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40 Years Ago Today on the St. Louis Levee

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    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.
    Attached Files

    #2
    I assume you have kept all those letters. I am certainly glad that I had the presence of mind to keep all the correspondence I got from various old time rivermen, who, despite their so called lack of a full education, could be quite eloquent. That was back when people felt obligated to respond to letters; that was when people actually wrote letters. Oh, my! They are worth their weight in gold.

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      #3
      Yes, indeed, I greatly treasured and saved every letter and post card from Ruth, as well as from many other dear river people, many of whom have made that final crossing. After Bert Fenn's passing in 1993, I "inherited" from Mary Fenn several boxes of correspondence between Bert and Ruth. Wonderful to keep and re-read, but I'm running out of space for filing cabinets!

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        #4
        Some day, unfortunately, you won't need any more filing cabinets. But wouldn't that make a tasty book, "Letters From Old Time Rivermen, and Women"?

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          #5
          I have been in Baton Rouge researching steamboats part of this week, and to my delight I stumbled on the correspondence between N. Philip Norman and Capt. F. L. Wooldridge. It has been both delighful and informative to read. I'm sure that your personal correspondence, with your own questions and the replies are twice as good.

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            #6
            Besides the Inland Rivers Library at Cincinnati and the Pott Waterways Library in St. Louis there are great treasures of correspondence and river related material to be found in the special collections of state and university libraries, as well as historical societies, especially in the South. For example, here at Louisville we are fortunate to have the Standard Oil Collection in the Photo Archives at the University of Louisville. All of the many photographs taken by Edwin and Louise Rosskam for their wonderful 1948 book Towboat River are contained in the collection and glossy prints can be purchased for a very nominal fee. Our own Jim Reising volunteers at the archives and has made some fascinating discoveries. So MUCH to see, so LITTLE time!

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              #7
              So much indeed! I only got about half way through the Wooldridge folders. Didn't have time to get into Norman's other papers or the microfilms of the Shreveport and Alexandria newspapers that I went down for. Guess I'll have to go back......... (Fortunately I found that many of the microfilms I wanted are available through interlibrary loan, so I can work on them here in Waco.) I can only hope that someday I can get to the libraries at Cincinnatti, St. Louis, Louisville...............

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                #8
                Oooh! Are any of those photos online? Are there more photos than are in the book?

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