County owes much to Syrian connection
By Doug Hylton
It is undeniable that the horrible attacks which have taken place in Paris, and around the world, make us all aware of the need to be more alert of the radical factions who would cause harm to our country and our allies and for the need to demand greater vigilance of immigrants who would come to the United States. There are those who call for an end to allowing Syrian immigrants into our county and governors who refuse to accept any immigrants into their states. It is easiest for us to make calls to stop immigration of Syrians into the United States, but that is not consistent with the principals on which our country was built.
We should not allow ourselves to forget the debt of gratitude our county and our towns owe to those Syrian families who came to Greenbrier County during the last century and the impact they had on the everyday lives of our citizens. Remember how lucky we are to have those families in our Greenbrier County.
It should be explained that some of these families might identify as Lebanese, but at the time of the immigration to the United States, Lebanon was part of the Ottoman Syria province. In 1861, following a civil war in which over 10,000 Christians were killed, the “Mount Lebanon” autonomous district was established within the Ottoman system, under an international guarantee. For decades, the Christians pressured the European powers to award them self- determination by extending their small Lebanese territory to what they dubbed “Greater Lebanon,” referring to a geographic unit comprising Mount Lebanon and its coast, and the Beqaa Valley to its east.
After the First World War, France took hold of the formerly Ottoman holdings in the northern Levant and expanded the borders of Mount Lebanon in 1920 to form Greater Lebanon, which was to be populated by remnants of the Middle Eastern Christian community. While the Christians ended up gaining territory, the new borders merely ended the demographic dominance of Christians in the newly created territory of Lebanon.
Ronceverte was a thriving community as the 20th Century was emerging. The city was installing the first water and sewer systems in the county, the Greenbrier General Hospital was opened, and the logs from the great St. Lawrence Boom and Manufacturing Company were about to hold its last log run from Pocahontas County as the spur of the rail line to Cass was opened to allow for transport of lumber to Ronceverte. The town was growing into a commercial center, and with it came Syrian immigrants who were to form the business district of the retail community of Ronceverte, and to expand their influence in the business and economic prosperity to Ronceverte, Lewisburg, Rainelle and White Sulphur Springs.
One such émigré to Ronceverte was Ameen Abas. According to census information, Ameen arrived in the United States in 1906 from Mt. Lebanon, Syria. Born in 1882, Ameen came to America to seek his fortune and fortunately for Ronceverte, he settled in our community. Young Ameen partnered with J. Hamed, and the men started a dry goods and grocery store in 1907, located on Monroe Avenue and Chestnut Street. Soon Ameen entered the retail business with a modest establishment, which was destined to grow the remarkable success into what had been the finest women’s wear stores in the Greenbrier Valley. The 1910 census has him living at the Rittenhouse Boarding House on South Railroad Avenue.
Well educated in his Arabic language, Ameen employed Virginia Eagle of Ronceverte in his first store and as his tutor in English. She and her mother coached their apt student in off hours until he became a proficient English scholar. Before leaving his county he had become linguist with a reading knowledge of some 13 languages and dialects of the Mediterranean area and acquired a wide knowledge of world history, both ancient and modern.
Ameen created The Abas Store, and soon became known for the quality of products provided by his store. As his business expanded, The Abas Store was located at 208 Railroad Avenue, now Edgar Avenue, adjacent to the former P. A. George Rexall Drug Store. During the 1938 Greenbrier County celebration, the West Virginia News ran an expose of the prominent Ronceverte businesses. When describing The Abas Store the following was written,
“That a store can be more than a marketing place, a business more than hard-boiled trade, and that merchandising can reach the highest ideals of service, is shown in the living example of the business established in Ronceverte 30 years ago by Mr. A. Abas, and which has long since grown into the institution known far and wide as The Abas Store.”
During the 1930s, Ameen also operated a car dealership selling the Nash Lafayette on the site of what is now the Ronceverte Feed Store on Edgar Avenue.
Ameen was never to marry. He died unexpectedly on Oct. 25, 1939, at his room at Hotel Greenbrier. A large funeral attended by friends from all points of the Greenbrier Valley testified to his wide acquaintances and the high place he held in the esteem of his fellow citizens. He is buried in Rosewood Cemetery.
• • •
Probably no family has had an impact upon a community as that of George Ellis. The Ellises were prominent business persons in Ronceverte for almost a century.
George and Sadie Ellis immigrated to the United States from Syria in 1899, according to the 1930 census data. Their grandson, Mike Finn, relates that they were a newly married and very young couple. When immigrating, the couple were traveling through England on their way to America when George came down with an illness. For this reason, George was prevented from traveling on to the states, and George and his very young bride were left for a year to fend for themselves until they were allowed to travel on to the United States.
George and Sadie traveled to Clifton Forge, VA, where they had family already living. After a few years there, they saw the birth of their first child, Guy, in 1903. They traveled on to Ohio and were there around 1906 when their daughter, Virginia, was born. By 1907, with the birth of their next daughter, Mary, they had returned to Virginia. Records show that their next son, Ed, was born in Virginia in 1909 and then Edith in 1911. Their last child, Mildred, was born in Ronceverte in 1919.
The first record of George Ellis in Ronceverte was his application to the city to operate three pool tables and a restaurant at the old Greenbrier Hotel in December, 1914. He continued to apply for the restaurant license for this operation through the 1920s. It was also said that when George first arrived in Ronceverte, that he went on horseback from door to door selling wares. In 1928, George opened a Five and Dime Store on Main Street and ran this store until his death in May, 1946. The West Virginia News speaks of George in the 1938 edition, “Honestly and fair dealings have marked his every contact with the public, and no business review of the Greenbrier Valley would be complete without mention of his valuable contributions to its progress.”
Sadie Ellis continued to live the family home at 408 Pocahontas Avenue until her death in 1963. Except for the piano, which went to Mildred, and the diamond ring, which was passed to Mary, all the Ellis property was divided equally between the six children. George Ellis was determined that each of his daughters received a college education and had a career.
The Ellis children were also involved in the commercial growth of the downtown. Guy was born Oct. 3, 1902 in Clifton Forge, VA. Guy was much more of a free spirit, but an excellent mechanic and machinist. He owned an Indian motorcycle and rode it everywhere visiting many of his relatives. He was actually at the site of the Hindenburg disaster in New Jersey shortly after it happened. He was very dedicated to the Volunteer Fire Department in Ronceverte. He ran the snack bar at the Elks Country Club for a number of years, but made most of his living fixing cars and appliances of all kinds and overseeing repairs to the family properties in downtown. He also owned the AMOCO station in Ronceverte for a while. A fixture in the town, Guy would walk around with a stogie hanging from his teeth with his pet Pekingese, named Bambi, on a leash. He married Helen Lewis of Lewisburg and had one daughter, Diane Ellis Shields.
Virginia Ellis was one of Ronceverte’s premier business persons. Virginia graduated from the Medical College of Virginia School of Pharmacy in May 1928. She returned to Ronceverte and was a pharmacist for William Randolph Bower at Bower’s Drug Store on the corner of Frankford and Main until Mr. Bower’s death in August, 1931. It was on December 31, 1931, that Virginia opened the Greenbrier Drug Store at 212 Railroad Avenue, now Edgar Avenue. There is one article from around 1937 where Virginia Ellis was included with a list of female business leaders who were invited to meet with Eleanor Roosevelt at the White House. Virginia later moved the drug store to the adjacent building at 210 Edgar Avenue and she continued to operate the business until she closed in the late 1980s. Virginia died July 19, 2001.
Sisters Mildred and Mary Ellis opened the Ellis Style Shop in the location of their father’s Five and Dime on Main Street in 1951. Mary was born in 1907, and her sister, Mildred, born in 1919, was the last of the Ellis children. The Ellis Style Shop was known for its quality fashions for women, and following the death of Mary in 1995, Mildred ran the shop until her death in 1998.
Ed Ellis was the younger of the two sons born in 1909, again in Virginia. Ed was listed as running a restaurant according to the 1930 census, probably associated with a building owned by the family on Main Street adjacent to the Ellis Style Shop. In 1941, despite extremely poor eyesight, Ed volunteered for the Army. His nephew, Mike Finn, suggests that perhaps Ed memorized the eye chart to get into the army. He ended up being a medic with the U.S. 1st Infantry Division. He participated in D-Day, and went all the way through in combat. He was among the troops surrounded in Bastogne, and was one of the medical crews that liberated the concentrations camps.
After the war, Ed came back and ran several business successfully, including the White Way and Wood Taxi companies in Lewisburg. Throughout his life, he was an avid hunter and fisherman, travelling to Canada many times, and even to Alaska, on fishing and hunting trips, usually with Glen Barron of Lewisburg. He was also an excellent cook and baker. Unfortunately, he died fairly early in 1967 (or ‘68) from cancer.
Edith went on to nursing school at St. Agnes Nursing School in Baltimore, MD. She met her husband, Walters Bernard Finn, while there, and they were married in early 1942. She was a nurse from the mid-1930s until the family moved to Charlottesville in the late 1940s. Walters died in 1971, and Edith went on to be the last of the Ellis children to pass in 2007. She had one son, Michael, who now lives in North Carolina.