My Mother Ruth: Part I – The Early Days

Larry Pearce
12/7/02 rev. 4/8/11

Ruth Pearce on stilts (c.1935)

In a sermon preached in 1995, The Rev. G. Bradford Hall began with the story of a poor Israeli family, a millennium before Christ, emigrating into Moab (now Jordan) after their agricultural economy failed. Within a few years the father and his two sons died, leaving the mother and two Moabite daughter-in-laws to fend for themselves. Before long, the mother decided to return home to Judah and encouraged the other two women to return to their families, and one did. But the other daughter-in-law, Ruth, in one of the most well known passages from the entire Bible, voiced her commitment to her mother-in-law, Naomi, as follows:
Entreat me not to leave thee, for whither thou goest I will go. Whither thou lodgest I will lodge. Thy people shall be my people, thy God my God. Where thou diest I will die. The Lord do so to me and more if ought but death part thee from me. (Ruth 1:16-17 KJV)

The book of Ruth, one of the shortest in the Bible, has the happiest of endings, especially in the grand revelation of our Creator since Ruth wasn’t even a Jew. Most scholars believe that it is included in the Sacred Canon because of Ruth’s characteristics of endurance, faithfulness, and humility, all Godly virtues We’ll return for the conclusion of the biblical Ruth’s story at the end of this four-part series, but in this commemorative piece we’ll reveal what the names Ruth and Elizabeth actually mean and see that my mother, I believe, was very much like the Ruth and Elizabeth of old. We’ll summarize a taped interview we did with her where she shared memories of her parents and grandparents from the “horse and buggy days.” Part II will concentrate on her parents and grandparents. Part III will tell of Mother Ruth’s early married life, and Part IV will bring you up to date on her later years. So, let’s begin with her names.

Several members of my mother Ruth’s family carry biblical names: her father Paul, her grandmother Rachel [Hoffman], her great grandmother Elizabeth [Leslie], and her great-great grandmother Mary [Patterson], for example. On her mother Bertha Campbell’s side were her Great and Great-great grandfathers Thomas and another Mary [Crawford]. Of her eleven brothers and sisters were Sarah, Lois, and Mary. And some, like my son Matthew, my Great-great-great grandfather James, and of course mother Ruth herself, were named for entire books of the Bible.

Ruth Elizabeth was born on June 8, 1917, to Paul Barton Gray (1892-1977) and Bertha Ione [Campbell] Gray (1893-1980), both fourth generation Americans descended from Scots and Ulster Scots [see “Introduction: Our Gray Family” and “Introduction: Our Thomas Campbell Family”]. As was the custom in those days, Ruth was born at the young couple’s home. They lived near both the Gray and Campbell families’ farms in Gibsonia and Bairdford, northern Allegheny County, PA. The first of twelve children, her first name, Ruth, was probably for one of Grandma’s favorite Bible characters. According to the Christian Resource Center, the original Hebrew meaning of the name is uncertain, but another source says that it means “friend” (BEHINDTHENAME.COM). Though Grandma Bertha didn’t have a computer back then, a quick search on the Internet today reveals many famous Ruths:
• Babe Ruth, the baseball Hall of Famer;
• Baby Ruth, the candy bar;
• Dr. Ruth, the sex psychologist;
• Ruth Bader Ginsberg, the U.S. Supreme Court Justice; and
• Ruth’s Chris Steakhouse, a national restaurant chain, to name a few.

Her middle name, Elizabeth, was her Grandmother Rachel’s middle name. This was also her great grandmother’s name as well, as we said before, and probably given after John the Baptist’s mother, Jesus’ mother’s cousin. The original Hebrew name is Elisheba, meaning “God is my oath” (BEHINDTHENAME.COM).

Like generations before, Ruth’s father did at least some farming, but his principle occupation was carpentry. He built many houses throughout that area. At least several times he would build a house for the family to live in, then move them in while he built the next one, each new one usually bigger than the last to accommodate the growing clan. Finally, after all the children were gone, he built a small cottage for just himself and Grandma on the edge of the Valencia farm in southern Butler County and sold what was left of the farm property, the proceeds of which they lived on in retirement. We’ll hear more about Paul and Bertha in Part II.

Life in rural Pennsylvania was hard in the early 20th century and this family was poor by anyone’s standards, even though they probably didn’t even know it. They were not unlike the poor Israeli family in Rev. Hall’s sermon we referred to above. The federal government didn’t keep poverty statistics then, but with the First World War going on, the farmers were left at home to feed their usually large families as well as the entire nation. Some of Ruth’s uncles did go to fight, however, and probably returned home to a new prosperity. [See the series “Uncle Ray Campbell’s World War I Diary.”] But Paul and Bertha and Ruth and her brothers and sisters barely made it through the Great Depression that settled in after 1929. We’ll look at what their daily lives were like in a moment, but first, as a part of our family narrative that wasn’t mentioned when I was growing up, it must be recorded that the county government was after Grandpap Paul, to use an accounting term, “to stay current” with his property taxes or get off the land so that someone else would. Many homes and farms were put up for Sheriff’s Sale in the 1930’s. Remember, work was scarce, he had a dozen mouths to feed, and there was no public assistance, food stamps, or social security of any kind back then. Veteran CBS news anchor Walter Chronkite, in his recent memoirs, recalls his own mother serving what he called Alpo-burgers during the Depression, and his father was a prominent dentist. He says, “There just wasn’t any money around in those days.” Though most of Mom’s brothers and sisters were probably too young to remember or understand much about this ordeal, there must have been a certain amount of shame associated with being forced off one’s land for that proud, self-sustaining Scottish-American family. This was a different kind of, and much harsher, form of government intrusion into the lives of the common folk of Western Pennsylvania than that of Allegheny County taking the Pearce property by Right of Eminent Domain to build a new-style public park and conservancy in 1927. [See E-Gen: Pearce series “Settlement at Pine Creek.”] The Pearces were paid a fair price to relocate to another farm for “the public good.” But, Paul and Bertha Gray’s farm was offered at Sheriff’s Sale before they could raise enough money to pay the back taxes in the mid-thirties, and there was no choice but to ask friends and neighbors to take the children in until an agreement with the government could be reached. Ruth and many of the family went to live with the Wilson family nearby. By that time, however, Ruth was out of school and had begun to date Ralph, whom she had met while working at the Nursery Tearoom along Rt. 8. More about the courtship and marriage in a moment, but first let’s go back and find out what life and school was like for poor rural children in the Roaring Twenties.

Ruth remembered walking, as a little girl, to the one-room Hazlett School near Gibsonia in all kinds of weather. Later, students were bused to a new two-story building in Bairdsford. Though she finished 8th grade before going off to work, she said that she was “held back” in 5th and 7th grades for doing poorly in arithmetic and history. Ruth was always a good writer and loved to read. She smiled as she recalled, at age 85, some of her teachers:
I really didn’t have a favorite teacher. In first grade I had Bertha Catherwood. She was real strict. I had Mrs. Colbert and a Robert . . . I can’t think of his last name now. Then I had Mrs. Hollsopple and Doyal Schwab. He’s the one who could sing like a woman, a real high-pitched voice. I think he was a music teacher as well.

In describing the clothes that the children wore, she continues:
We wore dresses then and high-laced shoes. I don’t think we ever wore slacks. Mother would make our clothes, our dresses and underclothes, out of feed sacks. Dad would get feed for the chickens [in 100-pound bags], and they had different colored prints on them. They were really pretty. We wore long stockings.

In the early 1930’s Ruth’s father purchased a small farm in Middlesex Township, southern Butler County, and the growing family moved. She called the place “a regular truck garden.” They raised corn, tomatoes, and all kinds of vegetables. In his spare time, father Paul ran a small produce stand along busy Rt. 8 in nearby Cooperstown. Cousins named Norris’s eventually took over and ran it successfully for many years when I was growing up about a mile south of there. Today, another family has a garden center at the location. Ruth was about14 when the family moved north and probably didn’t want to start into another school district, so she took a job not far from the market at the Kalgeon Restaurant. The next year she did similar work at what was called the Nursery Tearoom, about three miles south along Rt. 8. She wore a uniform with a white apron and cap. Along with waiting on hungry customers, she learned to cook. The thing that she remembered the most is meatloaf. But beef was not the only meat that she ate in those days. She told me, “Dad had sheep, ducks, rabbits, and probably some hogs, and he’d clean those and Mother used to can the meat.” Just like the restaurants, and reminiscent of the heavy animal feed sacks Grandpap handled, the Grays bought a lot of their food in 100-pound bags: flour, sugar, and beans. Ruth doesn’t ever remember going hungry, and their most common fare was mashed potatoes and navy beans. Grandma’s brother Will supplied them with potatoes and apples from the original family farm. In addition, they had one cow for milk and a couple of work mules named Amos and Andy, named for the black comedians the family would listen to on the battery radio at night.
Ruth said, “We listened mostly to the news, and I liked to listen to all the different bands. But, we couldn’t listen too long because the battery would run down. We had all oil lights, no electricity, and had to carry one to light our way up the stairs to the bedrooms.”

By the time Ruth was 19, and working at the Tearoom, she began dating my father Ralph. You may want to read about the man she still mentions so often, her husband of 63 years and my dad, Ralph Hill Pearce (1918-2002). [See E-Gen: Pearce “The Sons of Wesley and Bessie: Part III – Ralph.”] She changed employment to St. John’s Lutheran Home in Mars, about four miles away, after leaving the Tearoom. There she cleaned the old folks’ rooms and washed the dishes. She said that several children from the local orphanage would dry. She earned a dollar a day, $30 a month plus a room, but she gave $5 to her mother, put $5 in the bank, and kept $5 for spending money. She went back to the farm only briefly after her father Paul regained ownership of the property. She did help with all of the brothers and sisters back home as time permitted, and perhaps because of that she used to claim, “I’ll never get married, and if I do, I’ll never have any children.” She quickly added, “Never say never, because that’s the exact thing you’ll do. I got married and had four children.”

As we’ll learn in Part III, in an interesting twist, that young Ruth, who had worked so hard trying to get through school, helping her mother with their large family, doing one menial job after another, and all the while living so many places, never had to work outside the home after she married Ralph. But because of her various experiences, she became known as the woman who could do almost any domestic thing: cook, can, sew, the things that so few young women are taught these days. Let’s go back now just briefly as Ruth leaves her job at the St. John’s Home to move in with and take care of her Grandmother Rachel [Hoffman] on the Campbell farm near Bairdsford, northern Allegheny County. That brief experience taught her even more of the skills needed to eventually raise a family and run a household. Ruth was in her late teens then. She said, “I had to milk the cows, separate the milk, churn the butter, and help do a lot of little things. Grandma wasn’t very well and I had to take care of her.” The butterfat and milk cream was kept in a stream of running spring water in the basement. Ruth also told of dragging an old washer outside onto a slab of cement. She then carried water into the house from barrels in the barn to be heated in big double boilers on the coal stove. Then that had to be carried outside to the washer. After scrubbing the clothes, they were rinsed with clean spring water that also had to be carried. Also out beside the patio was a large bake oven. Apparently Grandma did most of the baking, but it was Ruth job to light it, then smooth out the coals, and put the bread in there. When that was done, the pies were put in, apple or any fruit that was in season. In “Part II – Her Parents and Grandparents” we’ll learn more about living with and caring for her stern Scotch-Irish and German-American grandparents, William and Rachel [Hoffman] Campbell.

Yes, Ruth came from a large family, which wasn’t unusual in rural Pennsylvania in those days. [The first two generations of Pearces in America each had 10 children.] But, despite some hard economic times and legal setbacks, Paul and Bertha provided well for their 12 children. Only Emerson died in childhood, succumbing to pneumonia at nine months. Mother is quick to point out, “All we had was a coal stove to heat with.” We closed our conversation with the memory of Grandma Bertha’s favorite possession, a big upright piano from her parents’ home: “As soon as they could, they moved it to Cooperstown, and she’d play and we’d sing hymns. She had started when she was only five years old, and only had a few lessons. She played mostly by ear.” These two contrasting memories, the tragic death of her baby brother and the family gathered around the piano happily singing hymns, takes us back to the life of the biblical Ruth where we started this article. But, the scenes also remind me of a short piece by Scottish poet, Robert Burns, that I believe reflects the life and philosophy of my mother and the various families of those early days that she was a part of:
To make a happy fireside clime
For we’ens and wife
Is the true pathos and sublime
Of human life.

Go to “Part II: Ruth’s Parents & Grandparents”

Go to “Part III: Ruth’s Early Married Life”

Go to “Part IV: Ruth’s LaterLife”

Last revised 7/25/19

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