Traveling with Ken Wayand

Discover Vintage America — August 2011

Missouri’s ‘gentle giantess' stole hearts

Of all the delights that await travelers on Missouri’s rural roads, one of the least known is the Downing House Museum in Memphis. Here, one will find memorabilia on “gentle giantess” Ella Ewing.

Reportedly, Ella reached a height of 8 feet, 4 inches and was considered the world’s tallest woman, although her actual height was poorly documented and not recorded in the Guinness Book of Records.

Ella Ewing as a young adult (photo courtesy Downing House Museum)

 

Born in 1872 in LaGrange, MO, Ella moved with her parents to a small farm near Gorin when she was about a year old. In grade school, she experienced a growth spurt. Doctors were clueless as to why and her deeply religious parents chose to leave the situation in the hands of the Lord. By the time she was 14, she towered over all of them at 6 feet, 10 inches.

When Ella’s classmates picked her to recite the Pledge of Allegiance at an Independence Day event in a nearby town, onlookers laughed at the sight of her, and she left the stage in tears.

But later, she decided to capitalize on her height and accepted an invitation to tour with the Barnum & Bailey Circus, who billed her as the “world’s tallest woman.” 

At first, Ella spent her days reading her Bible, but eventually warmed to audiences and responded to their inquiries. The circus paired her with a 23-inch-tall Russian dwarf named “Peter the Small.” Overcoming her shyness, she would hold him in her hand and occasionally cover him with a top hat. 

 

Wilma June Kapfer holds a size 22 shoe worn by Ella Ewing. (photo by Ken Weyand)

 

Ella later told a reporter, “I am so grateful for this opportunity that God is offering to me, to earn some money so I can help Mama and Papa a little and to get me some furniture that fits me.”

Her earnings bought her parents a better farm, and she designed a larger house with 10-foot doors and giant-sized furniture.

Gracious by nature, Ella didn’t allow fame to inflate her ego. Among neighbors, she was admired and loved as much for her gentle nature and her religious faith as for her height.

Ella died in 1913 of tuberculosis at her home near Gorin. She was 40. She had asked to be cremated, but her family buried her in an extra-large coffin and sealed her grave with cement to prevent anyone from exhuming her body. 

More than 900 attended the service, held on a cold January day.

A life-size mannequin of Ella astounds visiting school groups. (photo by Ken Weyand)

Memorabilia at the museum includes a life-sized mannequin of Ella, an oversized bed and door frame, a size 22 shoe and other custom-made clothing.

One display shows Ella’s long-fingered glove alongside a tiny glove worn by “Peter the Small.” There are several photos, clippings, and a copy of a circus poster featuring Ella.

“The school groups are especially impressed with Ella’s size,” says Wilma June Kapfer, museum curator and chairperson of the Scotland County Historical Society. “The kids can’t believe how tall she was.” 

The 14-room Greek Revival mansion that houses the museum was built in 1858 and used by the Union Army as a headquarters during the Civil War. Cavalry officers rode their horses through its 10-foot doors, and used the house to hold Confederate prisoners.

At one point, the house was used as a hotel. In the late 1800s, Ella Ewing and her father occasionally stayed at the house rather than drive their buggy ten miles to their farm. Fearing thieves, Ella would place her purse on a ledge that was near the room’s 12-foot ceiling.

The Scotland County Historical Society bought the house in 1978 and got it listed on the National Register of Historic Places.

The museum also exhibits memorabilia and photos of the Pheasant Aircraft Company, whose 27 employees were turning out an airplane a week in 1927. 

Disaster struck that December, when the company founder, Lee Briggs, was killed while teaching a student to fly one of the open-cockpit biplanes. The company was sold and moved to Wisconsin. Its demise left Memphis residents wondering if their town missed its chance to become the “Air Capitol of the Midwest.”

Other exhibits include Civil War dioramas and uniforms, old appliances, musical instruments, and other artifacts of county history. There’s a WW-II nurse’s uniform with a picture of an attractive nurse—who turns out to be Kapfer. 

“The war ended before I got a chance to serve,” she says.  “But I completed training.” 

Another room features a large collection of women’s shoes. 

“They’re all mine,” she says. “Little girls probably remember the shoes more than the artifacts.”

The Downing House Museum is open from 1 p.m. to 4 p.m. Tuesdays through Fridays and on the third and fourth Saturday of the month. For details or group tours, call 660-465-2275.

 


Ken Weyand can be contacted at kweyand1@kc.rr.com