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Mel Lee Ellenwood sits across from me in his living room, in his casual cowboy attire; his walls are adorned with family photos and memorabilia he’s salvaged from trash piles. Behind him, a giant bear hovers over his head. “This is just normal to me,” he says.
We sit there trading stories and beliefs about why we both salvage things, our respective work ethics, the importance of creative visions, of being yourself, the joy of living life in a light-hearted way. Ultimately we center on how to pass to the generations coming up the importance of fixing things and using our hands.
“What I have found is that the enjoyment of a project is not in the end. The exciting part is laying in bed at night and dreaming and thinking about it,” he says. “I used to know these guys who’d go buy a motorcycle, it’d sit in a garage, and that’s when it was exciting. It was exciting when they’d have to problem-solve and fix it, not when they got to finish it, not when they got done with it. It was fixing it, sitting in the garage with it, dreaming about it. I would say that was the real fun part of it.”
I sat there, relating to him, as a problem-solving, project woman myself. I reply, “yep, once I finish something, that’s when I stop looking at it, that’s when I stop caring about it. But, as I go through the process of putting the puzzle pieces together of how to create something or fix it, that’s when my brain is on fire, that’s when my innovative and creative soul flourishes.”
Mel was born in Colorado on May 8th, 1943. He said for as long as he could remember he was picking up junk. He said his first question was always “can I fix it?.” He said that’s always when things got fun, because “you gotta get creative to make it work when it’s someone else’s junk.” In many ways, it’s hard to peg an exact career for Mel. He’s been everything from a construction worker to working for Youth for Christ to a janitor to a cowboy actor, a chuckwagon caterer to a factory worker to a singer. He’s also been a landscaper, an ice cream shop owner, a safe cracker, and has painted cars. Heck, the man even bottles his own wine. I honestly think it would be easier to tell you what he hasn’t done than what he has done.
We start exchanging stories on how we live in a paradoxical time where everything is just thrown away or is at our fingertips and with that, we both are a bit troubled with where this will lead upcoming generations when it comes to craftsmanship. “If you don’t have to work for something, you’ll be missing out. It’s the people who get everything for free or easy who have the most issues in life. I would rather rebuild everything instead of just getting something easy.” He starts reflecting on his current project he’s helping a local woman with, he’s been out clearing a property that is filled with old cars and other various relics of time. He says “she had everything and it was just thrown aside and left there to just fall apart in a field.” I can tell he struggles a bit with this, just as I do. He tells me “I will always just give something to someone else if I think they have a better chance of fixing it than I do, the idea of picking up junk is not about just me having it, it’s about someone else seeing potential in it that maybe I can’t see.” I laugh and tell him, “there’s no such thing as junk in my world. Everything has potential if you are willing to put effort and elbow grease into it.”
At that point, our conversation flips into the importance of involving the younger generations of family into our projects. We start talking about how great memories are not based in money, great memories are based in experiences. “I worked where I didn’t make a lot of money. I would pay cheap rent and put effort in to make a nice home for my family,” he explains. His daughter sits at a diagonal from him on couch, with a taxidermy raccoon across from her, laughs and says “Dad would take us to the dump on the weekends for our family outing.” She looks at him with a big smile and a loving shine in her eyes. “I built her a house out of free stuff I found, didn’t pay for any of it besides screws and paint, it’s still her favorite home.” His wife, looks up from reading, adding, “we only paid $12,000 and it’s worth a lot more now.” Mel says “it’s so nice to be able to see my kids enjoy my work while I am still here, ya know, many parents and kids don’t get that; the kids gotta wait until the parents die to get something from them, for there to be a pay-off, get some money. I have gotten to see it while I am here and I built it for them myself.” He pauses and says “we are a family of fixing things. I never spent much money, I used a ‘gimmie’ way to build our family’s homes.”
One thing that stands out at this point is the importance of passing on his work and his work ethic to both his children and grandchildren. “I have always brought my children and grandchildren into my projects, then it becomes an enjoyable family thing.” He starts telling me about how when he moved to Boerne, Texas, “everyone told me I was too poor to buy a house, I had been making $200 a month, had to carry my water home, and spent my time at a dump, auctions, sales, and with a metal detector to put nice things together.” Upon moving here, he negotiated a deal the real estate agent thought would never work, but it did. He said “I literally bought a house with no money and I fixed that thing up.” To this day, his son’s family owns that home, and now through his skills and creative ingenuity, it’s a popular Bed and Breakfast that he says “people just love”.
At this point, Mel and I have been conversing back and forth for two hours, “he says I thought you were going to interview me?”. I reply, “Hey, this is my interview. The most beautiful portraits of people are the candid ones; you can tell a fake smile a mile off.”
I take a sip of my gas station coffee, adjust the spiral notebook in my lap, lean over in his direction, opting to appease him, and say, “so, what year were you born? Tell me about growing up in Colorado.”
He tells me his birthday, then follows it up with how he grew up in the mountains and spent a lot of time in the woods, “I would go hunting, but never really wanted to kill anything.” In high school, he started singing with the choir, “I tried out, kinda not thinking much about it, it was a little bit of a joke between me and a friend, but that got me into singing”. He tells me all about the singing groups he had been in, including one with a Hopi where he got to go sing on a Reservation.
When he left high school in 1961, he went to a drafting school because he loved drawing houses. “My thinking was always based in not having waste. I was focused on tiny homes before tiny homes were a thing. I would design these homes based on the exact sizes of plywood. These other guys would be drawing these great big homes and I kept telling them, if you make the walls this size, you won’t waste any wood.” He tells me that he knew they thought he was a little out-there with his concepts, but he thought they were completely out-there with their concepts. He also spent time working in prefabrication. Mel is left-handed and used his time there to train his right-hand since all the tools available to him were designed for right-handed people. He told me that wasn’t the real reason though, he just thought learning to use his right-hand would be “fun”.
He worked at a grocery store and funeral home to put himself through college. He “crammed 4 years of college into 5 years”. There he met his wife, Troy. “I was climbing up a flagpole to fix it and look over and there’s this girl teaching all these boys how to shoot a gun, I knew I needed to meet her.” He graduated with a degree in Applied Religion. At this point, our conversation begins to shift to another huge sector of his life, religion and working with youth. Upon leaving College, he began working for Youth for Christ. That was a job that sent him to Topeka, San Antonio, Denver, and Cheyenne.
We then started discussing youth programming, as it’s something very close to my heart as well as his. I mentioned that my path has brought me in touch with creative kids that I try to guide the best I can. I tell him that growing up, everyone kept trying to put me in a box and I kept blowing out of it because it just wasn’t the way my brain worked. Mel chuckles, because when it comes to being “out of the box”, we are two peas in a pod. He tells me he recently overheard some people talking about him, “why is that guy dressed like that?”. So, he leans over to his friend and starts loudly whispering “why are those people dressed like that? Why do they want to look like everyone else?”.
At this point, he starts talking about his health, “I should be dead right now. You know I had a quadruple bypass and have prostate cancer that’s spread to my bones. I was in the hospital for 22 days, they’d written me off, my muscles just stopped working, everything, including my digestive system”. His daughter speaks “yes, we thought he was gone, he had lost 40 pounds, he was nothing.” He pipes up “but I got back up and started walking, cracking jokes. I have to go get shots once a month, here I am with other cancer patients, nurse says when I come in, the waiting room is a party. What we can do is be positive, that’s what we can do. I had a lady tell my wife that I was such an inspiration to her because I was always happy in there and wanted to make other people happy, get them laughing.”
“C’mon, I want to show you some stuff”, he says. We get up and start walking around his house and looking at the pictures on the wall and everything he’s collected over the years. I tell him how I value seeing all his family photos as it makes me so sad to go to estate sales, thrift stores, and flea markets just to see them. I mentioned, “I started buying them because I felt like they were important for people to keep”. He says “I do the same thing, but we just make up funny stories about them.”
We explored his property, I admired his innovative building skills, we shared visions of what we’d do with this piece of junk and that piece, and eventually we ventured back to his shed, there sat a 1934 Chevy truck that I am in love with. I told him if he let me pull it out of there and take it, I would make him proud. I started making my case as he listened intently. I could tell he knew I was deeply invested and passionate about it, but I also told him not to feel pressured, as I pressured him. We walk out, only after he offers me more junk and a sink (which I take), he bends over and picks a bunch of unimpressive flowers growing in the dirt and laughs “these are what we call desert flowers” and hands me a small bouquet (which is currently sitting on my kitchen counter). I smile and say, “they are beautiful”.
As I drove away into the hot Texas summer sun with a truckload of rusty junk and a bouquet of desert flowers, I realized that I had just spent the entire day with a true kindred spirit. Mel is who I want to be in 40 years, that’s my dream life. Forget the saying “God Bless, John Wayne”, in my world, there’s a real cowboy legend, “God Bless, Mel Lee Ellenwood”.
Weeks after this interview, Mel called me to talk about the truck. He started the conversation with “sometimes you have to accept you aren’t going to finish a project and I think I am ready to let go of the truck.” I purchased the truck personally from Mel and spent time going back and forth on how to make a project that symbolizes everything Mel is. Three things stood out to me most in my interview with him: youth programming, the importance of kids working with their hands, and his trade and craftsmanship. With that I developed the RRCB program, a non-profit, to help fund turning his truck into an Opa. The truck will be outfitted as a mobile workshop, which will serve youth programs, schools, and community centers with classes in traditional arts and crafts.
If you’d like to help with this project, please contact firstname.lastname@example.org, Donate Now, or make a purchase from our RRCB Shop. Photography by Blythe Zemel and Shana Neuman.
The mission of RodRides Community Built is to provide multi-generational hands-on learning opportunities that have their roots in the history of the communities that they serve. RRCB is a 501c3 non-profit that is funded by the support of people like you.
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