Features appear in each issue of Pennsylvania Heritage showcasing a variety of subjects from various periods and geographic locations in Pennsylvania.
William Chester Ruth with his operating models of the self-raising elevator and a mobile amusement park ride, 1950s. He used a vacuum cleaner motor to power the elevator model. Courtesy Gwendolyn Ruth Dickinson

William Chester Ruth with his operating models of the self-raising elevator and a mobile amusement park ride, 1950s. He used a vacuum cleaner motor to power the elevator model.
Courtesy Gwendolyn Ruth Dickinson

It is apt to remember inventor William Chester Ruth (1882–1971) as a pinion in both his community and his machine shop and as a bridge between cultures and eras. The son of a man who had been enslaved until his 13th year and a woman from a distinguished free Black family, “Chester” displayed both confirmation of talent inherited from his parents and his own innovative path to the future. Steeped in the work ethic of his family’s farmstead and the spirituality of their leadership, his legacy extends from the patents and machinery he developed to the personal respect for him held today, especially among the Pennsylvania German farmers of eastern Lancaster County and western Chester County who are old enough to remember him. The way in which his special talents emerged as a youngster, appearing then to be plain mischief, is a lesson on perceptions of generational conflict.

The physical route by which the Ruths came to settle in Pennsylvania was typical among African Americans from the South, but the circumstances attending Chester’s father were exceptional. Samuel Ruth (1850–1837) was one of three children born to Leah, who had been enslaved since the 1820s and held to work on the plantation of Robert Frederick Ruth in St. Peter’s Parish of the Beauford District in South Carolina. Samuel was biracial; his half-siblings were not. They were forced to work in the fields; he as early as age 5 was made a house servant. Mother Leah had an independent spirit and resisted the lash of overseers, so in 1857, with the fall of cotton and tobacco prices, she was among the slaves whom Ruth chose to sell. Samuel’s last childhood memory of his mother was seeing her carted away in shackles after he had been torn from her and restrained.

Six years later in 1863, the Civil War raging, Union troops brought a turn to Samuel’s life. As he and the other residents of Ruth’s plantation fled, the Massachusetts 54th Infantry swept him up, and the 13-year-old found himself amid one of the Army’s most prominent African American units. In the space of two years, attending and befriending those soldiers, Samuel took the Ruth surname; developed contact with a soldier’s sister, Louisa Pinn, who would become his wife; and followed his best friend to Pennsylvania’s Chester County, where he would find tolerance among rural Quakers and agricultural land to support a family.

Ruth’s parents, Samuel and Louisa, were instrumental in building both the congregation and the structure of the small wood-frame Church of Christ in Ercildoun, Chester County, still extant today. This photo was taken around 1950. Courtesy Gwendolyn Ruth Dickinson

Ruth’s parents, Samuel and Louisa, were instrumental in building both the congregation and the structure of the small wood-frame Church of Christ in Ercildoun, Chester County, still extant today. This photo was taken around 1950.
Courtesy Gwendolyn Ruth Dickinson

Samuel and Louisa were an exceptional match, prolific in both faith and energy. Louisa’s parents had married as “free persons of color” in Virginia in 1839, and her father Robert Allen Pinn served as both minister and attorney before earning a Congressional Medal of Honor for being wounded three times while serving with the cavalry of the 5th United States Colored Infantry. Doubtless inspired by Pinn’s leadership, the teenage Ruths began to proselytize on foot from their home in Chatham and gathered a new African American congregation in Ercildoun, a Welsh Quaker community, 9 miles from home and only 15 miles from the Mason-Dixon Line. They led Bible study in alternating private homes until a vociferous abolitionist faction of the Fallowfield Friends there encouraged them to hold services in Free Hall (built in 1845 and later called “Peoples’ Hall”) just before Christmas Day 1868. Samuel baptized several followers and continued to lead the congregation with members of the Carter family, who had escaped from slavery in Virginia. (Decades later, some of Louisa’s saved earnings paid for a lot in Ercildoun, on which parishioners built a small frame church at the turn of the century that still stands today.)

Samuel and Louisa also worked hard physically to gather the resources to rear a large country family. He labored for a local farmer, as well as for a hide tanner, and Louisa performed domestic work both inside and outside their home. Between 1870 and 1882 they had seven children; two more died in infancy. Working hard and saving carefully, the Ruths purchased a 20-acre farm just outside Ercildoun village in 1886 for $850. The Ruth children acquired little formal education, because much of their time was consumed with farm chores at home and small paying jobs for others in the community. The family kept livestock, including cows, chickens and horses, and their typical chores included feeding and caring for the animals, gathering eggs, making dairy products, tending garden, and preserving fruits and vegetables to eat during the cold months. To earn additional money, they sold the surplus food that they produced. Even with a growing family, Louisa continued to do paid domestic work and so did two of her daughters. As further evidence of the Ruths’ energy and impact upon the community, Louisa served as a midwife. Samuel made the entrepreneurial purchase of a grain thresher, as much or more to hire out himself and the machine than to process his own grain.

 

Through hard work and full family participation, the Ruths progressed from slavery to owning a Chester County farm in one generation. Family members are gathered on the house porch, c. 1900. Courtesy Gwendolyn Ruth Dickinson

Through hard work and full family participation, the Ruths progressed from slavery to owning a Chester County farm in one generation. Family members are gathered on the house porch, c. 1900.
Courtesy Gwendolyn Ruth Dickinson

Although only the youngest Ruth child attended school, Louisa possessed the knowledge and skill to tutor both her husband and their children. Between 1886 and 1895 the Ruths had three more children at their Ercildoun farmstead. They purchased a log cabin from a neighbor and moved it to create a west addition to their house. By the turn of the century, the family could assume mortgage payments in the purchase of a 107-acre neighboring farm. Family and farm, built for the children, were at length increasingly reliant upon the children to contribute success. Samuel attained the confidence to travel south with his brother-in-law, find his aged mother Leah on a coastal island, and bring her northward to play a part in rearing her grandchildren.

Although several Ruth children developed special talents, Samuel had an unusual challenge with second son William Chester, born in 1882. “Chester” was drawn to the workings of mechanical things. He took the most direct route to gaining that knowledge by disassembling small machines and other implements. Taking advantage of his father’s absence or preoccupation elsewhere on the farm or away on errands, Chester took things apart that had attracted him and then raced to reassemble what he had deconstructed. When he failed to reverse those experiments, his father inflicted corporal punishment on him.

A bale press with the feeder at upper right, atop the baling chamber. Such bale presses were used from about the 1870s through the 1940s. Pulled to the location of use, they remained stationary while belted by pulley to an engine or horse-powered mechanism. Courtesy Gwendolyn Ruth Dickinson

A bale press with the feeder at upper right, atop the baling chamber. Such bale presses were used from about the 1870s through the 1940s. Pulled to the location of use, they remained stationary while belted by pulley to an engine or horse-powered mechanism.
Courtesy Gwendolyn Ruth Dickinson

Samuel might have perceived such agency in his child as undisciplined or selfish curiosity, especially when Chester’s hobby interrupted the mechanical efficiency of his busy family. Worse, the youngster’s forays surpassed inconvenience when the experiments were dangerous. Such an example was Chester’s attempt to turn a bicycle tire pump into a wagon jack. The stressed pump ejected from under the weight and struck him in the head. Later in life, he often reflected upon and recounted that misadventure as exactly the kind of event his father wished to prevent, and he long recalled how the pain to his head was worse than any whipping. Samuel’s frustrated reaction perhaps reflected how his long-ago enslaver — and probably his fellow house servants — had shaped and channeled his own formative years. Historians of African American culture Richard Wright and Leon Litwack have categorized such corrective training as conditioning for survival.

A photograph of the feeder apart from the bale press. Its most important features included a wide sheet metal receiving hopper, a chain-drive conveyor, whirling tines to loosen clumps of straw, and a turntable to adjust to conditions at each customer’s farm. Courtesy Gwendolyn Ruth Dickinson

A photograph of the feeder apart from the bale press. Its most important features included a wide sheet metal receiving hopper, a chain-drive conveyor, whirling tines to loosen clumps of straw, and a turntable to adjust to conditions at each customer’s farm.
Courtesy Gwendolyn Ruth Dickinson

As Chester matured, however, his mechanical interest and talent continued to develop, and it burgeoned into a vocation. In 1894 at age 12, he began to learn blacksmith skills. He had grown on the rigors of labor on his parents’ farm to aspire to build upon success, and by 1923 he opened his own blacksmith shop along the Lincoln Highway (U.S. Route 30) near the town of Gap in Lancaster County. Despite the ongoing transition throughout America from horse-drawn transportation and draft power to automobiles, trucks and farm tractors, Pennsylvania German Amish and Mennonite farmers around Gap kept Ruth’s skills in high demand, as his preserved business ledger from the 1920s documents. It is full of listings for work performed for customers with Amish surnames and recurring entries for farrier work and the repair and forging of plow parts and other agricultural tools.

Projecting beyond the practical and mundane tasks of fixing implements and shoeing horses, however, Chester began the theoretical work of inventing. His own experience farming, and the forum for neighborly discussion of mechanical problems that his shop had become, stirred his creative tinkering. He thus perfected an automatic feeding device to install between a straw-expelling thresher and the receiving chamber of a baler. He also developed an automatic field pickup component for balers. These were two of several inventions he patented between 1928 and the 1930s, as he expanded his smithy into a machine shop, working at times in collaboration with other larger metal fabricating establishments and equipment sellers, such as Lancaster County’s Denlinger Brothers. Ruth also patented a wintertime cinder-spreading bed for highway maintenance trucks that found ready application and purchase by the Pennsylvania Department of Transportation, and he worked on modeling a bombsight for American warplanes.

A full-scale Ruth elevator, 1940-50, with one of the commodities for which it was intended, conveying hay or straw bales up into the barn loft. It was also useful for carrying corn up into the corncrib. Shoveling cob corn down from a wagon into its receiving hopper was less work than slinging shovels full up into the crib opening. Courtesy Gwendolyn Ruth Dickinson

A full-scale Ruth elevator, 1940-50, with one of the commodities for which it was intended, conveying hay or straw bales up into the barn loft. It was also useful for carrying corn up into the corncrib. Shoveling cob corn down from a wagon into its receiving hopper was less work than slinging shovels full up into the crib opening.
Courtesy Gwendolyn Ruth Dickinson

It was his baler feeder and his self-raising conveyor-elevator that appear to have brought him the most financial reward, both of which he could produce in his own shop. The baler feeder won popularity beyond the local Pennsylvania German farming region, accountably because of its efficiency and provision of greater safety. He sometimes traveled several states away to install them. In the second half of the 1920s the modest Ruth admitted to having supplied customers from South Carolina to California and across the Plains and into Canada, selling as many as 21 feeders in a single day in 1928. The feeder’s components and advantages included hopperlike sides of sheet metal, a short conveyor to bring the straw right to the open port of the bale chamber, and a gauntlet of whirling and reciprocating tines to unclump the passing fiber. The entire device sat upon a turntable of steel rings, enabling the hopper to be swung to either side, accommodating the setting at each farm and reducing the need to reposition the cumbersome engine, thresher and bale press. The feeder also obviated the unsafe practice of some farmers to perch astride the baler while using a fork to guide straw into the bale chamber. For instance, in 1926, one Lancaster County man had fallen into the chamber and was mangled and killed by both the vertical and horizontal plungers. Ruth’s feeder made that hazardous practice unnecessary.

As with most inventions, the heyday of the feeder was not eternal, but it was the engine for successful conversion of the Ruth smithy into a going machine shop. In the 1930s and ’40s the field-driven baler, with automatic pick-up and self-tying mechanical twine knotter (also a subject of Ruth’s experimentation) signaled the end of the days of the traveling steam-threshing rigs. But Ruth’s self-raising elevator — a high-lift conveyor that could easily adjust to different barns — his other inventions, and his ability to customize and repair different types of machinery continued to make him an indispensable man in the agricultural community.

Ruth had prospered so sufficiently that in 1950 Ebony magazine told his story in the article “Inventor Businessman” in the same issue that pictured Jackie Robinson on the cover. A measure of his value to his community was noted in the article, which indicated that he was conducting more than $50,000 in business annually by the start of the decade. By this time, he also employed several shophands and had the assistance of his son Joseph and grandson Richard.

Although Chester made use of his practical talents, he also built upon the spiritual leadership his father and mother had established in the small Church of Christ meetinghouse in Ercildoun, when in 1914, at age 32, he took on his father’s mantle and began to preach to the congregation. At 70, he was still leading that congregation and delivering regular sermons. Free from the dislocations and familial disruptions his grandmother and father endured, he is remembered by family as quiet, contemplative, and confidently optimistic about his agency to affect the world around him for good and better existence.

The other main facet of William Chester Ruth was his deep faith and leadership in the Church of Christ at Ercildoun. Here, he prepares notes for a sermon, c. 1950. Courtesy Gwendolyn Ruth Dickinson

The other main facet of William Chester Ruth was his deep faith and leadership in the Church of Christ at Ercildoun. Here, he prepares notes for a sermon, c. 1950.
Courtesy Gwendolyn Ruth Dickinson

A habit of his, well-remembered by his offspring, was his tendency when driving a car not to look behind when backing up but slowly reversing until he bumped into something — tree, wall or other immovable object — before shifting into forward drive. That was perhaps in some measure indicative of his faith and optimism but probably also a function of his growing old. His family feared he might die in an automobile accident, but it was as a pedestrian along the highway that he was struck and killed in 1971.

Although nearly five decades have passed since Chester Ruth’s death, I have found in my research that he is broadly and kindly remembered across eastern Lancaster County and western Chester County, especially by Anabaptist Pennsylvania Germans. It is easy to find Amish and Mennonite farmers who want to read about or discuss his mechanical accomplishments, and it is not difficult today to find persons with direct memories of contact or even photos or other evidence of equipment Ruth fabricated or improved. The written and spoken word about Chester Ruth is as close as what can be determined of the character of his parents and grandmother Leah: bright, persevering, and upward bound.

 

Landis Valley Village & Farm Museum in Lancaster preserves and interprets working models that William Chester Ruth constructed to demonstrate his inventions, as well as a full-scale example of his baler feeder. They are part of a permanent interpretive exhibit on agricultural artifacts, ranging from the Colonial Era to the 20th century, in the museum’s Farm Machinery and Tool Barn. For more information, visit landisvalleymuseum.org.

 

The author thanks Gwendolyn Dickinson and the late Richard A. Ruth, the grandchildren of William Chester Ruth, for their kindness in providing information and sharing historic photographs and artifacts, and the late Dr. William R. Scott, history professor emeritus at Lehigh University, for whom a longer version of this essay was written as a graduate seminar paper.

 

Bruce D. Bomberger, Ph.D., worked for the Pennsylvania Historical & Museum Commission for 35 years, most recently as curator at Landis Valley Village & Farm Museum. He coauthored the books Made in Pennsylvania and The French and Indian War in Pennsylvania, 1753-1763 and previously wrote an entry on William Chester Ruth for The African American National Biography.