By Dan Back
For several years I have been writing news articles under the heading “Life on the Ohio”. I recently was fortunate to meet a fascinating lady who has truly lived a “Life on the Ohio” – Ruth Schwade.
Ruth has some fantastic photographs of growing up in Markland as Lock and Dam 39 was being built. I visited Ruth to scan the photographs for use in a permanent museum exhibit about Lock and Dam 39. We have a lot of pictures of Lock and Dam 39 construction at the museum.
What makes Ruth’s pictures unique is they tell the story of everyday life in Markland as the Lock and Dam was being constructed. My interview with Ruth brought life to the story of Lock and Dam 39 and gave me a new perspective on growing up in Switzerland County.
Ruth Brameier and her twin sister Mary were born in 1911 at their home in Markland. The site of the home was to become Lock and Dam 39. When the girls were born the family sent a horse and buggy into Florence to bring the doctor back to their house.
In 1913 the government approached her father about selling three acres for the new Lock and Dam 39. His options were to sell the property – or have it taken. The family sold the three acres and moved to another house on the property. Ruth was two years old. They had cows and other livestock. There was a large orchard on the property.
Ruth remembers all the fun she had playing with her sister. Ruth said Mary was always the leader. They played with the children of workers at the lock. Ruth remembered all their names. Growing up in Markland, the families watched out for each other and their children. They were not allowed to play on the lock and dam construction site but would get an occasional tour.
Her dad would take children across the river in his skiff to the town of Ethridge. The town no longer exists.
Ruth attended one-room school houses for grade school. She attended the Gullion and Markland schools. She went to high school in Vevay.
When Ruth was growing up the towns of Markland and Florence were thriving communities. The towns had schools, doctors, churches, a band, a ball team and numerous stores. As a child Ruth and her sister would walk to Markland along a path near the river to take piano lessons. Almost every family had a piano.
Ruth’s family visited the showboats that stopped along the river. She attended shows on the Princess and Goldenrod showboats.
There was a large sandy beach along the river before the lock and dam was built. To clear the land needed for the lock the workers routed the river next to the bank and washed away excess dirt.
When construction began at Markland several Dormitories and a mess hall were built for the workers. Those workers not living on the construction site lived in Vevay. A bus would transport the workers to and from town daily. There would be a dance in the mess hall every Saturday night. Ruth and Mary attended the dances regularly.
Recognizing an opportunity Ruth’s father and his brother, Charles, built a store and a pool hall on the road leading to the construction site. The store carried work clothing, tobacco, soft drinks, medicine, candy, and cookies. There was a large cracker barrel. The store had coolers and walk in boxes. Ice for the coolers was brought in weekly from the ice plant in Vevay. Women and children were not allowed in the pool hall. Ruth and her sister were not allowed to hang around the store unless they were picking up items. Their uncle had a switch he used to discourage the local children from hanging around.
Her uncle Charles worked at the store and pool hall until he went into the service during World War I. He played the saxophone in the Army, as opposed to going overseas to fight. Ruth remembers one time when her uncle tied a bag of candy to a dog’s tail and sent the dog home with candy for the kids.
To accommodate the workers, picnic tables were set up in the orchard. A Lock and Dam 39 baseball team was established. The games were played in Ruth’s father’s cow pasture. Before a game her father would walk the ball field removing cow pies.
When the dam was completed in the 1920’s, five two-story brick homes were built as permanent housing for the lock workers. Ruth remembered the name of each family.
To control the locks a power house was built. Ruth and her sisters first job was working at the powerhouse running a teletype. They recorded boats, river levels and temperatures. This information was passed on so that the lockage of the boats could be coordinated.
In 1929 Ruth met a young man, Dilver Schwade, at church. Since she was now 18 she was allowed to date. Their first date was a trip to the Hoosier Theater in Vevay.
In 1932 they were married and moved to a farm near Quercus Grove. They lived in a 14-room house. When they married they bought a house full of furniture from a store in Aurora. Ruth showed me the bill. They paid $10 down on $500 worth of furniture.
I interviewed Ruth sitting at the table purchased in 1932.
Ruth worked hard on the farm. They had cows, pigs, sheep, chickens and geese. Twenty cows required milking every day. They would go into the field and milk the cows where they stood. Processing of the milk was all manual labor. She loaded bales of hay onto wagons and into the barn.
Ruth and her husband had one daughter, Norma Jean. Jeanne attended Patriot High school. She still resides in Switzerland County.
Ruth vividly remembers the 1937 flood and has numerous photographs of the flood. Many of the photographs were taken at Lock and Dam 39. Some show her uncle helping people recover their possessions from their homes.
Ruth regularly drove the tractors on the farm but could not drive a car. In 1961 she talked her husband into getting a smaller car and teaching her how to drive.
When her husband passed away in 1962, Ruth went to work at the school for one year. Needing a full time job she applied to work at Osborne Clothing in Vevay. She worked there for almost 20 years. For the first 10 years she drove to town daily. In 1972 she moved into town.
Ruth went from not being able to drive to a love of travel. While working at Osbornes, Ruth used her vacation time to extensively travel throughout the United States.
Ruth still lives at home in Vevay. She has an amazing memory. Her parting comment to me was “life has been very good to me and I wouldn’t change a thing.”
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