Ellen Welles refused to sit still.
Even as a mother of six, she rarely spent time indoors. She preferred pitching baseballs to her brood to doing housework. Well into her 80s, she was more likely to be found in a pool or a barn than inside her North Raleigh home.
When Welles died last month at 89, her family wrote in her obituary that she had taught one half of Raleigh to swim and the other half to ride – and they were only sort of kidding. As a swim instructor at Hayes Barton Swimming Pool, director of a summer camp with her husband on Lake Gaston, and horseback riding instructor at her stables, she had a significant impact on generations of Raleigh-area children, her family said.
But it seems the lessons people are most grateful for have little to do with goggles or stirrups.
As the youngest of four children, and the only girl, Welles was tenacious from the start.
“She was tough, all right. She’d give it back just as she got,” laughed her brother, George Mordecai of Edenton. They hail from the Mordecai family that helped found Raleigh, and Ellen was named for the Ellen Mordecai, born in what is now the historic Mordecai House.
Welles grew up outdoors, riding horses, playing with puppies and gallivanting with her brothers. Though she spent a few years teaching English after graduating from Duke University, she stopped pursuing a career in academia when she married Paul Welles Jr.
When her children were young, she constantly played with them outdoors, said her oldest child, Lane Elkin, who now lives on Lake Gaston. Though they were not particularly affluent, the Welleses employed a full-time maid to help keep the house in order, allowing the parents more time with their children. To take the entire family to swim meets and other activities, the Welleses outfitted an old school bus with bunk beds, a bathroom and kitchen.
When her children got into riding, Welles took lessons alongside the kids. Before they knew it, the entire family was competing in horse shows and a number of ponies had taken up residence in their Raleigh backyard.
Stables and summer camp
Years later, after the city ordinances had changed and their yard was no longer a viable option, Welles would become the owner of more than 80 horses at Triton Stables.
Triton Stables grew out of Camp Triton, a summer sleep-away camp that she and her husband opened in 1968. Before that, Paul Welles had worked in insurance and then owned a feed company. When the boll weevil took over his crops, he decided his next venture would be a summer camp.
For four years the couple ran the nine-week camp on Lake Gaston, and the three-pronged triton was symbolic of their focus on mind, body and spirit. Sailing, swimming and horseback riding were the main activities, and Ellen was in charge of instructing the children both in water and on land. Her husband handled the boats.
Welles was excited about the camp, Elkin said, and in order to feel comfortable handling the horses for the summer months, she felt she needed to own them year-round.
“She said, ‘I won’t know these horses well enough’,” Elkin remembered. “So the whole family launched into buying these horses and training them, getting a lot of bumps and bruises from these wild ponies.”
A few years later, when it came time to either invest more money in the camp or go another route, her interest in the horses eclipsed all else and Triton Stables was born.
From that point on it was horses all day for Welles – and sometimes all night.
“She slept on a mattress in the barn when the moms were going to be in foal,” recalled Elizabeth Davis, a pupil of Welles’ who is still involved with Triton Stables. Once, when a mare died in labor, Welles secured a goat to nurse the foal.
Terms like “hard-headed,” “blunt” and “stubborn” were used in remembering Welles’ manner. If children were overweight, she told them so, and she never thought getting a few bruises was that big a deal.
Still, she was not unreasonable.
“Whatever she asked us to do, she did herself,” said her son Jeffery Welles of Brewster, N.Y. That included learning how to water-ski around age 50. She was up on just one ski in no time.
Many students look back on their time learning to ride and say she taught them how to overcome fears, appreciate hard work, manage their responsibilities and work toward goals.
“She taught me to ride for 20 years, so she raised me,” Davis said. “She never let you settle. But she knew just how far to push you. She taught me not only to get up after I’d fallen but to change what had caused me to fall in the first place. And that has served me well.”
Tough with a soft side
As tough as she could be, there was a soft side for those who really got to know her.
When Davis was young, her parents told her if she ever broke a bone her riding days were over – it was just too dangerous. When she fell and broke her wrist, she kept it from them for days, hiding the bruised, swollen joint under a sweatshirt in the heat of the summer.
It was Welles who convinced her to come clean. When her parents were true to their word, it was Welles who wrote them a letter every day for over a month beseeching them to let Davis ride again.
She always owned a pack of dogs, most recently Jack Russell terriers, and could be found letting them lick ice cream off her spoon, or nibble salad from her fork. She was known for eating her cottage cheese and grapefruit salads for most meals, sipping the black coffee she let percolate all day long.
She also provided work for the wayward, hiring people who otherwise could not find employment.
“Mrs. Welles became like a new mother to me,” recalled Bora Zivkovic, who was hired at Triton Stables in the early 1990s after fleeing war-torn Yugoslavia. “With six grown kids, what’s a big deal about adding another one? One more or less, doesn’t matter. There was plenty of heart for all of us.”
For many, including her family, her dedication paid off.
All six of her children have gone into teaching, and many remain heavily involved in the world of horses. Son Jeffery Welles has been a professional in the international horse circuit for decades.
“I would watch her lessons in amazement,” Shep Welles said. She could teach young children quickly how to run courses that seemed far too advanced for them.
Megan Ward replaced Welles as the beginning riding instructor when Welles stopped teaching, and that was just about five years ago. Sometimes, when a child was particularly afraid and the tears were flowing, Welles would put one of her Jack Russells on the back of a horse – she had trained a few to ride.
“She’d say if my dog can do it, then you can do it!” Ward remembered.