New Wilmington, PA
A real pearl
If you are ever in a trivia game and must come up with the real name of the actress who created the character known as Minnie Pearl, you can say that it was Sarah Cannon. Sarah Cannon died in 1996 at the age of 83, but Minnie Pearl lives on in stage performances by other comediennes.
In fact, she appeared in the Shenango Valley Senior Follies the past few years courtesy of Ruth Woods. Ruth’s local audience appreciated Minnie Pearl as much as Sarah Cannon’s larger audiences had.
In spite of the similarity of their on-stage personas, Sarah Cannon and Ruth Woods led very different lives. Sarah graduated from college with a drama degree, then spent her entire life in the theater, mostly as Minnie Pearl. She performed on stage at the Grand Ole Opry from 1940 to 1991, and on TV’s Hee Haw from 1969 to 1991. In contrast, Ruth has spent only a tiny bit of her life on stage. She lived most of her life being what Sarah only pretended to be: a genuine, down-home girl with a great laugh and sense of humor.
Ruth was born on the Mercer County farm of her parents, Brant and Zella Cooper.
“My father grew up in Volant, my mother in New Wilmington,” Ruth said.
While Ruth was growing up, her family belonged to White Chapel United Methodist Church. So did the family of Clair and Mary Woods, who purchased a neighboring farm. The second of their three sons was Chuck.
“We met at church when we were nine,” Ruth said. “We were childhood sweethearts.”
Clair farmed and worked as an engineer on the Pennsylvania Railroad. Chuck and his two brothers did most of the farm work. Chuck spent most of every summer on the fair circuit.
“In July every year, we started showing Black Angus cattle and Berkshire hogs at fairs,” Chuck said. “We went to every fair – Kittanning, Indiana, Butler, Mercer, Meadville, and Stoneboro.”
In 1955, after graduating from Sharon General Hospital School of Nursing, Ruth worked as a nurse at Mercer Cottage Hospital. She and Chuck were married the next year and moved to New Castle. Chuck’s father got him a part-time job as fireman on the railroad, which didn’t provide him with an adequate income. In 1958, he started working at Sharon Steel. When that also proved to be unsteady, Ruth worked as a nurse at Jameson Hospital.
Their first son, Keith, was born in 1957, and their first daughter, Becky, in 1959.
“We bought this farm in 1960,” Ruth said, “and moved here with two redheaded children. Kenneth, our only child who wasn’t a redhead, was born in 1962, and redheaded Amy was born in 1964.”
That rendered their 100-year-old house somewhat crowded. It was only 30 feet square, with just two bedrooms upstairs. But expanding it was no easy task. The walls were 18 inches thick at the top, tapering down to four feet at the bottom.
“You don’t move walls like that,” Chuck said. “So we expanded out through a door on one side and a window on the other.”
The house had been built right over a continuously flowing spring that runs through a trough in the basement, then outside into a pond that is large enough for swimming.
“The kids would put their swimsuits on, then their regular clothes over them and work in the hayfields with us,” Ruth said. “Between loads, they would come in, pull off their outer clothes, jump into the pool to cool off, put their clothes back on and go back out to work. We gave them swimming lessons when they were really small. Our kids lived in the pond.”
Like his father before him, Chuck knew he couldn’t earn a living from the farm, so he continued to work at Sharon Steel whenever he could.
“If you know anything about farming,” Ruth said, “you know you don’t make money at it.”
While laid off from Sharon Steel, he did farm work for other people.
“One time when I was laid off,” Chuck said, “I worked for a neighbor. He said, ‘Chuck, I know you can drive a tractor and farm. I’ll pay you a dollar an hour and you can work twelve hours a day.’ I did that for a year.”
When their youngest child started kindergarten, Ruth went to Slippery Rock State College to get her Bachelor of Science and Master’s Degrees in Nursing. She taught in Sharon Regional School of Nursing for eight years. Then she was offered the position of coordinator of the practical nursing program at Mercer County Vo-Tec.
“I worked there fifteen years,” she said, “and retired in 1996. I had 400 students graduate under me, and I would say 90 percent of them had no trouble finding work.”
Farming continues to be a major part of the Woods family life. Their son, Kenneth, who is a dentist in New Wilmington, took over the farm of his grandfather, Frank Woods. He grows corn, hay, and soybeans, and has about 50 head of beef cattle.
“He loves farming,” Chuck said, “and he keeps all of us very busy – his son, his nephews and me.”
“Ours is still sort of a family farm,” Ruth said. “The kids come back and help us harvest, and we’ll help them with whatever they’re doing. We do a lot of canning and freezing. We raise enough that if they don’t have enough in their garden, they come and get what they need. Our twelve grandkids have all grown up here helping and enjoying the farm. All of our kids live within 20 minutes of here.”
Keith and his wife own Pizza Joe’s in downtown Sharon. Becky teaches at Farrell High School, and Amy is a nurse in the regional prison in Findlay, PA.
Through all their years, Ruth and Chuck have been very involved with White Chapel Church and their community.
“We both teach Sunday School,” Ruth said. “For more than fifty years, Chuck has taught at the nursery school level. He’s the only man in the church who wears out the knees of his suit pants because he’s on the floor with the kids. He loves it.”
They have also helped the church in other ways. They gave the church three acres of land adjacent to the church. Two of those acres are now a recreation area, and the third is a garden named for Boaz in the Bible, who had his workers leave crops behind for the gleaners. The garden is the fulfillment of a long-time goal of church members Paula and Dave Swartz. They distribute the produce to food banks.
“The night we dug potatoes, the Shenango Valley food bank brought their big truck and loaded it,” Chuck said. “We dug up about 1400 lbs of potatoes, 580 lbs of onions, 320 lbs of green beans, and over 150 dozen ears of corn.”
The church was the birthplace of Ruth’s Minnie Pearl character.
“We used to have a monthly dinner with entertainment,” Ruth said, “and rarely did we have to go outside the church to find it. We had real comedians in the church. My brother Merle would play the saw, we had marvelous quartets, and our choir is still going strong. I have been singing in the choir since I was in high school.”
Ruth’s “Minnie Pearl” skits were part of that entertainment. A few years ago, she started to perform them in the Shenango Valley Senior Follies, where her Minnie Pearl found a wider but equally appreciative audience.
Away from the church, Chuck and Ruth helped children to learn about farming.
“We gave farm tours until this year,” Chuck said, “for seven or eight busloads of kids every year –from New Wilmington, West Middlesex, Sharon, Farrell, Hermitage, and Grove City – kids ages four and five who had no idea what a farm was all about.”
“Chuck would put bales of hay as steps so kids could get up onto a tractor,” Ruth said. “They loved it. They’d sit there and hold the steering wheel and blow the horn. Some of them didn’t want to get off. Then they would feed corn to the ducks, and look at the miniature horses. They could look them right in the eye. Chuck would have the feed ready for the cows. The kids could feel and smell the feed. It had molasses in it, so it smells good. They would go along and push the feed into the trough. The cows’ tongues would come out, and they couldn’t believe how long a cow’s tongue is.”
Ruth has always loved to sew. She made her own wedding dress and lots of clothes for her kids. Now her passion is quilting.
“Every spare moment I have, I quilt,” she said. “When I retired, I asked the grandkids if they would like a quilt when they graduate from high school. I made quilts for all of them.”
Some of them have received ‘Best of Show’ ribbons in fairs and quilt shows. Her tenth quilt won “Best of Show” at this year’s Great Stoneboro Fair.
Together, Ruth and Chuck have made more than 100 less artistic but very practical sleeping bags for the homeless. They have given them to the Salvation Army and homeless shelters.
Ruth keeps her mind young by taking a variety of courses at Slippery Rock’s “Learning in Retirement” program – geology, geography, whatever catches her fancy.
Maybe it’s keeping more than her mind young.
“She doesn’t look as old as she used to,” Chuck said.
Of course Ruth had a ready response: “I think it’s his eyesight.”
Excerpted from Lives of Quiet Inspiration, Volume 4, by Joe Zentis. Hermitage, PA: Green Street Press, 2010