Long before John and Ruth Ferguson became fixtures in the local community, they were two teenagers falling in love in Nebraska — one letter at a time.
Some 627 letters written between 1925 and 1930 were found in the attic of their former home on Ridge Avenue in State College by their daughter, Rachel Ferguson Rider. As a retirement project, Rider created a blog for the letters and created a presentation outlining the stories told in them.
“I felt like I was in a wayback machine,” Rider said. “They read like a novel that covers five years in American history ... F. Scott Fitzgerald, jazz, flappers, the stock market crash and more.”
More than any of those things, though, the letters are a love story. They grow more personal as the years progress and conclude just before the couple’s wedding in May 1930.
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John Ferguson was a political science professor at Penn State from 1934-1967. Ruth Ferguson was a music teacher who taught piano lessons in their home. They were active members of the Quaker community, and John Ferguson retired to Foxdale Village.
The Fergusons met as high school students at the Nebraska Central College boarding school in 1925. Ruth attended high school and then left to teach while John stayed to complete a bachelor’s degree.
Their early letters, written during summers spent apart, sounded more like a conversation between pen pals than love letters.
“Your friendship has forced me to abandon some of the worst habits one could have, and I’m afraid that under the circumstances of this summer, I would drift back into the same habits if it were not for thinking of you,” John Ferguson wrote in June 1925.
“Why can a letter from a certain young gentleman make lowly despised tasks not so bad after all?” Ruth Ferguson wrote a few weeks later.
Glimpse at history
Rider said she had no idea the letters existed before cleaning out her parents’ home. It took her six months to read them and put them in chronological order. She heard stories about some of the things mentioned in the letters but, much like reading a book, she was introduced to new characters and had to take notes to keep track of who was who.
As time progresses, the letters start to get more “mushy,” as Rider describes it. She redacted much of that information before posting the letters online and said she felt embarrassed at times while reading them.
“It’s amazing to find out how much your parents were in love,” Rider said.
The letters also talk about the struggles the Fergusons faced during the Great Depression. Ruth Ferguson’s grew up in a farming family and faced the possibility that she might not be able to return to school in the fall.
“If there’s no rain, there is no corn. If there is not corn, there are no hogs. And if there are not hogs then there is no school for me,” Ruth Ferguson wrote in the summer of 1927.
Ruth Ferguson also faced a difficult decision of whether to marry once she finished school or pursue a teaching career first. The culture at that time was such that women were not able to work once they got married.
She ended up teaching while John finished college, but the decision was not an easy one to make.
“You know what I want to do but if I would stay you would be so much freer for your work, and there are so many things I could be doing in the meantime that I couldn’t do or at least you wouldn’t want me to do if we were married,” Ruth wrote in September 1927. “Why must they bar a married woman from teaching when in many cases she could be a better teacher by having her lifelong companion with her?”
Friends’ early days remembered
Discovered along with the letters came memorabilia related to them, including Ruth Ferguson’s wedding dress, sweaters from Nebraska Central College and valentines sent with the letters. Rider collected the items and paired them with a slideshow about the letters that she showed at Foxdale Village in January.
Foxdale Village resident Libby Pennock was good friends with the Fergusons and recalls many great times spent at the Friends Meeting House in State College. She said it was interesting to hear about the early days of her friends’ lives and see how their thoughts influenced their later life.
“They talked about fruit trees, and they had many of those at her home,” Pennock said. “It was also interesting to hear John talk about what his office would look like and how much he stayed true to that.”
Lost art of letter writing on display
Many of John Ferguson’s professional papers and other work from Penn State is housed in the Special Collections Library at Penn State.
University Archivist Jackie Esposito said finding a large collection of letters like the ones Rider said is rare, but not unprecedented.
“It’s a great study in the long-lost art of letter writing and what courtship was like during that time,” Esposito said. “People didn’t have any other means of communicating, so there are details in letters that we would never think about writing today.”
Though Rider jokes that the letters could be made into a movie, said she does not have any immediate plans for them. She lives near Philadelphia and has talked with Swarthmore University about the possibility of housing them, but nothing has been confirmed.