40 Years Ago Today on the St. Louis Levee
On June 24, 1968, thanks to my dear parents, I had the opportunity to meet, for the first time, Miss Ruth Ferris, beloved and well known St. Louis river historian -- and my mentor and patron saint of steamboating. I had been corresponding with Ruth for about a year, after I had written a letter in 1967 (when I was 13) addressed to Capt. J.W. Menke, requesting information on the GOLDENROD SHOWBOAT. Unknown to me, Capt. Menke, although still living aboard the showboat, was in his late 80's, in frail health and the boat had been purchased (after a fire in 1962) by Frank C. Pierson, who also owned the BECKY THATCHER, formerly the Str. MISSISSIPPI. Mr. Pierson could easily have tossed my juvenile letter into his waste basket, but he thoughtfully passed it to Ruth, who was setting up a riverboat museum aboard the BECKY (then under renovation as a restaurant and tourist attraction) knowing she would be delighted to respond to a youngster who shared her abiding affection for riverboats. Thus began a lively correspondence and close friendship that was to last until Ruth's passing in 1993 when she was nearly 96 years old.
Ruth retired in 1957 from a 35 year career as teacher of fifth grade and assistant principal at the Community School, a private institution in suburban St. Louis. Her retirement was short lived and she promptly became curator of the river collections at the Missouri Historical Society where the new River Room was opened in 1962 with the salvaged pilothouse of the Str. GOLDEN EAGLE as the focal point of the elegant gallery. She retired again in May of 1965, but in less than a year Frank Pierson's request to design and establish a museum on the main deck of his old steamboat, permanently moored on her revered riverfront, lured her out of retirement once more! Ruth often said that her Midship Museum aboard the BECKY was the pinnacle of her 50+ years steamboat interest and that looking out one door of the venerable sternwheeler at the great Gateway Arch and out the other door at the historic Eads Bridge and mighty river all day long made her thoughts and spirit soar above everyday things. Many of Ruth's former students (and their children, whom she jokingly referred to as her "grandchildren") visited their revered teacher and her sparkling museum, which also included a guided tour (50 cents for adults and 25 cents for children!) of the Becky's engine room and a visit to the lofty pilothouse --with a brief stop, en route, at the stern of the Texas deck to view the big 24' sternwheel and monkey rudders.
By the second letter she wrote me, Ruth promptly saw to it that I became a member of the Sons and Daughters of Pioneer Rivermen and a subscriber to The Waterways Journal. Ruth had a contagious enthusiasm and zest for life that she conveyed in the hundreds of letters she sent me throughout our 26 year friendship. Those letters usually closed with "Keep up steam" or "All gone sir." My letters to her were always FULL of questions and I once apologized for the number of them and for being so inquisitive about all aspects of steamboating. Ruth's response was, "Believe me young friend, there's NOTHING half so much worthwhile as messing about in boats", a quotation from The Wind in the Willows.
Ruth was a tremendous and wonderful influence in my life. Because of her I met scores of fine people who became good friends and I've had many fantastic adventures on the river over the past four decades. At our last visit she asked me to always do whatever I could to keep interest alive in steamboats and our river heritage. And so I strive to keep my promise to Ruth and "carry on" in the manner she instilled in me, in my volunteer work at the Howard Steamboat Museum, and elsewhere, to preserve river memorabilia and to impart river history to those who seek it. Ruth especially reveled in engendering her river interest in young people. Some of her former fifth graders grew up to become barge line executives and, of course, there was John Hartford, whose musical career was greatly shaped by the river, having been one of Ruth's pupils during the period (1948-1961) that the GOLDEN EAGLE pilothouse stood on the school campus. Whether strolling along the cobblestone wharf as the Mississippi lapped at our feet or sitting on the lazy bench in the pilothouse of the GOLDEN EAGLE as she regaled me with stories of her many trips on the Eagle Packet Company, Streckfus and Greene Line boats -- and of the colorful and kindly Capt. Buck Leyhe, Ruth KNEW how to keep me mesmerized with steamboat stuff!
So, a loud long and two shorts of the whistle to Miss Ruth Ferris, an extraordinary lady whom I salute today with much love and gratitude.
Photos: Ruth and Keith (age 14) on June 24, 1968 on the St. Louis levee with the Becky Thatcher in the background; The Becky and Goldenrod Showboat, taken from the Eads Bridge; Ruth and Keith on the St. Louis levee in 1978, a decade after their first meeting, with the Delta Queen in the background.