CAMDEN — The nickname “Water Boy” might sound demeaning to some, but to Ellis Stafford, it was part of what made him a legend in the railroad industry.
“He wore that name proudly,” said his son, Harold Stafford. “He was proud he had that job with the railroad. He saw it as his way out of poverty.”
Ellis Stafford gained that well-earned nickname from carrying a pair of two-gallon buckets of water up and down several miles of railroad tracks in southeastern Arkansas in all types of weather, quenching the thirst of railway laborers in the 1940s.
That one job, which he performed for a decade, was just a microcosm of the perseverance that Ellis displayed in order to survive.
He worked diligently his entire life, loved his family and never quit, despite the numerous obstacles he faced while growing up in the Jim Crow South in Greenville, Arkansas, near the town of Gurdon in the 1920s and 1930s during and after the Great Depression.
Camden resident Harold E. Stafford, son of the “Water Boy,” was always intrigued when he heard his father tell stories about his life and those times that seemed so long ago and so many miles away.
So it was an easy decision for him to write a biography of his father, although it turned out to be not such an easy chore.
It took him 10 years, but Mr. Stafford, former Delaware Secretary of Labor, recently released the book, titled “Ellis ‘Water Boy’ Stafford: An American Dream Fulfilled.”
“The reason I wrote the book was because I wanted to record my dad’s story,” he said. “It took 10 years to write and it was a labor of love to write this book.
“I used to sit and just talk with him and listen to him tell stories about different experiences he had, different jobs and a lot of the challenges he faced after both of his parents passed away when he was the age of 12. Dad always said it wasn’t so much where you started out in life, but where you ended up.”
Mr. Stafford started researching his father’s life in 2006, three years before his dad passed away at the age of 87. He would visit family and friends in Arkansas at least three times a year to gain as much insight as possible into his father’s story.
“I had about three years with him before he passed away and my mother had Alzheimer’s, so she wasn’t a lot of help to me. But during the earlier years when she was a little bit sharper, I was able to just be around her and talk to her about things as well,” he said. “I didn’t really learn a lot about my dad’s history and the family’s history until I started to sit and talk with him.”
He learned that his father was forced to drop out of school in the sixth grade and was forced to grow- up immediately when he was 12 after his parents died.
‘University of Hard Knocks’
The oldest of seven children, he began his long relationship with the “University of Hard Knocks,” as a helper at a local mill.
“He said that the physical test he had to pass to get his first job at the age of 12 at the local mill was the most embarrassing and humiliating experience of his life,” Mr. Stafford said.
But Ellis got the job as he tried to take care of his siblings and himself.
He went to work at Stone Mill where he used a wheel barrow to transport sawdust that was used to fire the boiler to generate steam to operate the mill. He earned 75 cents per day.
“Dad always talked about ‘Keep your family together,’” Mr. Stafford said. “And I didn’t realize why he ended up living with all of these different uncles and aunts, but when both parents passed away, all of the kids lived in the house for a while by themselves.
“So he was the surrogate father for the other six kids for several months before all of the other aunts and uncles realized these kids were not going to make it. So they split them up and they went to live with his parents’ sisters and brothers.”
After working eight years on his uncle’s farm, and intrigued by a booming railroad industry in southeast Arkansas, Ellis landed a job as a laborer with the Missouri Pacific Railroad Company in 1941, the same year he married Beatrice Margaret Bragg.
However, since he was only 20 at the time, the road master in the MPRC headquarters thought he was too young to do laborer’s work and, despite it being against company policy, assigned him to be his cook at his private home.
After 12 years, Ellis was reassigned, again as a laborer.
“He was originally put in the maintenance department and his job was to go along the tracks and pick up the body parts of people who were run over by the trains and dismembered,” Mr. Stafford said. “He was responsible for collecting those body parts and getting them off the tracks.
“After he did that for about seven or eight months, they put him to the job of water boy.”
His duty was to carry those two water buckets for 50 to 60 men, which required him walking several miles a day in the blistering heat of summer and freezing cold of winter.
Ellis said, “carrying water and flagging were the hardest jobs because he had to stand long periods of time and he could never sit.”
Laid off from the MPRC in 1950, Ellis found work at the Reynolds Aluminum Plant and then, with babies to feed, found temporary work at the Oaklawn Park race track grooming horses and working as a scrap iron dealer.
He returned to the railroad following a couple of years of odd jobs. By then, the reputation he built as a hard and honest worker led to him receiving jobs of increased responsibility, and he rose from a mechanic’s helper to machine operator to foreman of the “rail gang” in Hope, Arkansas, in 1971.
Later that same year, Ellis took another foreman’s job in Gurdon, where he supervised eight men to do track repair and maintenance.
He had come full circle and retired in Gurdon on July 28, 1982.
Ellis said his proudest accomplishments were being one of the first men from Gurdon to Little Rock, Arkansas, to build electronic switches.
In 1970, he was the only black person in a group for the MPRC chosen to go to Washington to accept the Harriman Safety award.
Ellis proudly stated “They said I couldn’t make it, but I did. I started out making $2.47 per day and ended making $2,500 per month.”
All the while raising a family with Beatrice and dealing with the restrictions of being a black man in the Deep South throughout most of his life.
It’s quite a story — and one that Mr. Stafford is more than happy to tell. His goal is to tell Oprah Winfrey all about his dad’s journey.
“Dad always operated under the premise that he would probably never see a monument erected in his name, or have any of his infinite good deeds recognized by the president of the United States,” Mr. Stafford said. “But my dad’s approach to life was to show integrity by always doing the right thing, especially when no one else was watching.
“Hopefully other young men and women will read this book and practice the same principles of integrity and utmost respect for others without expecting anything in return.”
Delaware State News staff writer Mike Finney can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.