Younger classmate of Laura Ingalls in De Smet, and mischievous friend of Charley Power.
The potato race at the rink last Saturday night between Charley Power and Alfred Ely was close and exciting. Charley came out a short distance ahead. This makes one victory apiece for the boys; and they will skate the third soon to settle the championship. -1886, De Smet Leader
Alfred Sully Ely was born February 21, 1872, in Winona, Minnesota, the first child of Caroline and Charles Ely. His brother Kirk was born two years later.
Laura Ingalls Wilder remembered Alfred Ely as one of the “younger boys” in De Smet, and she included him in Little Town on the Prairie, Chapters 14 and 15 as the chum of Charley (Power), although Wilder did not include his last name. In Pioneer Girl, Alfred Ely is mentioned as one of the members of a sleighing couple, with Laura Remington. He would have only been thirteen years old in 1885, and The De Smet Leader reports that he had spent that winter in Winona studying music. The De Smet Leader of March 7, 1886, reported that Alfred won a potato race at the skating rink against Charley Power.
Shortly after Eliza Jane Wilder taught the De Smet school, Alfred was sent to Minnesota to study music, having exhibited talent on the piano. Even though Alfred became a telegraph operator when he grew up, he spent all his money on voice lessons and finally saved enough to go to New York, where he became a member of the Fritzi-Scheff Comic Opera Company and, in 1904, performed on Broadway. The following year, Alfred recorded several duets with Mabel Dufour, including ”La Mascotte,” “When I am with You,” and “The Lord is My Shepherd,” awarded first prize at the Buffalo and St. Louis Expositions. The audio of his “The Lord is my Shepherd” is available online as part of the National Jukebox historical project through The Library of Congress. National Jukebox was launched with over 10,000 recordings made by the Victor Talking Machine Company between 1901 and 1925. Listen:
In 1904, Alfred married Mabelle Dufour (she’s singing with Alfred in the recording above); the couple had one son, John, born in February 1905. He went to work as a salesman for the Aeolian Company, selling player pianos. Around 1930, the Elys moved to Los Angeles, California, where Alfred continued to sell pianos. He died June 12, 1951, in Los Angeles.
After hearing about Alfred’s death, Laura Ingalls Wilder wrote a letter to newspaper editor, Aubrey Sherwood, which included the following: Notice of the death of Alfred Ely saddened me. I have always thought of him as he was so many years ago, one of the younger boys in school, not realizing that the years had been passing with him, too.
Alfred Ely (LTP 14-15; PG), see also Charles Ely