By Doug Hylton
While recent events in neighboring Lewisburg has brought to attention issues associated with the LGBT and proposals to promote further acceptance of transgendered individuals, it is important to note that Ronceverte was to have one of the first instances of a transgendered or cross-dressing citizen, one who was to be connected with one of the town’s prominent families, and someone who is a part of our town’s remarkable history.
When the founding father of the city of Ronceverte, Cecil Clay, left in 1882 to accept a position with the Department of Justice in Washington, DC, his position as general manager of the newly formed St. Lawrence Boom and Manufacturing Company was passed on to Ellery Best. For the next decade, “Colonel” Ellery Best was to oversee the growth of the large saw mill into the largest soft wood producing mill in the United States. It had a capacity of 1.2 million feet of lumber per day. Early officers of the St. Lawrence Company were John Driscol, president; E. H. Camp, treasurer; James M. Kinsport, secretary; and E. C. Best, general manager.
Ellery Campbell “E.C.: Best and his wife, Jennie, arrived in the fledgling community in 1882 just as the town was being founded. Ellery Best was born in Salona, PA, in 1845, the son of Abram H. and Harriet C. Harvey Best. Ellery was the third of four children. Ellery’s older brother, Harvey Best, died while serving in the Civil War in Bardstown, Kentucky on Mar. 5, 1862.
Ellery attended the Agricultural College of Pennsylvania, graduating in 1864. While Ellery Best was referred to as “Colonel” Best, military records indicated that during the Civil War, he was a private in the infantry for only three days. The moniker of “Colonel” may have been given to him as being in charge of the mill, however to this day he is referred by Roncevertians as “Colonel.” His wife, Jennie, was born Jennie Susan Rote in November 1845. Sometime following the Civil War, Ellery and Jennie were married as their first child, Mae, was born in May 1868. Two additional daughters, Caroline and Florence, were born in February 1870 and July 1879, respectively, all daughters being born in Pennsylvania.
Ellery Best became general manager of the St. Lawrence Boom and Manufacturing Company, arriving sometime around 1882 and also purchased Edgarton, the house previously owned by Cecil and Anna Clay. In the book “Greenbrier Pioneers and Their Homes,” it states that Ellery Best purchased the home and in 1885 added the unique “Victorian” features to the old Edgar home. He added the second floor and the distinctive tower to the Queen Anne style home noted today. After that time, Edgarton became the social center and show place for the area.
In addition to being general manager of the mill, Ellery Best was soon involved in the government of the new town. On Feb. 1, 1884, “Colonel” Best was sworn in as the third mayor of Ronceverte. He was responsible for assisting in establishing the rules and bylaws of the town during that year until, apparently due to the demands as general manager of the St. Lawrence Boom and Manufacturing Company, he resigned as mayor later that year in November 1884.
Still, Best continued to be involved with the city council being elected to the council again in January 1885. Minutes show he served on the council and was involved in the finance committee, revised the city by-laws, worked to see the construction of the city “lock up,” and was responsible for the purchase of land for establishing Riverview and Sunset cemeteries.
“Colonel” Best was also involved with the establishment of the Ronceverte Volunteer Fire Department. Starting in 1886, Best came before the council for funds to equip a fire department for the town. In 1889, when the Ronceverte Volunteer Fire Department was established, it was “Colonel” Best who drafted the by-laws for the creation of the department as the “Hook and Ladder Company Number 1” and he served as chief of the fire department until his death.
Best continued to make improvements within his community. As a member of the Ronceverte Mining and Manufacturing Company, he came before the council on May 5, 1890, with a proposal from the company to provide $500 toward street improvement along Rail Road Avenue (Edgar Avenue) and Greenbrier Avenue, provided the city would match this amount for the project. Ellery and Jennie were members of the Ronceverte Christian Church and helped with the establishment of the church in 1884. The old church building on Main Street was constructed in 1886, and today there are two of the original stain glass windows dedicated to Ellery and Jennie Best which may be found at the new Ronceverte Christian Church located on Gypsy Heights. Documents from 1890 discuss Ellery and his daughter, Mae, purchasing property around the area today found at the Catholic Church to construct a water tower to provide water to the family home at Edgarton.
Ellery Best was important in establishing the city government, growing the St. Lawrence Boom and Manufacturing Company, and organizing the Ronceverte Christian Church and the fire department. This work suddenly came to a halt when while on a business trip to Chicago on Sept. 18, 1893, Ellery Best died. This writer has not been able to find the reason for his death whether it be due to accident or natural causes. Documents also indicate that Ellery Best was buried in Riverview Cemetery.
Following the death of Ellery Best, Jennie and her daughters continued to play an important part in the city’s day to day social events. It is after the death of Ellery in 1893 that the story of an apparent transgender connection appears in the city history.
Mae Best was born May, 1868. It was Mae who was to become the discussion of the citizens of Ronceverte even to this day, as it appeared that Mae was transgendered or a cross dresser. According to the 1868 census, Mae was listed as a daughter of Ellery and Jennie Best. Again in the 1880 census, Mae is listed along with her two younger sisters, Caroline and Florence. Following the death of Ellery in 1893, Mae is still listed and included in the 1900 census. At that time, Jennie was listed as widowed and all three of the girls were single.
First, it should be mentioned that the Best girls were to marry. On Dec. 29, 1903, Caroline (Carrie) S. Best married Howard E. Rader. Howard Rader was a jeweler by trade with a business in downtown Ronceverte called Fry & Rader located between Maple Street and Frankford Road on Rail Road Avenue. The Raders were to leave Ronceverte for Monrovia, California, near Los Angeles. There were no children from this marriage, and Caroline was to die Jan. 6, 1916. Later during the 1930s, Howard Rader was to return to Ronceverte. He died Feb. 21, 1943 and is buried at Frankford Cemetery.
The story then goes that Mae Best went off to New York and came back as “Maynard” Best. This is where the story becomes more confusing. Several citizens of Ronceverte tell the story of their families speaking of Maynard Best and seeing him walking through Ronceverte. According to Ancestry.com, there was a marriage that took place in New York on June 30, 1906, when Mae (Maynard) Best married Bryna Stacking Hunthall. What sort of arrangement transpired over this may never be fully understood, but apparently Mae came back to Ronceverte as a man calling himself Maynard Best. This writer also recalls seeing the name Maynard Best on a later letterhead of the St. Lawrence Boom and Manufacturing Company as a bookkeeper. Bryna and Maynard also had a daughter, Eleanor Best, who was born in Mississippi in 1893, so apparently this child was adopted by these two individuals. Eleanor was later to marry Harold Roberts on Aug. 14, 1911 and went on to raise a family in California.
It was around 1906 that the Best family was to leave Ronceverte and move then to Monrovia. All members of the family were to move to California: the Raders, Jennie Best, Maynard, Bryna and Eleanor, and Florence. Jennie even took the body of her husband, Ellery, with them to California for reburial. Jennie Best was to die shortly after the family moved in 1908. She is buried next to her husband. The 1910 census shows Maynard Best and his wife, Bryna and daughter, Eleanor, living in Monrovia with Maynard working as a bank teller in Los Angeles. Maynard was to die Jan. 15, 1911, and is buried with his family in Live Oak Memorial Cemetery in Monrovia.
Lost in time will be the actual story of the life of Mae Best and how she came to change herself into Maynard Best. What is apparent, is that after the 1900 census, Mae Best ceased to exist on the records, but Maynard Best instead was to take the place on the family’s records. As seen from the existing headstone, Maynard was shown to be born in 1868, the same year that Mae was born, and was listed for the next 30 years. Even the records of the Ronceverte Christian Church show Maynard as being a “charter member” of the church, although in 1884 when the church as established, Mae had not changed her persona to Maynard.
This may show that the church accepted this individual on the membership rosters. Whether the move of the Best family was due to Maynard’s creating a new life for himself and his family, or if by coincidence Maynard happened to move with his family during this transition is not available, but today the citizens of Ronceverte speak of Maynard as just another citizen whose family came to our community and who made an impact on the creation of the town and its history. Ronceverte may be proud to call itself an accepting community which more than 100 years ago was home to someone who may have been the area’s first transgender individual.