top of page

A Recipe in Tribute to Pioneer Black Businessman Charles W. Ellis Sr.

“Charles W. Ellis, Sr. aged, 76 years passed away at 1:00 a.m. today at his home, 533 South Jefferson Avenue. Deceased has been a respected resident of Saginaw for thirty years and was one of the best known caterers in the city, having kept a restaurant since he made Saginaw his home. His wife, one son, Dr. Charles W. Ellis, Jr. of this city, and one daughter, Mrs. W. L. Burton, of Adrian, survive him.”

-The Saginaw Evening News, January 28, 1897, p.1

Charles W. Ellis Sr.’s obituary provides an outline for his life. In Enterprising Images The Goodridge Brothers, African American Photographers, 1847 -1922, John Jezierski provides a fuller picture of accomplishments:

Charles W. Ellis was born a free man in Canada in approximately 1828, but during the Civil War he and his wife, Mary, crossed the border into Michigan and lived for a time at Adrian. By 1868, however, Ellis was working as the headwaiter in Saginaw City’s Taylor House hotel and in 1870 reported owning personal property worth $1,000. During the decade he invested in his own restaurant with some success, for by 1880 the Ellises lived in their own home on Granger Street in Saginaw City, employed a cook, had room for a boarder, and had taken responsibility for an orphaned niece in addition to their own children.

The 1867 birdseye view of Saginaw captures the city about the time the Ellises arrived in the city.

The Taylor House, a hotel located on the corner Court and South Hamilton. It was the first place in Saginaw City where Charles W. Ellis worked. (In the early twentieth century it became the Fordney Hotel).

Map showing the Ellis house on Granger in Saginaw City from the 1877 Saginaw County Atlas.

Saginaw Illustrated: The Vatoldi was located on the corner of North Franklin and Tuscola. This view was taken about the time the restaurant opened. The building also housed Saignaw's YMCA.

C.W. Ellis Sr. was included in numerous business endeavors and newspaper accounts suggest many were in partnership with his wife and at least once, his son, Dr. Charles W. Ellis, Jr. Beyond the Ellises’ restaurants, they are frequently listed as caterers for numerous events and for a time, Charles worked on the private hunting car, City of Saginaw. For at least a time in the 1880s, they provided food service in the dining room in Cottage Grove at Higgins Lake.

In 1888, the family opened C.W. Ellis & Son Turkish Baths. The Saginaw Evening News described it as “one of the most complete in the state.” And, proclaimed: “A city that possess first-class Turkish bath-rooms is indeed fortunate, and those that have not an establishment of this description are to be pitied.” The article extoled the medicinal value of the facility. It is interesting to note that at times the City Directories listed Charles W. Ellis Sr.’s occupation as a nurse.

In December 1887 the newspaper announced the opening of the Vatoldi Restaurant on the corner of Franklin and Tuscola about January 1, 1888 and noted: “C.W. Ellis, of Saginaw City, the well-known caterer . . . will conduct the business for the proprietors in a manner it is expected that will bring in lots of patrons and fill a niche in the wants of the city that has long been felt.”

Although occupied by numerous business projects, Charles W, Ellis found time for civic involvement. In 1884 the paper reported: “C.W. Ellis, who attended the colored men’s convention at Battle Creek as delegate from this county, returned home yesterday. He reports the convention a success, the votes numbering nearly 6,500. [sic.]” The Saginaw Evening News, March 28, 1884. Jezierski observed the Ellises’ “sense of responsibility extended beyond their family into East Saginaw where in 1876 Charles began serving as superintendent of the Zion Baptist Church Sunday School.”

The Vatoldi Restaurant was located on the corner of North Franklin and Tuscola. This view was taken about the time the restaurant opened. The building also housed Saginaw's YMCA.

Amongst the numerous newspaper advertisement and articles that document the Vatoldi, perhaps none is more meaningful and personal than one from April 29, 1891. The piece describes a celebration held at the restaurant to commemorate the return of the Ellises’ son, Dr. Charles W. Ellis, Jr. He had been studying with doctors in Europe. Dr. Charles W. Ellis, Jr. is recognized as Saginaw’s first Black physician. The link will take you to a biography:

The Recipe – Ham Baked with Potatoes

“Mr. C.W. Ellis, of Saginaw City, who, together with his three associates, set us down to a table where the following bill of fare was presented and discussed with evident relish by the party: Roast beef, pork and bean, chicken, potatoes, boiled rice, prune sauce, coffee, iced tea, melon and pie."

-The Saginaw Evening News, August 13, 1883

There is something lacking from this week’s recipe – an actual recipe created or used by Charles W. Ellis. While we have found suggestions of the wide variety of foods prepared and served through his restaurants and catering projects, an actual recipe eluded us. In view of this absence, we have selected a recipe from Back to the Kitchen with Lakeside Cooks. This early twentieth century publication, features recipes contributed by Saginaw residents who summered at Higgins Lake. Many who may well have remember having a meal prepared by the Ellises in the dining room of the nearby Cottage Grove Association.

The recipe we have selected is simple recipe, that seems perfect for a snowy winter weekend.

Ham Baked with Potatoes:

Take a thick slice of ham and put in baking dish, cover with raw sliced Irish potatoes, sprinkle a little red pepper over the top and cover with milk. Bake until milk is gone and serve.

Notes From the Castle Test Kitchen:

-We cooked It in a 375-degree oven.

-I cooked it for slightly less than an hour and it could have cooked even longer.

-Be careful, it could easily run over. You may wish to place a baking sheet under it.

-The test kitchen, used 2% milk. Whole milk would have been a better choice.


bottom of page