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Ruth Hershey, Mennonite Farm Woman and Photographer
She must have been, or so it seems now, a quiet radical. Her simple hairstyle and clothing choices did not betray the splendid strength of her creative eye. Nor was she pushed to the margins of her highly disciplined church community for her nonconforming pleasures.
Ruth Hershey, modest Mennonite woman, came to maturity during the Depression, joined the church, married, farmed, and built a family. Yet she never laid aside her box camera. Instead, she routinely disappeared into a wedge of a closet under the front steps in the hallway to develop her own film in complete darkness, while her children flowed through the rest of the farmhouse. (All that before electricity came to the Hershey farm, just outside Paradise, Pennsylvania, in eastern Lancaster County.)
Ruth Hershey was made of sturdy material. Her parents were first cousins, and Ruth credited that genetic wallop for her strong will. "Children may inherit double a character trait," she explained about herself. And, in fact, she needed that reservoir of strength. Life did not begin gently for this first child of John and Maze Hershey.
In 1898, when Ruth was two-and-a-half years old, and her brother John was a three-month old infant, their mother was nipped by a train at the Leaman Place Crossing, just outside Paradise, and lost her lower right leg. Maze saw a child crossing the main line railroad track, as was customary, but this time in the path of an oncoming train. She pushed him out of the way, saving his life, but when she stumbled and fell, the train ran over her leg. Maze was rushed by that same train to a hospital in Philadelphia for emergency surgery.
Thereafter Maze walked with a limp because of her prosthetic leg and was limited physically. But she bore seven more children and shared the work with eldest daughter Ruth, who saw it this way, "I had to look after the young ones because Mom couldn't."
She grew up quickly, assertively, capably. Custom and her mother's injury kept Ruth from completing high school. But neither of those matters prevented her discovery of other worlds. She became a voracious reader, especially novels by Marietta Holley. The heroes were women, cast as persons of influence, with men as mere appendages. It was literature that reflected the mood of the day -- women's suffrage and the temperance movement. Ruth Hershey couldn't stop reading. But if Holley's stories entranced her, they didn't draw her away from the Mennonite church community. Instead, she found quietly acceptable diversions.
She learned to play the organ. She amassed piles of sheet music.
She drove a "machine" early in her life. Because of Maze's handicap, John brought a car ahead of many of her fellow church members. (He also installed a bathroom and running water in the kitchen before most of his neighbors, again for the convenience of his wife.) In eastern Pennsylvania, licenses became mandatory for drivers in 1914. Ruth's was issued that year. She was 18 years old.
But she found absolute expression in the box camera that came her way during her mid-teens. She experimented. She documented. She spontaneously recorded what she loved most.
In a world where teenagers were expected to work hard and young women were prepared to marry, equipped with serving, cooking, gardening, housekeeping, and childrearing skills -- all in an attitude of quiet faithfulness to one's spouse and church -- Ruth Hershey had a few extra resources. She proved able to skirt the Mennonite community's tendency to make work a sacrament and the pleasure of creative expression suspicious, if not sinful.
She was no slacker -- there was never time for that! But neither was she a slave to the crowd of responsibilities that overlapped her life.
Ruth Hershey worked at home for her parents until she was 21. Ever a learner and lover of people, she then took up practical nursing, training herself from books that advocated home nursing and with the guidance of local doctors. She packed her two-year career with numerous cases, assisting with the births of 17 babies in one year.
When Ruth Hershey fell in love, it was with Willis Hershey from down the road. Woman of strength married man of meekness. They discovered each other at the Paradise Mennonite sunday school where she attended with her family and he came with the neighbors. Willis' parents belonged to the Old Order group that didn't have Sunday school. Maze and John were part of the more progressive church. That difference didn't derail Willis' and Ruth's romance, although Ruth wasn't sure her sisters-in-law approved of her special pleasures. And her mother-in-law asked that she please not take her picture. Ruth could live with that.
When Ruth and Willis married in 1918, they set up housekeeping in Ruth's family homestead. That was a bit out of the ordinary since farms usually passed to a son. But Ruth's brothers weren't ready to assume farming responsibilities, and she was the oldest of eight, and the only daughter who married. So she and Willis began buying the farm, and the elder Hersheys and their at-home brood moved to nearby Cherry Hill.
The children began arriving soon thereafter -- Marian in 1919; Mildred in 1922; Dorothy in 1924; Katherine in 1927; J. Robert in 1931; Ruth Naomi in 1933; Hulda in 1936.
The Depression threaded through the Lancaster County farmland, and Ruth and Willis Hershey felt it keenly. But they only grew more resourceful as they worked to make farm payments, and to shelter, feed, and clothe their youngsters.
Ruth turned to making cup cheese, a stringy spread made with sour milk. When the local milk company cut out their pickup of milk one day each week, she refused to pour the milk away. Instead, she found a market for cup cheese in some nearby factories and broadened the family's income. Soon her children were carrying along her homemade potato chips and doughnuts, offering them for sale as well. And in the spring, the family peddled Ruth's asparagus, sugar peas, and strawberries.