Historians Hear Story of the Ruggles House
"One of the finest examples in New England...of a small federal period home"
by Terry Hussey
It was standing room only at the museum on June 12 when Ellen Tenan of Cherryfield, addressed members and guests of the Milbridge Historical Society, talking about the elegant Ruggles House in Columbia Falls.
Built 1818-1820, the Ruggles House is recognized as one of the finest examples in New England and even in the country, of a small federal period home. Today it has been lovingly restored to its former splendor; but just 50 years ago, the house was in ruins. The roof leaked, the plaster was falling, and the windows were broken. It was described by a visitor as "the ghost of an dainty old lady, dressed in gray silk, who having wandered out of the past, had sat down the roadside and forgotten to go back."
Ellen told the historians how the home came to built in Columbia Falls, how it came to be in this sad condition, and about current plans for the restored home. She also showed slides depicting both the interior and exterior of the home and its elegant furnishings.
Tenan said that Thomas Ruggles was born in Rochester, New York, in 1770, the seventh son of Nathaniel and Deliverance Ruggles. He was born into a wealthy, well educated, aristocratic family. At age 25, he was seeking a vocation when he heard from a land agent about a large tract of land for sale in eastern Maine. The land comprised the entire township of Centerville. It was all virgin forestland, and Ruggles was able to purchase it for pennies an acre.
Ruggles and his new bride, Ruth Clapp Ruggles, came to the area in 1796, where he quickly became involved in the life of the community. Tenan said that he was the town's first first-selectman, the postmaster, and the head of the militia company. Later he was chosen to be the first judge in Washington County. He operated a store; several tenant farms, and owned ships and sawmills. It didn't take long for him to become an extremely wealthy man, because of all his successful business operations. His younger brother, Benjamin, joined him in Maine in 1797, after marrying the sister of Thomas's wife, Ruth.
Thomas began the building of his home in 1818. He went to Boston to find his architect, 21-year-old Aaron Sherman. He also brought back master craftsman Alver Peterson, the man credited with carving all the woodwork in the house. The house was completed in 1820, but Ruggles didn't have long to enjoy it. In December, of 1820, Thomas dropped dead of a heart attack while serving in court. " 'He dropped to the ground and expired,' is what it says on his tombstone," said Tenan.
Ruth Ruggles lived on in the house until her death, when she was in her 80's. Her unmarried son Frederick lived there with her, along with three of the younger, unmarried children. Another son, George Washington Ruggles, built and operated a store and home next door to the Ruggles House in a building is now the home of Columbia Falls Pottery.
Tenan said that by 1860, the family fortune was gone. "Some have accused Frederick of squandering the money, but I don't think that is so." She explained that there were a lot people living off the family funds for many years, and no one was contributing more money. They just spent it all.
Tenan said that son Frederick married Caroline Bucknam when he was in his 40's and had two daughters, Emily and Lizzie. Frederick and his family lived in the house for the rest of their lives. The girls never married. Emily died at age 37, leaving Lizzie to care for her aging parents until the end of the century.
"By 1900, Lizzie was living alone in the house," said Tenan. It had fallen into disrepair, and the kitchen ell was unusable. "The fence was gone, and the bushes were growing up all around it. Lizzie lived in just one room, the one used as a dining room today, and she cooked her food in the fireplace. There was no electricity and no running water. She gradually sold off pieces of the family china and silver to have enough money for food and firewood," said Tenan.
"Poor Lizzie was very proud. She had a hard time adjusting to poverty. She became reclusive, refusing to let visitors enter the house. There were many Ruggles cousins living in town who would have helped her, but she had a hard time accepting help," said Tenan. "They would leave food for her on the doorstep, but she wouldn't let them in."
Tenan said that when Lizzie died, the cousins inherited the property. They created a family Society to try to preserve the house, but it was the Depression, and no one had much money. Although they tried, the house slipped further into decay.
After completing her education, May came back to Columbia Falls and opened a small pharmacy where the parking lot for the house is today. "May was greatly loved by the people of Columbia Falls, and she loved them. She especially loved children, and was greatly interested in education. "She dragged everyone she could think of through the house, hoping to find a way to save it."
"May corresponded with people all over the world, try to find a way to restore and preserve her grandfather's lovely home," said Tenan. "She brought William Sumner Appleton, founder of the New England Society for the Preservation of Antiquities, to see the house, and he assured her that it was indeed worth saving."
Around 1930, a representative of the Metropolitan Museum of Art came to May, offering her $10,000 for the beautiful flying staircase from the house, to be placed in the new museum in New York. "May knew if she allowed him to take it, that was it. There could be no house restoration if it was gone. She was desperate for money, but she refused the offer," said Tenan.
At about this time, writer Arthur Train of Bar Harbor visited the home and was able to help May with some of the repairs. He had wealthy contacts in Bar Harbor who contributed money to fix the roof, cut back the bushes, and seal the house from the weather. "They had to remove the kitchen ell from the house, because it was falling down and in danger of taking the house down with it," said Tenan.
Edward Browning Jr. of Bar Harbor is credited with the idea of creating the Ruggles House Society in 1950, a non-profit organization whose purpose is to preserve the house. This is the same group that manages the home today. Over the years, many people from Bar Harbor and from Columbia Falls have served on the Society's board of directors. "This is the group that put it all back together," said Tenan. In 1950, the home was opened to the public for the first time.
Tenan said that as the restoration progressed, gradually pieces of the original furnishings have been returned to the house. Many pieces had been sold or given to people in the community who were eager to see them back where they belonged, in the house.
"It's a bright, airy house," she said, "with lots of light."It is beautifully furnished and cared for by the Society. The flying staircase in the front hall is known around the world for its beauty and uniqueness. The balustrade is completely unbroken, from first floor to second floor, and back down again. The wood carving throughout the home is remarkable. The mantels, fireplaces, and molding are all hand carved in great detail and variety. "I continue to marvel at the number of people from around the world who know about it and come to see this house," said Tenan.
In the year 2000, the 50thanniversary of the home's restoration, the Ruggles House Society kicked off a capital campaign to raise $500,000. The money will be used to re-create the kitchen ell, create an education program for school children, and provide an endowment fund to assure the home's future.
Tenan reported that in the first year of the campaign, they have raised almost $275,000. "It's been a lot of hard work, but we are very hopeful that we are going to succeed," she said.
Last fall, the Society had an historical archaeologist conduct a dig at the site of the old kitchen ell, hoping to determine its exact size. "Over 200 area school children were invited to come see the dig and to watch the archaeologist at work," she said. "It was really wonderful. They were so excited to see what was happening."
The Society now feels that they need another dig so that they can uncover the old fireplace. They are seeking grant funds for the project, so that the dig can be completed next fall.
"We envision a room full of school children sitting around the great old hearth, maybe baking bread. There's no reason why this house can't be used for education purposes from September through May. We don't have a place to do this now, but we hope to create a place be rebuilding the ell," said Tenan.
Tenan's love for the beautiful old home was evident throughout her presentation. Besides serving as secretary for the Ruggles House Society, she is campaign manager for the capital campaign. She is archivist for the group, carefully keeping track of all the home's artifacts and all the letters and papers associated with it. She even does genealogical searches for people seeking to find their family connection to the Ruggles family.
Anyone seeking more information about the home and capital campaign can contact her at RR1, Box 48, Cherryfield, Maine, 04622, or at firstname.lastname@example.org
The Ruggles House is open during the summer months on weekdays from 9:30 to 4:30, and on Sundays from 11 to 4:30. It is located on old route 1 in the center of Columbia Falls, just off route 1.