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Tribute to Miss Ruth Ferris 1897-1993

 
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Old 09-19-2006, 08:01 AM
 
Join Date: Apr 2006
Location: On the "Beautiful Ohio" at New Albany, Indiana, opposite Louisville, Kentucky
Posts: 2,078
Default Tribute to Miss Ruth Ferris 1897-1993

As Franz has duly noted on the homepage, today marks the birthday of the late Miss Ruth Ferris, beloved St. Louis teacher and river historian. Born in 1897 at Moberly, Missouri, Ruth's parents moved to St. Louis when she was a child and where her father had a law practice. Ruth's grandfather was a Missouri congressman and a friend of James B. Eads, builder of the great bridge at St. Louis. She always treasured the fancy invitation which Eads sent to her grandfather for the dedication ceremony and opening of the bridge in 1874.

Graduating from the University of Missouri at Columbia in 1920, Ruth held degrees in Education and Geology. Her college graduation gift from her parents was a brand new Ford automobile, which cost $500. Ruth taught for two years at the Hamilton School and then for 35 years at the Community School, a private institution, where she instilled her love for the river in her fifth grade classes. Among Ruth's "converts" were Benton Roblee Duhme, who caught the "steamboat bug" at an early age but departed from our midst very untimely at age 23 in 1971. Musician John Harford (he later added the "t" to his last name) fell under the spell of Ruth's river teachings and the fact that the salvaged pilothouse of the Str. GOLDEN EAGLE (Ruth was a frequent passenger on the boat and a good friend of the boat's revered master, Capt. W.H. 'Buck' Leyhe) stood on the school grounds, rescued from the wreckage after the May 17, 1947 sinking and trucked to the campus in early 1948 shortly after Ruth bid $257 at an Army Corps of Engineers auction to win the prized relic. John told me that it was the old pilothouse that inspired him to want to be a river pilot and that he used to stand at the wheel and "dream" of piloting a steamboat, creating scenarios where he spun the eight foot pilotwheel and imagined outwitting the swirling river current. He often painted and made repairs to the pilothouse, including cutting out replacement gingerbread trim. The old "sky palace", as Ruth called it, remained there until November of 1961, when the school donated it for the elegant new River Room (all now dismantled and exhibits stored) of the Missouri Historical Society, of which Ruth was then curator -- having retired from her post as teacher and assistant principal in 1957 -- a bit earlier than usual due to her hearing impairment. Ruth stayed at the historical society from 1957 until May of 1965, when she retired for the second time. John composed a song entitled "Miss Ferris" at my request in 1977 when we honored her at a St. Louis gathering of several river interest groups which included the Midwest Riverboat Buffs, Golden Eagle Club, Hot Stove Navigation League of America and the Middle Ohio River Chapter of the Sons and Daughters of Pioneer Rivermen. John could not be present due to being a pilot on the JULIA BELLE SWAIN, en route to Louisville at the time for the steamboat race, but he graciously sent a taped recording of the new song which was "premiered" in his behalf by yours truly at the banquet and became an instant "hit" with the packed audience of steamboat buffs and buffettes --- especially Ruth!

Ruth was lured out of retirement in the spring of 1966 when Frank C. Pierson, owner of the GOLDENROD SHOWBOAT and the BECKY THATCHER (former Str. MISSISSIPPI) prevailed upon Ruth to design and curate a riverboat museum aboard the BECKY at the St. Louis levee. Named "Midship Museum" because it was on the main deck between the engine room and boiler room, the neatly organized room was packed with all kinds of "steamboat stuff" with special emphasis on the Eagle Packet Company/Boat Store, Streckfus Steamers and the GOLDENROD SHOWBOAT. The "boaty" exhibition, which included guided tours of the BECKY from engineroom to pilothouse, was a popular attraction aboard the retired sternwheeler for tourists and locals alike. Ruth especially enjoyed having "river people" , former students and their children (whom she always jokingly referred to as her "grandchildren") come aboard the old steamboat to visit the sparkling museum and its effervescent curator, after having made their way over the historic cobblestone levee. Children (and adults too!) loved to pull the braided cord and ring the big backing bell from the Streckfus excursion sidewheeler J.S. DELUXE. The LOUD and frequently jangling bell was a bit hard on the nerves and ears of the clerks in the gift shop that adjoined the museum, as well as to restaurant patrons dining just above in the former cabin. But it didn't bother Ruth because she couldn't hear it! Talking to a news reporter, Ruth once said that, "Looking out one door of the Becky's museum at Saarinen's great Gateway Arch and out the other door at the mighty Mississippi and Eads magnificent bridge all day long make my thoughts and spirit soar above everyday things!"

Retiring for the third time in November of 1970, Ruth was constantly in demand as a speaker for programs and served as consultant for countless museum and river history projects. She was Honorary President of the Sons and Daughters of Pioneer Rivermen from 1984 until her passing on July 7, 1993, just two months short of her 96th birthday. Her contagious enthusiasm and zest for life will always be remembered by those whose lives she touched. I am privileged to be one of those persons and I will always be grateful for her influence upon my life, beginning when I was 13 years old. Ruth's fabulous collection (comprising numerous artifacts and MANY filing cabinets) of river memorabilia now is housed in the Herman T. Pott Inland Waterways Library of the Mercantile Library at the University of Missouri - St. Louis. I, too, have steamboaty gifts from Ruth which were passed along to me as a "sacred trust" from her, and which I hope to pass along someday in the same spirit. Ruth always said that one of her greatest joys in life was inspiring others to an interest in the river. At the last S&D meeting she attended, at age 87, someone came up to her in the Hotel Lafayette lobby and asked, "Miss Ferris, what is your secret for staying so young and vibrant?" Ruth's response was, "I have lots of YOUNG friends and don't hang around OLD people!"

A wonderful sampling of Ruth's writings is available in an anthology of eight articles and lectures published by the Mercantile Library. Entitled "St. Louis and the Mighty Mississippi in the Steamboat Age: The Collected Writings of Ruth Ferris", the collection contains crisp black and white photographs as well as other fine illustrations. The 197 page paperback book sells for $15.95 plus shipping and is available by calling the library at 314-516-7240.

A long and two shorts of the whistle in tribute to Miss Ruth Ferris on what would be her 109th birthday! Ruth always closed her wonderfully detailed letters, of which I have boxes full of them, with "Keep Up Steam!" and that is exactly what we ALL need to do to preserve riverboats and river history in whatever ways we can do so. Happy steamboating!

Last edited by Keith Norrington; 09-20-2006 at 09:28 AM.
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