the De Smet post office, renovating Schaub’s Harness Shop, building the county poor house, and tearing down the Wilder Feed Store building. After Charles left the lumber business, the Elys were involved in a number of businesses in De Smet: running the Howland and Syndicate Hotels in the 1880s and 90s, then a restaurant and confectionary on Calumet, which Mrs. Ely continued to run after her husband’s death.

Charles Ely died August 19, 1916, at the Old Soldiers’ Home in Fall River County, South Dakota. He was buried in De Smet, but his body was moved in January 1918 to lie beside his father in Woodlawn Cemetery, Winona, Minnesota.


Ely family (FB 12, 28)
     Charles (TLW 15), see also Charles Mead
     Alfred (LTP 14-15; PG), see Alfred Ely
     Ely Lumberyard (SSL 3, 29; TLW 8, 15-16, 18, 31, 33; LTP 12; PG)
     De Smet Cemetery tour info for ELY