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IN FOR THE LONG HAULTHE LIFE OF JOHN RUAN
By WILLIAM B. FRIEDRICKS
UNIVERSITY OF IOWA PRESSCopyright © 2003 Ruan, Incorporated
All right reserved.
Chapter OneSmall-Town Beginnings: The Adventures of Johnny Ruan
From the second floor of the home where he was born in Beacon, Iowa, in 1914, young Johnny Ruan had a bird's-eye view of early-20th-century American life. Below him was the community's main street, and from the bedroom window, he watched small-town life unfold. Next door to the east was Nail's Confectionery Shop, where children often stopped for ice cream. Across the rutted dirt road shared by horse-drawn wagons, a streetcar line, and the occasional automobile stood one- and two-story wooden framed buildings. There, townspeople patronized such establishments as Perry's Grocery, Johnny T. Jones Grocery, and J. A. Jones Meat Market, where the enticing aroma of smoked sausage and ring bologna wafted from behind the counter to greet customers. Farther down the street stood a Knights of Pythias lodge, a blacksmith shop, and the post office. And because the streetcar track ended with a turnaround loop right in front of his house, Johnny got used to hearing the clanging bell of the passing trolley. A block north of the Ruan home was the livery stable, while the town's train depot was across the street to the west. A lively place, the station was served by three railroads at the time-the Chicago, Burlington, and Quincy; the Rock Island; and the Minneapolis and St. Louis-and offered news and goods from the larger world. Just off the main street, but not within Johnny's view, were the town's two austere, clapboard churches, one Baptist and one Methodist, where the faithful gathered on Sundays and for various social occasions.
It was here in Beacon, a small town in Mahaska County, Iowa, 70 miles southeast of Des Moines and two miles outside of Oskaloosa, that John Ruan spent the first years of his life. Situated amid rolling hills on the banks of Muchakinock Creek, Beacon had a population of approximately 500. Small towns like Beacon were commonplace across the United States in the late 19th to the early 20th century, and American authors were especially intrigued by life in these communities. Mark Twain wrote of the benefits and drawbacks of village existence, but the joyful frolickings of Tom Sawyer and Huckleberry Finn were his most enduring images. Others, such as Sherwood Anderson and Sinclair Lewis, described these communities as crude places of limited opportunity, isolation, and cultural poverty, while Hamlin Garland remembered his small town fondly, as a place of supportive friends and family.
Like other such communities, Beacon combined both the good and the bad aspects of small-town life. Economic opportunity, for instance, had been limited, largely tied to the local coal mining industry. But by the time Johnny Ruan was born, the town had seen better days. As construction of central Iowa railroads occurred from the 1860s through the 1880s, demand for coal rose and Beacon, located near rich veins of the commodity, soon prospered. By the mid-1890s, its population climbed to 971. Sixty percent of the town's workforce labored in the mines, while a good number of other jobs were supported by miners' dollars. Two decades later, Beacon had fallen on hard times, and its population had decreased by half. Demand for local coal fell off after World War I when a growing number of Iowans as well as the railroads began buying higher-quality, cleaner-burning coal from out of state, but by that time the town was already in decline. Initially, Beacon's demise was connected to its close proximity to Oskaloosa, a town of nearly 10,000, and eventually the rise of the automobile. With the larger neighboring city just two miles away, many essential businesses and services never developed in Beacon. Likewise, when the streetcar line that ran past the Ruan home connected the small town to Oskaloosa in 1906, further movement between the two centers occurred. Later, when automobiles became more common, people could commute to work from Oskaloosa, which had much to offer that Beacon did not.
The town's misfortune did not adversely affect young John. In fact, he may have benefited from the community's demise. Historian Tom Morain noted that in small towns, a family's social identity was intimately tied to the male head of household's occupation. Not only was his father, John A. Ruan, a physician, he was the last remaining doctor in town. This occupation placed him and his family squarely among the elite in Beacon society.
"Doc" Ruan's father had come to the United States in the 1850s, migrating with his father and two brothers from St. Croix, Danish West Indies, to New York City and then on to central Iowa. His mother's family, the Mendenhalls, had come to Iowa-where they had acquired land on which Beacon was established-from North Carolina and could trace their ancestors back to the Quakers who immigrated to Pennsylvania with William Penn.
The son of a farmer and coal miner, John A. Ruan graduated from the Normal Institute of Mahaska County in 1888. He then taught at the Riverside School near Beacon for several years. The tenderhearted Ruan clearly cherished his teaching experience, and at least once, he wrote his students a poem before they parted for the summer. It ended with the lines: "Adieu kind scholars, we must part, and these are the thoughts of an aching heart. If in this school, some scholars dear, we ne'er should meet again, I still will kindly think of you, and now I bid you all a kind adieu." But Ruan had greater ambitions, and in the late 1890s, he left teaching to study medicine at Central Medical College in St. Joseph, Missouri. He completed his doctor of medicine degree in 1900 and set up his practice in Beacon. The young doctor soon established himself, and by the summer of 1904, observers noticed that Ruan "had been improving his place ... No one could secure any satisfaction from him as to his intentions, and the air of mystery deepened as conflicting reports came into circulation and different domestic furnishings were seen to arrive at his place of business." The suspense ended on July 4 when several friends received wedding announcements. Two days later, on a stormy summer afternoon, the 34-year-old doctor married 28-year-old Rachel Llewellyn in a ceremony at the renovated Ruan home.
Rachel Llewellyn was the daughter of Thomas Llewellyn and Elizabeth Jobe. The second of 15 children, she was born in Alton, Illinois, and settled with her family in Beacon, where her father worked as a coal miner. Rachel was known for her beauty and reserved disposition, and according to family lore, she once dated John L. Lewis, the eventual head of the United Mine Workers.
The newlyweds soon settled into the rhythms of small-town life. Doc Ruan provided medical care out of his home-one of the largest in town-which had an office in the front half of the first floor and three rooms for patients on the second. As most doctors did at the time, he made frequent house calls, originally by buggy and later by automobile, one of the first owned by a Beacon resident. He was widely known as a compassionate and accommodating doctor. These traits were put to the test more than once. In an unusual case, a woman brought her injured pet pug to him for emergency care. Ruan gently explained that he knew nothing about treating animals and suggested she take the dog to a veterinarian. She countered that since he was her family's doctor and since the dog was part of the family, he needed to help the injured pet. He finally relented and treated the dog after the woman promised she would later seek veterinary care for her pet. And like many other physicians at the time, Doc Ruan often took items such as a ham or eggs in trade from people unable to pay for his services. Most commonly, patients offered chickens in lieu of money, and the coop behind the Ruan house was frequently filled with poultry given to the doctor. When not involved in his medical practice, Doc often entertained people by playing the piano and the violin. He also composed music, and at least one song, "She Always Had a Date," was published. In addition to his musical interests, he was a leader in the Methodist Church and a member of the Masons.
Short, with a powerful, stocky build, the doctor sported a fashionable mustache, which originally had been grown to cover a scar above his lip that was the result of being kicked by a horse. His outgoing personality and jovial manner made him a popular figure, and as a member of the professional class, Ruan was active in civic affairs. Historian Lewis Atherton explained that in every small town, the elite's "personal interests were so tightly interwoven with those of the community at large that one cannot determine where self-interest ended and public spirit began." Long concerned with the continuing decline of Beacon, Ruan once ran for mayor. He headed the Progressive ticket in 1916 and during the campaign drafted a handbill that began by asking a series of questions: "Do you believe your town could be made better? Would you like to see it better? ... What have you done to make it better? ... Have you laughed at town decay or have you given it any serious consideration?" The answer, according to the candidate, was the election of an "energetic Booster Council" and a "clean, honest mayor not afraid to do the right thing at the right time and place. Good clean, moral, active, citizens, who will hold up the town instead of knocking it down." In a closely contested election, which saw the heaviest voter turnout in a generation, Ruan lost the election by 10 votes.
Ruan's wife, Rachel, could not help but comment on the election loss. Reminding her husband that his Democratic Party ties were not popular in the region, she joked, "You couldn't get elected dogcatcher in this area!" People in the community, however, rarely witnessed her humor. Generally quiet, Rachel was strong and independent. Constrained by contemporary social standards, which dictated that proper women remain at home tending to the domestic chores, she was seldom seen in public. One of the few acceptable outlets for women was religion, and Rachel regularly participated in the activities of the local Methodist Church. Otherwise, from time to time she paid calls on a select group of neighbors. These few activities notwithstanding, villagers were struck by the differences between the gregarious Doc Ruan and his introverted wife, and local gossip often characterized her as standoffish and aloof.
Although clearly opposites in personality, Rachel and her husband complemented each other, and in 1910, the couple was blessed with their first child, Jay Arthur. Characterized by those who knew him as a friendly, carefree youngster, Arthur reportedly lived for the moment and was a spendthrift who "couldn't hold a dime longer than it took to get to a place to spend it." He soon began running around town with a rowdy crowd of boys causing all sorts of mischief. Once, for instance, while playing up on the roof of his house with several friends, he knocked the chimney down. Such antics gave Arthur the reputation for being something of a prankster. Following Arthur by four years, John was born on February 11, 1914. The baby of the family, he was doted on by both parents, and Rachel soon became very protective of him. Whether to prevent John from emulating the wild behavior of Arthur or because he was a sickly child, Rachel kept him on a short rein.
Ironically, during the Spanish influenza epidemic of 1918, it was not the flu virus that struck four-year-old John but pneumonia combined with whooping cough. In an era before antibiotics, the infection was often acute, and in this case, John's father performed emergency surgery on him at home. To ease his son's breathing, Doc Ruan removed a section of John's rib and inserted a tube to drain the mucus from his lungs. Following this serious illness, Rachel grew even more protective of John, and given the large number of relatives the family had living in town, keeping a close eye on young John was fairly easy.
While trying to shield him from further debilitating illnesses, Rachel tightly restricted John's activities and allowed him to spend time with only a handful of the town's other prominent children. One youngster John frequently played with was Marie Ogden, the daughter of Beacon's postmaster. She remembered Mrs. Ruan as "very protective" of John. "He was allowed to come over to my house, but that was about the limit." Besides closely regulating his whereabouts, Rachel thought that the family's social position mandated a certain decorum. For John, this belief dictated that his wardrobe mirrored the fashion trends of the eastern establishment. "My mother used to dress me like Little Lord Fauntleroy. White blouse, knickers, and long stockings that came up and fastened to a garter belt under my shirt." Many of the town's young boys were put off by the ostentatious outfits, and they often picked on little Johnny Ruan. On several occasions, John recalled, he was "beaten up" because of his clothes.
His outfits were not the only factor that set John apart from many boys his age. At his mother's insistence, John took years of piano lessons from a local woman named Jenny Frye. Such training merely isolated him further from most male playmates. Soon, John became somewhat of a loner, and he was drawn to another ostracized child, John Bedillon. Three years younger than John, Bedillon was from one of the few Catholic families in town. As post-World War I xenophobia swept the nation, Catholics generally fell under suspicion. The climate in Beacon was no exception, and, because of his religion, Bedillon was often harassed by town bullies. John clearly empathized with the younger boy's shabby treatment, and he defended him whenever he could. The two became good friends, with John playing the role of an older brother. He introduced Bedillon to various Halloween tricks, such as knocking down cornstalks. One of John's favorite pranks involved placing a knife which was connected to a tightly wound cord under a house's siding. After the twisted string had been pulled taut, John would let go. The knife would bang against the siding with "an awful racket" and startle the household's residents. When the two friends grew older, it was John who took Bedillon to his first shivaree.
Not playing with many other children meant that much of John's time was spent with adults. He often traveled with his father on house calls, and he occasionally sat in the Mahaska County Hospital observation area while Doc Ruan performed surgeries. The youngster treasured these trips, and much to his father's delight, young John hoped to become a doctor as well. The two also enjoyed free time together, especially target shooting. Doc Ruan taught John to shoot skeet, and the son spent countless summer hours aiming at clay targets. When not in school or with his father, John sometimes sought out the company of Mike Monks, the local section foreman for the Rock Island Railroad, or Ned Owings, another railroad man. Often, when he was supposed to be in Sunday school, John sneaked down an alley to the railroad depot, met up with Monks and Owings, and the three of them took a handcar on safety inspection tours of the railway track. On other occasions, John was with a town character known as "Old Man Okey." In his 80s, Okey loved entertaining youngsters in front of his house, and John, who had inherited his father's love of music and singing, often joined the old man in song. Much to the delight of other children who gathered at Okey's house, John sang in a high falsetto while the old man sang the melody.
Excerpted from IN FOR THE LONG HAUL by WILLIAM B. FRIEDRICKS Copyright © 2003 by Ruan, Incorporated. Excerpted by permission.
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