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This article was originally published on Sunday, January 22, 1995 and was accessed through the archives of the St. Louis Post-Dispatch on its web site

by Bill Smith

Eighty-one Missouri winters have passed now since six strong pallbearers carried the cypress casket of Miss Ella Kate Ewing from the Harmony Grove Baptist Church and lowered it into the church cemetery, alongside the grave of her beloved mother.

News accounts from that day report that as many as 900 relatives, friends and curious onlookers attended her funeral. There were so many people, in fact, that workers had to set up two portable stoves in the churchyard to warm those who could not get out of the January cold.

She was laid to rest just four miles from the big white house that had been her home for the last 16 years of her life. There, a recent book says, she passed away just as the sun was beginning to rise over the Scotland County countryside on the morning of Jan. 10, 1913. Her father was at her bedside, the book says, and she took her final breath as she held his hand and the two of them sang her favorite hymn, "Nearer My God To Thee."

A flat rose granite marker, bought by local residents more than 50 years later and inscribed with the wrong year of her death, marks her gravesite: "In Memory of Ella K. Ewing," the marker says in part. Born Mar. 9, 1872. Died Jan. 10, 1912. Scotland County, Mo. Height 8 Ft. 4 1/2 Inches. Weight 256 Pounds. Daughter of Benjamin F. & Anna Herring Ewing.

"This Monument Made Possible By Folks That Knew of Ella. 1967."

Ella Ewing's remains lie in the old church cemetery near the little town of Gorin, her casket sealed in concrete out of fear that thieves might try to steal her enormous body. But bits of the giantess' life are scattered throughout the farms and the towns of northern Missouri.

A full-length photograph of her, believed to have been taken two years before her death, lies in a bureau drawer in Irvin Johnston's living room near the little community of Rutledge.

Her violin, handed down from her father to Carlyl White's uncle, is in White's residence in Williamstown.

Stacks of newspaper clippings chronicling her life are filed away at the Scotland County Memorial Library at Memphis and still more photographs are in the Gorin Centennial book, a book that diners sometimes pass from table to table at Keith's Cafe in Memphis.

And on the second floor of the Downing House Museum just off Main Street here in Memphis is the nine-foot iron bed where she slept, an old wood chair from her home, and a single high-topped black leather shoe, size 24, that was specially made for her in St. Louis. It is the shoe and the lady's enormous dress glove that most impress visiting schoolchildren.

In her time, Ella Ewing, known as "Miss Ella" to the people of Gorin, was almost surely the tallest woman in America, probably the tallest in the world.

Some maintain that she very likely was the tallest woman who ever lived. But that may never be established with certainty because estimates of her height range from 7 feet, 6 inches to the one on the tombstone, 8 feet, 4 1/2 inches.

The current edition of the Guinness Book of World Records names Zeng Jinlian, at 8 feet, 1 3/4 inches, as the world's tallest. She died in central China in 1982. The record book says that native Chicagoan Sandy Allen, who is still living and has appeared on national TV talk shows, is this country's tallest woman at 7 feet, 7 inches.

The world's tallest man, of course, was Alton's Robert Wadlow, who died in 1940 after reaching a height of just more than 8 feet, 11 inches.

Although Wadlow's story is widely known, especially in the Midwest where he spent his life, the story of Ella Ewing has been largely forgotten except among the people whose roots are buried deep in this piece of rural America.

Perhaps it is because it was so long ago; perhaps it is because she spent so much of her life on the family's remote country farm. Or perhaps it is because the people who saw her, rising above them at the 1892 Columbian Exposition in Chicago, the 1904 St. Louis World's Fair or inside the human oddities tent at the Ringling Brothers' Circus, did not actually believe, themselves, what they were seeing.

Some, like longtime Gorin resident Bette Wiley, want to change that.

Wiley dreams of gradually transforming this four-county region of northern Missouri into what she fondly calls "Ella Ewing Country," complete with a stage play of Ella Ewing's life and even a theme park with Ella as its centerpiece.

Wiley has written a book, "Our Miss Ella." Now she wants to raise money to pay for a life-size bronze statue of the Missouri giantess. "There is a place south of the post office, next to the Santa Fe tracks and there's a clearing there," Wiley said, "and I would like to see it stand right there. Maybe there could be a little park with some benches just to sit and maybe some flowers. She loved flowers; she loved growing things."

It is not so much a lack of enthusiasm, but a lack of money, that seems to be the major stumbling block.

The town of Gorin, which likely would be the focal point of any regional effort to create an Ella Ewing tourist area, has just 130 residents - down from 2,500 at the turn of the century. There is very little business outside of Guy McConnell's grocery store and Klopfer's Garage.

"If we could find a way to do it, we would," said Candy Humes, longtime Gorin postmistress and member of the Gorin CAREing Committee, a community improvement group. "We'd love to be able to build a replica of her home that burned down, but it's just not economically feasible right now. It's about all we can do to keep our ballpark and the things we already have now going."

Still, Humes said the town has decided to build a permanent stage for use in its annual fall festival a place to hold band concerts and baby pageants, she said. "And I think we'd love to have an Ella Ewing play there," she said.

Ella Ewing was born in LaGrange, Mo., the only child of Ben and Annie Ewing, a religious, hardworking farm couple who moved to 80 acres of Scotland County timber land when Ella was 11 months old. Barbara Campbell's book says that Ella was a typical farm girl until shortly after her seventh birthday when, records show, the pituitary gland at the base of her brain began over-producing the hormone that controlled her growth.

By the time she was 12, she was taller than her mother, who was five feet six. Two years later, she was as tall as her six foot, two inch-tall father.

Wiley wrote that the young girl's rapid growth rate quickly made her life difficult.

She became the focus of childhood songs and taunts:

"See that apple at the top of the tree? Well, Ella can get it down for me." "Lordy, Lordy, Ella's feet are large. She could use them for a barge."

But the most shattering experience of her childhood took place at what is believed to be her first public appearance. During the summer of 1885, her classmates selected her to read the Declaration of Independence at a July Fourth celebration near the community of Wyaconda. Witnesses said she broke down and cried in embarrassment in front of a gawking crowd.

Her father, angered and hurting for his daughter, vowed that she would never again be made into a public spectacle.

Five years later, though, the manager of a Chicago museum talked Ella and her family into appearing there. She was an overwhelming success, standing behind a small curtain (she was sensitive about showing her oversized feet) to the amazement of thousands of visitors who came to see her.

Records show that she was paid $1,000 for exhibiting at the museum for 30 days.

After Chicago, Barbara Campbell writes, Ella appeared at a variety of fairs closer to home.

She quickly became the toast of Scotland County, then appeared at more local fairs and in shows across the U.S., including a brief stint with Buffalo Bill's Wild West Show.

She and her family used the money she made to move from the small cabin where they had lived since her childhood and into a much larger home with high ceilings and nine-foot doorways to accommodate her.

There are few records of interviews with Ella Ewing, but in 1897, while appearing with a circus in St. Louis, she told a Post-Dispatch reporter that she had learned to love the exhibition life.

"I am delighted with it," she said, "and find it quite different from what I expected before I entered into it."

In the same interview, the reporter asked whether she had had offers of marriage:

"She blushed and hesitated until her mother came to her rescue, and said she had had a great many, but she did not want her daughter to marry and Miss Ella said she was content with single blessedness," the reporter wrote.

"Miss Ewing labors under great disadvantages as a candidate for matrimony," the story says. "No man of ordinary size would have the temerity to ask and men of her own size are decidedly scarce."

To many of those who paid their 10 cents to see her and snap her photograph, Ella Ewing was a freak, a wondrous, even ridiculous creature.

But for those who knew her, she was Miss Ella, a decent, religious, hard-working woman who had traveled to places, and seen things, that they had only dreamed about. They loved her then, Barbara Campbell said. They love her still.

In a first-floor hallway of the Downing House Museum in Memphis, there is a mannequin of a woman in a long dress and old-fashioned country bonnet that stands on a wooden platform. The figure represents Ella Ewing, and is just under eight-and-a-half-feet tall.

"The little children run to her and they wrap their arms around her legs," Wiley said. "She has stumbled and fallen so many times."

Julian Luck, who at the age of 99 now lives at the LaBelle Manor nursing home in nearby LaBelle, is among a handful of area residents who can remember Ella Ewing. Once a neighbor of the family, he was among the 300 people who were at the North Fabius River that Sunday in April in 1900 when she was baptized not far from the little Rainbow Bridge.

"She was just the same as any other person," Luck said recently from his room at LaBelle Manor. "I really didn't think nothing about her."

"She was a good person. I'll tell you that. She was a Christian woman. I'll tell you that."