When Derrick left The Enterprise, I met with my new editor and brought up an idea for doing a special article on Ruth, which would include things about her book. (I must make clear that Derrick was in no way responsible for the article not getting written in the first place.) Today I finished the article. I'm worried about her, though, because I've been trying to reach her by phone and e-mail for two days, to get additional information before I submitted the story to the paper. She's been so excited about the article, that it just seems very strange that she would not respond. I'm concerned because she has had to cancel two luncheon dates because she was not feeling well.
But anyway, I decided to share the article with you, giving you a jump on what will be published, perhaps next week, in the paper.....
Ruth Chambers arrived in Davis from Los Angeles in 1994, after the death of her father, for whom she had been the sole caretaker 24/7 for two years following his massive stroke. Prior to her father’s incapacitation, she had worked with civic theater, produced several shows and was a newspaper photographer. Following her father’s death, she had to ask herself what she was going to do now.
"My friends were leaving Los Angeles. They were middle aged people who were leaving for a better life somewhere else. So I started going to where they had gone."
Her travels brought her to San Luis Obispo, which she decided was too upscale for her so she decided to push on to Davis.
"I got here at midnight and I looked around, like an LA person does. I cased the joint in 15 minutes. It had trees. It was quiet. I liked it. So I wrote down the name of a realtor, went home, called her the next day and said ‘find me a place to live.’ She did and I put my stuff in a van and I moved up here."
Chambers lost no time in making a name for herself. The name was "Granny Muffin," a woman of indeterminate age, with bright red hair, who wandered around Davis in her bib overalls, put on puppet shows at the Farmers Market, drove a car covered with astroturf, with dozens of tiny figurines decorating the dashboard and she hosted "Granny Muffin Reads" for about six years in the early days of DCTV.
"Ruth is a lively woman who puts her full heart into all that she does," says Kari Peterson former executive director of DCTV.
"DCTV was the perfect platform for her talents. She produced shows, she helped others with their shows, and she was out on the street with a camera to cover anything any time. She had a ball. She's generous, funny, very multi_talented and has crazy, unbounded energy."
Her unbounded energy led her to old Sacramento and the Living History Program.
"I thought I could do a little street thing somewhere on a corner, a puppet show of some kind because I was already doing puppet shows here in Davis. I went to Old Sacramento because I knew they had street entertainers. But you have to wear something evocative of the period so I had a dress made by someone who knew what she was doing and then I heard about the Living History program. I started going to the meetings and there were all these people dressed up like 1849 people and I just kind of got into it. It was wonderful."
"Sometimes there’s a path for you and you don’t know it until you’re actually on it. It’s just interesting that way. I now do a gold rush puppet show. I do it anywhere, but mostly out of the Sacramento history museum which is on I St., by the River. I cover the gold rush period all the way through the transcontinental railroad so it’s not your usual puppet, it’s history."
As she got into her role, she became even more authentic and made her own dress–by hand, without the use of a sewing machine. "I started with an apron, no pattern (the women of that period had no patterns). It took me six hours. I thought well, that’s not that bad. I can make a dress. I have time. It took me 32 hours to do the dress and the apron."
Now she’s working on her third dress ("because I’m an idiot"), though she points out that most women of the era only had two dresses. " Can you imagine only having two things to wear? That’s smelly. But they were smelly people."
Her work with the Living History program has led Chambers to write her first book, "The Weight of Gold," which is available at the Sacramento History Museum, and locally at The Avid Reader.
The heroine of her story is the "Widow Chambers," who travels to California from New York with her husband, who dies en route of cholera ("It was very typical of the time. 40% of people died on their way to California," she explains).
"That leaves me a widow who will have to support herself. When I get to Sacramento it’s mostly young men between 18 and 24, very few women, and of course I’m too old to be marriageable. I already have grown children back east. So I start gathering berries in the foothills and making fruit pies and selling them on the street, which is one of the ways women could make a living back then."
Chambers explained that women could not own property during that period, so a woman couldn’t buy a farm. "If you were a widow you could be a housekeeper, you could be a cook, you could run a boarding house–you couldn’t own the boarding house. You’d have to get a man to own it and then you’d rent it from him. So then I come up with this pie thing because I didn’t want to do the other things, and probably because I was kind of feisty because of my life with Mr. Chambers. The women back then were supposed to shrink back, but because Mr. Chambers and I supported ourselves together with the Chambers St. Theater, I was used to maneuvering a bit. So I started this pie business, building my own outdoor oven."
As she discusses the book, the line between Ruth Chambers, author and The Widow Chambers, character sometimes blurs. But her enthusiasm for bringing stories about the Gold Rush, particularly about the people who didn’t go searching for gold, but who provided the support back in Sacramento, is strong and her book is replete with bits of homespun information you are unlikely to find elsewhere.
Unable to find a publisher for her book, Chambers self-published and has been marketing the book herself. "I wanted my book to be a family book as all of my TV and radio stuff was, where the family gets together again, because what I see if families falling apart. Everything I’ve been doing for the last 20 years is trying to get families together. Here’s an opportunity to read together and it could be entertaining for the adult and entertaining for the child."
She is now working on a sequel and still excited about sharing tidbits with her audience.
"Ruth enters your life in a big way, and smiles and laughs all the way through. What's not to love?" says Kari Peterson.