Thursday, September 6, 2012

Ruby Chapin Blackwell

Formal portrait of Ruby Blackwell

As I was doing research on the origin of box/basket socials as a type of entertainment and courting ritual -- especially as families moved westward to establish new homes -- I happened upon an interesting, entertaining novel about people moving west.  The book entitled “Courage of Substance, a Journey to the Oregon Territorywas by a 71-year-old first-time writer. I must confess, I found it as hard to put down as any of Louisa May Alcott’s books when I was a pre-teenager.

Although this novel had nothing about basket/box socials, it did elaborate on some of the lighter moments amongst the hardship and death often encountered on the long journey. Many evenings were spent enjoying music and dancing when there was someone with a musical instrument, whether a Jew’s harp, a mandolin, or whatever other instrument. The travelers would also share their meager food supplies at community suppers.

As I result of reading this book, I began a search for life after arrival and settlement in the new West and in the new communities.

I didn’t find another novel but I did find “A Girl in Washington Territory written by Ruby Chapin Blackwell when she was 96 years old.  Ruby’s journey west wasn’t in a covered wagon but instead by train.  Ruby’s mother was a widow with five children, and the country was suffering from the effects of a long Depression.

When Ruby’s uncle visited the family in Bridgewater, New York, in 1893, he and his wife took the two youngest girls home with them to Tacoma, Washington. Ruby was 7 and her sister Pearl was 12. The Blackwells, Alice and William, ran one of the first hotels in Tacoma and were a quite influential family. But this piece concentrates on Ruby, not the Blackwells. From Ruby...

“When I first talked to my Aunt about teaching, she stressed the idea that what I had to give was more important than the amount of money I might receive. I tried to live up to her admonition and more than earn my pay.”

Ruby’s Aunt Alice had helped George Ferguson of Artondale find customers for his poultry, eggs, butter, and cream that he took to Tacoma each week. And, Artondale needed a teacher for a three-month spring term. 
Students outside  

Mr. Ferguson arranged for Ruby to go home with him one cold February day where she received a warm welcome. A young man living in Artondale, the school district clerk, drove Ruby about to meet the three school directors at their homes.

Her credentials were acceptable, and she assured the directors that she would not attend the Saturday night dances. She also assured the directors that she would incorporate two expensive items that some good salesman had persuaded them to buy: a collection of wooden blocks in all geometric shapes and an anatomical chart nearly life size showing skeleton, muscles, nervous system, etc.  Ruby was offered the same $30 per month in 1896 as Emmett Hunt had received when he taught the first term at the new Artondale School 20 years earlier. Ruby wrote a lovely piece entitled “A Mélange of Experiences, Dug Up from Memories” in February, 1956, telling about her Artondale experiences.    

Ruby was a talented water colorist, and her paintings are of the Puget Sound area, Eastern Washington, and of course her beloved flowers. Her art often was on show at the Tacoma Art League or at the Washington State Historical Museum in Tacoma. All her life Ruby was a staunch supporter in money and contributions of the Washington State Historical Museum. Her contributions of Indian baskets formed the nucleus of the museum’s collection.

Ruby was a past president of the Tahoma Study Club, an honorary member of the Tacoma Garden Club, a member of the First Congregational Church, and life member of the Washington Historical State Museum.

Ruby, despite being quite beautiful, remained unmarried and died at age 103 in 1979.  

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