Suzanne Winckler

FERREE, FRANK ELLIS (1894–1983). Frank Ellis Ferree, faith healer and freelance social worker, son of Josiah Benjamin and Isabel E. (Kenyon) Ferree, was born on August 6, 1894, in a village on the Platte River near Omaha, Nebraska. At the time of his birth, his father ran a small weekly newspaper, the Valley Enterprise. When Ferree was fifteen and in the eighth grade, the family moved to northwestern Nebraska to homestead. With the move, his public schooling ceased. As a child he frequently heard a voice calling from the sky. Although he was not enamored of the hard labor associated with homesteading, he did love animals and the vast expanses of prairie, where he frequently wandered alone communing with nature. In 1915 he left home for a year and did odd jobs, including working for Northwestern Bell Telephone Company.

In an effort to see the world, Ferree enlisted in the army in 1918. He was assigned to the signal corps and sent to the front lines in the Argonne Forest in France just as World War I was ending. At the battlefront he was greatly shocked by the many wounded and dead soldiers he saw. He returned to his homestead in Nebraska and for ten years worked as a rural mail carrier, first on horseback and later in a Model-T Ford. He also built and repaired telephone lines. When his father died in the early 1930s he and his mother moved to Colorado and filed for a homestead near Denver. By 1937 he had increased their landholdings from eighty to 3,000 acres. In Colorado he became interested in the writings of faith healer Aimee S. McPherson and in numerology.

At his mother's death in 1937 he traded the Colorado land for 800 acres of timberland in Wisconsin, but he was dissatisfied with it. Within a year, part of which he spent in California, he had sold that land, bought twenty-three acres of land near Harlingen in the Rio Grande valley, and moved to Texas. In addition to working at various jobs, Ferree started giving healing massages. He also began to be haunted by the poverty, hunger, and frequent sickness of the many border Mexicans he encountered in the Valley.

Although he did not belong to a church, he was an extremely religious and contemplative man. By the 1940s the Bible had become his source book, and he began to pattern his daily life after the examples of Jesus. He started to help the poor and the sick in an extemporaneous and understaffed organization that he called Volunteer Border Relief. It was headquartered in a ramshackle house in Harlingen.

A tall, gaunt man with pendulous ears and a bulbous nose, Ferree always dressed in tire-tread sandals and ragtag clothes. Thus attired, he canvassed the alleys of Harlingen, virtually begging restaurateurs and grocers to give him the food or goods that they were discarding, so that in turn he could give these things to the poor. The Valley citizenry was at first taken aback by his behavior. But many merchants, newsmen, doctors, and wealthy individuals, both in the United States and northern Mexico, were won over by his kindness and persistence and began to champion his cause. He established two distribution and clinic sites, one in Matamoros and the other in Reynosa, where he went weekly to dispense food, second-hand clothes, and medicines. Because he could perform medical procedures legally in Mexico, he frequently gave injections at these clinics. He arranged for doctors to perform countless free operations on afflicted people, especially children with cleft palates.

Because the Volunteer Border Relief was loosely organized and not top-heavy with management—it consisted of Ferree and a few Mexican men and women and their children, who were his surrogate family—it could respond quickly in times of need. In 1955 when hurricane Hilda hit the isolated coast of Tampico, Mexico, Ferree was able to mobilize a relief mission that employed daily cargo flights from Harlingen Air Force Base carrying food, blankets, and other necessities.

He was known in the Valley as "El Amigo" and the "Border Angel." He was twice nominated for the Nobel Peace Prize. In 1960 he was invited by President Dwight D. Eisenhower to a black-tie dinner in Washington, for which he had to borrow a tuxedo, and in 1982 he received a letter of commendation from President Ronald Reagan. Ferree died on March 10, 1983, at the age of eighty-nine and was buried on his land in north Harlingen. After his death the Volunteer Border Relief organization continued its work as the Frank Ferree Border Relief.

Austin American-Statesman, January 3, 1982, March 14, 1983. Fort Worth Star-Telegram, March 16, 1983. Bill Starr, Border Angel (New York: Vantage, 1979). Suzanne Winckler, "Friends in Deed," Texas Monthly, March 1983.

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The following, adapted from the Chicago Manual of Style, 15th edition, is the preferred citation for this article.

Handbook of Texas Online, Suzanne Winckler, "FERREE, FRANK ELLIS," accessed February 22, 2020, http://www.tshaonline.org/handbook/online/articles/ffe14.

Uploaded on June 12, 2010. Published by the Texas State Historical Association.
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