Tuesday, October 16, 2012
“Visits with Mrs. Picket” is a great book, rich with the musings of one of Hood River’s most prolific muses, Ruth McClain Guppy. It gives you a feel for our community through the eyes of a woman, a well-trained journalist, a mother, a humorist, an environmentalist and a historian.
Ruth started writing about Hood River in the 1950s, first for the Hood River Daily Sun, and later for the Hood River News. Her columns were titled “Over the Picket Fence,” and over time she became affectionately known as Mrs. Picket by neighbors and readers alike.
Ruth’s writing was always conversational, much like easy-listening music in the background of day-to-day life. But in a split second her words could catch you off-guard, evoking deeper meaning, proposing plans of action or consolation, leaving the reader inspired to do something that would change local conditions for the better.
She could hop from topic to topic like the Easter bunny, leaving treasures here and there to be discovered by the casual reader, especially those just looking for some local gossip that might have been exchanged over the back fence.
Ruth was no casual writer, having honed her writing talent in the University of Oregon School of Journalism, outdoing journalistic notables in her class like Tom McCall, past Oregon governor and frequent childhood visitor to Hood River. I must admit, I don’t remember reading Ruth’s column in the 1950s, perhaps because I was just learning how to read about that time, and television was making its début. Television with its bedazzling technology that brought the world into our homes through tiny rabbit ears, outstripped the wonder of books and the local rag’s circle of influence.
Ironically, I became aware of Ruth’s writings not in a classroom or in our living room but on the upper bench of our family sauna.
It was here that many local notables were discussed by the Finnish women in the community. And Ruth was a notable on two fronts: She was a woman first and foremost, ahead of her time in her profession as well as her personal life, and school chum of my aunt Ellen Annala Purdy. Sauna-spun stories of adventurous road trips through the Columbia River Gorge, Ruth at the wheel of an old jalopy, pushing the car to its limits. Ellen bounced in the rumble seat, catching air on the steep hills like a downhill racer on Mount Hood moguls. Both women living in the moment, liberated long before it was in vogue. Stories like these made me seek out Ruth’s newspaper column in the early 1960s, turning me into a lifelong fan.
Over time, Ruth became more than a columnist to me. During the 1970s when I was working on interviewing the Issei from Hood River and learning about our valley’s spotted history in treatment of the Japanese immigrant, I learned that Ruth had a treasure-trove of clippings and magazine articles that were related. A consummate collector of all things written, historical and Hood River, she opened her bookshelves to me as well as her notebooks of projects, completed and yet to be explored. In the 1980s I was researching the history of fruit labels in our valley after finding a box of AGA fruit labels in the old packing house on the farm. Back to Ruth’s house for Agriculture History 101 and her trunk of fruit magazines and railroad land promotion flyers uncovered when she wrote the history for the Apple Growers Association’s in the 1960s.
In the mid-‘80s I was working with cousin Lise Yasui on the film “The Family Gathering” and in the early ‘90s with Lauren Kessler on her book, “Stubborn Twig.” Once again I turned to my local friend and historian to immerse myself in her documentation, thoughts and memories. Ruth had a way of capturing the feeling and the essence of the times. She walked me down the main street of Hood River where she grew up, right through the front door of the Yasui Store. I could hear the singsong voice of Renichi Fujimoto, as he offered her treats from the candy jar. I could feel the curiosity of a little school girl as she overcame the fear of entering the mysterious Far Eastern atmosphere the store exuded.
Ruth taught me to look at the details as well as the bigger picture. That one’s best work can be done before the birds wake up in the morning. That listening to your neighbors and understanding the feelings behind their words will give you a far better picture of the reality of the moment. She taught me that the written word may outlive some of the newest technological inventions. That the valley we live in has changed more in the last 200 years of settlement by our ancestors than it did in the 2,000 years inhabited by Native Americans. That new discoveries would retell history, but searching for clues was a part of the adventure.
History was always in the making for Ruth as well as in the discovering. She introduced me to Nathaniel Wyeth, Henry and Nathaniel Coe, Ezra Smith, Eph Winans, Indian Martha and Alma Howe. I discovered more about my father’s contemporaries, Doc Edmunson, Percy Manser and Billie Sunday. She reintroduced me to Chief Tommy Thompson and his wife, Flora, after my interest was piqued by reading and soaking in the photographical flavor of Martha McKeown’s books “Linda’s Indian Home” and “Come To Our Salmon Feast.”
When I mentioned we were circling the Care Center on one of the earlier St. Urho’s Day parades, Ruth regaled me with stories about the care center’s predecessor, The Cottage Farm. Its owner, Alma Howe, was hostess to Gov. Tom McCall, his mother and father and grandfather, all of whom were extremely wealthy financiers, copper barons and politicians.
Ruth Guppy had a strong influence on my life, from getting up before the crack of dawn, to writing a monthly newspaper column. She has left us all a legacy.
This Sunday, listen to Ruth’s words through the voice of daughter and fellow writer. Pick up a copy of “Visits With Mrs. Picket” and start laughing, learning and listening to the beat of our valley’s historical, geological, political and human evolution from the 1950s to the 1990s. You may start building a proverbial picket fence around your heart to rekindle the spirit of Ruth Guppy.