It was a pair of homegrown Osborne County boys who honed their natural talents and developed separate inventions that brought them lasting fame and recognition. Charles Hamlin and William Penn Ruth were two of the five sons of Richard and Sarah (Folk) Ruth, who were members of the Pennsylvania Colony that founded the town of Osborne, Kansas, on May 1, 1871. Sarah was pregnant at the time with Charles, who was born November 24, 1871, on the family homestead in Penn Township. William, known as Bill, was born there February 27, 1873. Both worked on the family homestead a mile northeast of Osborne and attended the local schools. Together with their older brother Richard Ruth, Jr., they learned blacksmithing and in 1889 Richard and Bill opened a blacksmith shop in Downs, Kansas, while Charles continued to farm. By 1894 Bill was operating the blacksmith and machine shop alone. With too much business for one man to handle he got his brother Charles to help him out, and soon made Charles a full partner. On December 12, 1895, Bill married Effie Melissa Porter in Downs. Together they raised four children–Pearl, Ralph, Clarence, and Francis. Over the next seven years the Ruth brothers operated the prosperous shop and in their rare spare time worked on various ideas of their own.
“[The] Ruth Brothers, the blacksmiths and machinists, have completed the striking machine which they have been working on for some time. It is quite a wonderful invention and displays rare mechanical skill and genius on the part of these two fine mechanics. It is operated by steam; when in motion the wheels revolve one hundred times per minute, making the hammers strike two hundred powerful blows.” — Osborne County Farmer, March 3, 1898.
On May 22, 1901, Charles traveled to Glen Elder, Kansas, where he entered into marriage with Grace Dorothy Robb. Her father, the Reverend Elijah P. Robb, performed the ceremony. They had four children–Harold, Florence, Charles, and Ellen. A year after the marriage the Ruth brothers sold the shop to Fred Reich and his father-in-law, John Pottberg. William went to work for them building machinery and Charles decided that it was time to head for greener pastures. By 1903 he had settled his family in Brawley, Imperial County, California. He bought forty acres and farmed for a year at first and was later involved in teaming before returning to blacksmithing.
Blacksmith Shop Busy Again
“C. H. Ruth has secured the blacksmith shop of Jake Gardner. Mr. Ruth is an experienced blacksmith of many years standing and an expert horseshoer. All work in his line will be attended to promptly, and a good job done.” — Brawley News, October 6, 1905.
“One of the landmarks of Brawley is Ruth’s blacksmith shop on 5th street, and its proprietor has well earned a place in the ranks of the pioneer builders of Imperial County and as a steadfast, earnest worker along material lines. . . . his present shop . . . has since been the headquarters and main reliance of the rancher and everyone else in the section for everything in general blacksmithing, horseshoeing, wagon repairing, wood and iron work of all kinds and auto repairing.” — Osborne County News, January 20, 1911.
Imperial County, California, is the greatest continuously irrigated area in the United Sates, relying on water from the Colorado River. The water is brought to the fields through concrete irrigation canals. However, in the early 1900s the canals were mere ditches. A machine was needed to dig and clean the ditches, so Charles created and patented the Ruth dredger. The tri-wheeled dredger was pulled along a canal by a cable which was attached to a post. An engine wound the cable around a cylinder. The rear wheel nearest the canal actually telescoped across the canal while buckets at the rear of the dredger moved in a continuous loop to remove dirt and plants from the ditch.
The dredger had a problem at first; as the cable was wound on the cylinder, the dredge began to move faster as the cylinder’s diameter became greater. But the dredger needed to move at a constant speed, and as Charles needed help with this problem he asked his older brother Richard to come to Brawley. So Richard and his family moved to California and between the two brothers the desired constant speed was finally achieved by adding a system of gears so that the operator could shift gears as a change in speed occurred.
“In the face of existing conditions and in competition with all other methods and machines in use, the Ruth dredger made its advent in Imperial County . . . This machine combines economy, efficiency and durability of construction not equaled by any other make of dredger. Eighteen of the Ruth dredgers are operating in the Imperial Valley alone. Mr. Ruth has received testimonials from the most practical and eminent irrigation men as well as prominent engineers in various parts of the country. The first Ruth dredger, put out in 1908, is in good condition today, and has been in use almost constantly, and much of the time it has operated night and day.” — E. C. Frear, History of Imperial County (1918).
Patented in 1910, the Ruth Dredger fleet operated throughout California and the southwestern United States for many years and netted Charles a comfortable income. Meanwhile, Bill continued working in Downs, first for Reich and Pottberg, then under Henry Drager for a few months. Then between 1904 and 1918 he started and sold three different blacksmith and machine shops. After three years as a traveling salesman for the George C. Richardson Machinery Company Bill opened a blacksmith and automobile garage in Downs which he operated until his death. His three sons assisted him in the shop and later became mechanics in turn. Bill continued to tinker with new ideas for inventions and in 1937 he patented the first panic bar, a garage door latch that opened garage doors from the inside. The panic bar is now by law a basic component on the doors of all public buildings. But Bill never made a cent off of the patent.
“Grandpa was always crippled as I remember, using a crutch and cane. As of now I can not remember the source of his disability. However, I do know that this led to his most important invention. His garage was very small for his car and he developed what is now known as the panic bar latch so he could just back his car against the door and it would open. This saved him from squeezing around behind the car to open the door. The Ruth descendants would all be millionaires now as these latches are required on all public buildings as a fire safety regulation. I think the big companies waited for his patent to run out so they could steal it from Grandpa.” — Donald Hettinger, grandson of William Penn Ruth.
Charles Ruth lived in Brawley for many years before he moved to Los Angeles, California. He died there May 16, 1951, and was buried in the Rose Hills Memorial Park in Whittier, California. Bill Ruth passed away September 2, 1954, in Downs and was laid to rest in the Downs Cemetery. Both of their most famous inventions have been preserved in recognition of the talents of these Osborne County natives. In 1989 Bill’s panic bar latch and patent papers were given by his descendants to the Kansas State Historical Society. In 1997 a special exhibit entitled Moments of Glory opened at the Kansas Museum of History in Topeka, Kansas, which honored the achievements of famous and not-so-famous Kansans; featured in the exhibit was Bill Ruth and his panic bar latch. And on the grounds of the Pioneers’ Park Museum in Imperial, California, can be found one of the original Ruth dredgers built by Charles Ruth, a testament to American adaptation and ingenuity.