Spinster aunts, part two: Ruth Esther Rockwood (1889–1969)
In last week’s spinster aunt post, I quoted a bit from Margaret Ward’s The Female Line: “many spinster daughters cared for elderly parents [...], ran the home and the family, had work or careers of their own, were at the forefront of charitable works…” Ruth E. Rockwood seems to have had broadly this type of energetic, organized and productive life, and as a result, to have left a more detailed trail of information behind her than did most of her siblings.
She was the sixth of seven children, born in Union City, PA in 1889. The family was strongly religious, which is something I don’t come across often while working on my tree: one brother became a Baptist missionary, one sister married a Baptist missionary, and Ruth herself appears to have been active in her church as an organist from at least the 1920s, by which time she lived with her elderly mother and disabled brother in Omaha, Nebraska. (See photo below: it was the Second Church of Christ, Scientist. I’ve only just looked up what this means: she was a Christian Scientist! I had no idea we had any of these in the family. And apparently her church, on Davenport Street in Omaha, was struck by lightning and burned to the ground in 1963. Huh.)
Most of what I know about Ruth comes from her local newspaper, the Omaha World Herald (which I was able to search at GenealogyBank). There I learned that she taught music in Omaha schools for 35 years, organized student performances, provided piano accompaniment at concerts hosted by organizations like the Apollo Club or the YWCA, and co-wrote something entitled The Ballet of Creation with her brother, John Millard Rockwood, in the late 1920s.
The Herald mentions the Norse-mythology-inspired Ballet of Creation several times. Its coverage gave me the name of the school at which Ruth taught, and where the piece was first performed: the Technical High School in Omaha. Looking up this institution immediately changed my view of Ruth’s career. I had imagined her working somewhere kind of modest and dull, a bit like my own high school, but it turns out that Technical High in the 1920s was new, large (the largest high school west of Chicago), and very much talked about; being on its staff was sort of a big deal, and it must have been a stimulating place in which to teach. It had well over 2,000 pupils, large gymnasiums, a swimming pool, a radio station, extensive workshops and labs. Its 2,600-seat auditorium hosted performances by New York’s Metropolitan Opera, John Philip Sousa and his marching band, Cornelia Otis Skinner, Helen Hayes, Douglas Fairbanks … and, in 1927, two hundred Omaha schoolchildren, performing Ruth’s work.
Because of all this I’ve formed an impression of The Ballet of Creation as a fairly big event in Ruth’s life, a high point, even. I don’t know whether she saw it that way, but at the very least, some of the coverage reproduced below would probably have made it into her scrapbook.
All of these cuttings come from the same paper at around the same time, but there are some inconsistencies. The length of time supposedly spent on the project changes from one year to three, and the involvement of Ruth’s “crippled brother” is left entirely out of the biggest item. The mention of the trip to Chicago and the audience with “famous composers” makes me wonder if Ruth had hopes of seeing her work performed more widely; Borowski and Weidig had links to the Chicago Musical College, the Chicago Symphony, and the American Conservatory. I can’t imagine the Herald neglecting to let us know if anything had come of this, so it seems likely that nothing did.
Ruth continued to live with John (who worked as a piano tuner, according to census records) after their mother’s death in 1935. Later,when Ruth retired, the two of them relocated to Arkansas, where John died in 1958. I’ve never learned anything about John’s accident or the nature of his injuries, and am curious about whether he needed Ruth to care for him in a practical sense, or whether they just kept living together for the sake of companionship or economy. I suppose, if she was a Christian Scientist, he may also have been. As I understand it, a big part of Christian Science is the belief that prayer heals more effectively than conventional medicine; which is, I guess, the sort of thing you might find comforting if you or someone close to you had sustained the kind of injuries that, 100 years ago, resulted in being labelled “crippled” by local journalists.
I’ve been surprised by how much I’ve learned about Ruth from her local paper – much more than I know about most relatives – but on reflection it makes sense. She had the kind of life that would naturally have been picked up on with reasonable frequency: consistently visible in the community by way of both school and church, with a touch of added interest in the form of her composition. If she’d led a conventional married life, keeping house instead of teaching at Tech High and writing ballets with John, we’d know considerably less about her – and, by extension, about her immediate family.