Reading can provide an escape from the challenges of real life, and it can equip one to face whatever comes.
My great-great-great grandmother, Ruth (Thorne) Dudley, was a reader (see my previous post, A Love of Books). She valued books–several of them remain in our family to this day.
Ruth’s life was hard. When she was seven months old, her mother died and left her in the care of her aunt, Sarah Dudley. When she was around seven years old, her father took the rest of the family to Indiana, leaving Ruth in New Jersey with her aunt. Ruth was taught as a young girl by a woman named Rhoda Collins who later married her uncle. Perhaps it was then that she learned to love to read.
When Ruth was fifteen, her half-brother Samuel was accidentally killed in Indiana. Samuel was not quite eleven years old when he died. He had been working in the corn fields with his father and the other men when a tornado came up. They ran to the house for protection, but as they were running under the trees in the lane, Samuel was caught by a falling tree and instantly killed. One of the men saw the danger and yelled to Samuel to hurry, but the boy paused a moment too long to glance upward and see why the men were yelling. His father Benjamin wrote the following on a piece of paper and kept it in the family Bible:
In memory of Samuel D., son of Benjamin and Hannah Thorne who was instantly killed by the fall of a tree May 5, 1837 in the 11th year of his age.
Thine eyes dear youth are closed in night
Thy thread alas is spun
Cut off at once from life and light
Ere half thy sands had run.
After Samuel’s death, Benjamin wanted to have all his children around him, so he called for Ruth to come join him and the family in Indiana. She obeyed his wishes and went to his western home, but carried with her a love for the land of her birth, a love that lasted as long as she lived.
Soon after arriving in Indiana, Ruth married her second cousin, Isaac Dudley, thereby changing her name back to her mother’s maiden name, Ruth Dudley. Isaac rented farms for many years, before finally deciding to settle in the city of Richmond. In the 1850 census, Isaac was listed as a wagoner; in the 1860 census, his occupation was simply “farmer.”
Isaac and Ruth had four children–all girls. The first, Sarah Dudley (surely named after the aunt who had raised Ruth in New Jersey), was born in 1842 and died after three months and twenty-two days. The second, Mary Jane Dudley, was born in 1844 and lived for forty-four years. The third, also named Sarah Dudley, was born in 1849 and died after one year, eight months and nineteen days. The fourth and final girl, Alice Anna Dudley, was born in 1858 and lived eighty-four years. (Alice is my great-great grandmother).
In April 1867, Isaac died, leaving Ruth a widow after twenty-eight years of marriage. She had only her two daughters, ages twenty-three and nine, although according to the 1860 census, Isaac’s brothers Aaron and Nathan were living on the farm with them.
Ruth ran the farm successfully for eight years after Isaac’s death. In letters written to her eastern cousins, she shared that she was at times lonely in the primitive little log house on her farm, but her daughters brought her much comfort. Alice went to the local school while Jennie, as the older sister was called, helped out at home.
In the spring the planting and cultivation of corn and garden vegetables had to be done; in the summer the marketing was to be attended to; and in autumn the cider to be made and the apple butter to be cooked. Throughout the year, Ruth traveled twice a week to Richmond for the Quaker meeting. Her obituary reported that “she was one of the prominent members of the Hicksite Friends’ church and spent most her activities in church and home life.”
Being a widow with two daughters, Ruth had decisions to make. She had to manage her household and provide for her family on her own. In 1874, she wrote to her cousin, “There are several who want me to go to town to live, but I don’t know how it will be yet; there is a great deal to be considered before making such a move.”
The summer of 1875 was wet and very discouraging on the farm. In the latter part of the year, Ruth moved into Richmond into a house on Tenth Street where she boarded a woman and her little daughter for the rent of the house. Jennie and Alice were much pleased with the change, but Ruth, at first, liked it no better than on the farm.
During the first twelve years of town life, the family had several changes of residence. Both girls found jobs in the sewing room of the Richmond Casket Factory; Alice worked there only a few years before marrying, but Jennie spent many years there. In 1881, Alice married one of Ruth’s boarders, Robert B. Fetzer (see my earlier post, Making Things). In 1888 after Jennie’s death from a tumor, Ruth moved in with Alice and Robert where she stayed until her death in 1914.
Ruth lived through all the challenges of raising children in log homes on small farms, of losing two daughters in infancy, of being widowed at age forty-four, of managing a farm with two daughters and no sons, of making a living by taking on boarders. I imagine that one of her sources of escape from all of this was her reading of books. There’s also little question that books provided her with information and encouragement as she made her way through life.