A Wonderful Women’s History Month Subject
Shirley Simmons & Betsy Gunter
Everyone who refers to her called her “Miss Ruth” so surely we should do the same!
This affectionate name seems to be a tribute to the gentle, friendly, and ladylike qualities she always personified. The intellect and dedication of “Miss Ruth” to history and genealogy continues to enable us to document many facets of the early area history.
About 1956, she appears to have seriously begun her collection, research, and compilation of the history of the Jones, Adams, Atkins, Northingtons, Utleys, Speights, Rowlands, Betts, Hunters, Fuquays, Tapleys, Blanchards, Yanceys, Johnsons, and many others. The impetus for her research seems to have begun in 1935 when she was elected Secretary for the Utley family reunions. Her friendships with Mrs. A. J. Fletcher, Mrs. Cornelia Norris and Mrs. Elizabeth Reid Murray are noted in several articles. Ruth Bethea Johnson is listed in the dedication of the first volume of the History of Wake County as one of Mrs. Murray’s sources. Certainly materials and pictures were used from her collection in parts of these two volumes.
Ruth Bethea Johnson was born December 17, 1895. The first child and only daughter of Kemp Bethea Johnson and his wife Mary Alice Utley. Their official address was Old Shop but her birthplace was actually Raleigh, N.C. Her father was cutting timber on the property of John Mills during that winter and the couple were residing temporarily in Raleigh when their daughter chose to arrive.
A few years later, K. B. Johnson built their new family home in what we know as Five Points. The reason was clear. His timber business would utilize the new Mills Railroad (chartered as the Raleigh and Cape Fear) to ship lumber. Johnson operated a large sawmill in that vicinity which Ruth estimated provided the livelihood for about 100 people.
Ruth grew up with five brothers, Harold Weston, Brantley Baird, Marvin McKenzie, and Atkins Burnett. She never married. According to her brief obituary, two brothers Marvin and Burnett remained alive along with three nieces, four nephews, seven great-nephews, and five great-nieces. One of her nieces, Betsy Johnson Gunter, has kept clippings and pictures which she allowed us to use.
We have not confirmed that Ruth attended Oakwood School and possibly Irene Cook’s school but there are pictures of her brothers at Oakwood. We have learned that she graduated from the public Holly Springs High School. That boarding high school opened in 1908 in a large brick building and was one choice for high school for many local students before Fuquay Springs opened our high school in 1918.
We located her as a sophomore and Vice President of that class in the 1913 Yearbook for Elon College. In 1915, she was one of two Psephelian Commencement Essayists with her title “Choosing a Vision.” According to Mrs. Weathers, she studied in Chicago and took private piano lessons at some later point in her life.
One of her students, Mrs. Hurley Weathers, recalled Miss Ruth affectionately in 1961 for the Fuquay Independent. She described a dramatic operetta titled “Miss Cherry Blossom” directed, produced and presented by Miss Ruth and the students of Fuquay Springs High School some time in the 1920’s. The show featured costumes arranged by a former student whom the Johnson family had sponsored at Elon, Loshio Sato. Married to a wealthy Japanese import-export merchant, Ms. Kato shipped props and costumes to “Miss Ruth” from their NewYork office. Transportation was erratic even then, so that J. E. Brown (agent at Varina Station) actually personally delivered them to the high school just in time. The production traveled to Apex and Coats High Schools and all the “geisha girls” of Fuquay Springs were stars according to Mrs. Weathers.
Taking leave from teaching , Miss Ruth traveled abroad. The Fuquay museums have her copy of the Cunard Line cruise from New York to London on Wednesday, July 7, 1926 and her return on Cunard’s RMS Antonia sailing August 7, 1926 from Southampton to Montreal. She is listed as a passenger on both voyages.
The 1930 Federal Census lists her as teaching and living in the family home. We have not been able to confirm whether she was back on the Fuquay Springs faculty; however,
the 1940 census finds her boarding in Raleigh and the owner of a book shop.
Her niece Betsy remembers The State Bookshop and visits to see Aunt Ruth there. She describes the book shop as having an opening into the foyer of the State Theater Building on S. Salisbury Street. Among Betsy’s keepsakes are children’s books which came as gifts written by various authors who did book signings at the shop. One of these treasured editions was written by Anna Roosevelt, daughter of FDR. Betsy remembers fondly overnight visits with Aunt Ruth at Park View Apartments in Raleigh.
The State Book Shop era of her life provided the materials she donated to the archives of Elon University. Her legacy gift to Elon University Library consisted of 139 editions, estimated by some at $50,000. Numbers of these books were first editions, many autographed during special teas and book signing occasions at The State Book Shop. Included in the archival materials are handwritten notes from Inglis Fletcher thanking Ruth for an event on Dec. 12, 1950 and other occasions.
Besides Fletcher, James Boyd, Bruce Catton, Thomas Wolfe and Margaret Mitchell are authors among her collection of first editions. Gone With the Wind was recorded by Ruth as being the first edition which sold for as much as $3.50.
This entire collection was housed in special bookcases built from a walnut tree cut on the Johnson land. But even more important, the gift was made in honor of Oma Utley Johnson. Oma was Ruth’s first cousin, the daughter of her mother’s brother, Rufus. Oma happened to marry an unrelated Johnson. Oma Utley Johnson was a graduate of Elon with Ruth in 1915, and served as librarian from 1932-1959 at the university.
Upon her retirement from the book shop in 1956, Ruth began in earnest the writing of family history. Concerning Our Ancestors: The Johnsons and their kin was published in
1980 by Ruth. According to the volume, it was printed by Harold Parker and Sons Printers, and distributed by Standard Homes Plan Service. Other sources tell us that William Johnson provided funding in his estate to cover the publication.
Sources also give credit to Campbell University for assisting in the typing and compilation. Miss Ruth created a charitable annuity fund at Campbell for the Fine Arts Center. That institution provided some materials and pictures to the museums during our work on the town’s history. She served on the Presidential Board of Advisors at Campbell and as a retired musician and artist chose the Fine Arts program as her beneficiary there.
According to Betsy, “Miss Ruth” returned home to live with her mother in her latter years and remained in the house after Mrs. Johnson’s death. Her father, K. B. Johnson had been killed in front of his home when his automobile was struck by a Norfolk Southern freight train on Nov. 13, 1943.
The History Room of Wake Chapel Christian Church is dedicated to Ruth Bethea Johnson. In truth she established, collected materials and furnished this as a labor of love. She and her entire family were life-long members of that institution. Her uncle, Rev. J. Lee Johnson, was the most revered pastor, serving the church for 29 years.
Ruth Bethea Johnson died on January 25, 1985 at age 89. She is buried with many of her kin at Wake Chapel Cemetery. She is remarkable for her allegiance to family, Elon University, Campbell University, and her devotion to research and the history of our area. The Fuquay-Varina Museums are honored to present this brief biographical sketch in recognition of “Miss Ruth” during Women’s History Month 2022.
Sources: Grateful appreciation to Crystal Carpenter who shared materials from the Archives Biographical file of Ruth Bethea Johnson at Elon University.
Yearbook photo, 1915 Elon College.
Interviews and materials from Betsy Johnson Gunter.
“Former Pupil Heaps Praise For Teacher,” Mrs. H. R. Weathers, Independent, October 26, 1961; “Fuquay High Faculty in 1922,” Mrs. H. R. Weathers,Independent, May 4, 1949. “Johnson Family’s History Involves Community,” Independent, May 6, 1981.
F.V. Museums files and pictorial archives. U.S. census records.
Elizabeth Reid Murray, History of Wake County, Vol 1, Capitol County Publishing Co, Raleigh NC. 1983.
Ruth Bethea Johnson, Concerning Our Ancestors: The Johnsons and their kin, Harold Parker and Sons, Fuquay-Varina, NC. 1983.