Ruggles House takes visitors back in time

You’ve probably been told before to “sleep tight.”

But do you know the origin of that phrase?

In the 19th century, rope beds were common. They were made of wooden frames with thick rope strung through holes in the sides. As a person slept through the night, his or her weight caused the bindings to loosen, so every evening before bed, he or she turned a “bed key” — a wooden wrench of sorts attached to the ropes — to tighten them back up.

This is just one of many interesting tidbits learned on a guided tour of the Historic Ruggles House in the Washington County town of Columbia Falls.

Through the tour of the Federal-style home and its period furnishings — 50 percent of which belonged to the Ruggles family — one learns not just about the family, but about the way life was in 19th century Maine.

The Ruggles House was built in 1820 for Thomas Ruggles and stayed in his family for three generations, spanning 100 years. The patriarch wore many hats — saw mill owner, postmaster and judge among them — and was quite wealthy.

Just a few months after the house was completed, Ruggles died, leaving behind his wife, Ruth, and seven children. His wealth vanished with him. The next generations had little money, and the house fell deeper and deeper into disrepair.

“Because [Thomas’s children and grandchildren] had no money to do anything, they didn’t change anything. There was no modern bathroom put in, there was no changing of walls,” docent Val Vaughn said. “Except for the superficial paint and wallpaper that we update periodically to look like original paper and painting, what you see is the house that was built in 1820. This is very unusual.”

After Thomas Ruggles’ granddaughter Lizzie died in 1920, her cousin, Mary Ruggles Chandler, began efforts to restore the house to its original glory.

“Mary Ruggles Chandler had this amazing idea that not many people had thought of at that time, and that was that you could take a building like this, raise money, fix it up and open it to the public as a historical house,” Vaughn said.

The restoration was completed in 1950 and the house has been open to the public ever since.

Unfortunately, the house’s “ell,” or back rooms of the house including the kitchen and children’s sleeping area, was too dilapidated to save. It was torn down in the 1930s, and the replacement was finished in 2002.

The Ruggles House Historical Society, a private nonprofit group formed in 1950, supports and maintains the house. The Board of Directors, made up of about 25 members both local and out-of-state, includes two direct descendents of Thomas Ruggles: Robert Brown of Nebraska and Bertha Mary Kelly of Jonesport, Maine.

Three docents offer guided tours seven days a week, transporting visitors to 19th century Columbia Falls through anecdotes of family life.

Visitors can see the “walking” spinning wheel where Ruth Ruggles labored and learn that she would walk up to 10 to 15 miles a day pulling wool through the wheel.

They can count the house’s five fireplaces and wonder why Thomas, who spared few expenses, failed to insulate the house. The family had to burn about 20 cords of wood during winter.

For reference, one cord equals 128 cubic feet of stacked wood, and an average family would go through four or five in the winter, Vaughn said.

The history of the house itself is almost as fascinating as its inhabitants.

Thomas Ruggles hired two men, ages 21 and 22, to build the structure. They were not architects by trade; they were shipbuilders.

So, they used their particular expertise in several parts of the construction. For example, they knew that they needed to steam the wood to bend the grand staircase rails into spirals.

They also took great care in the aesthetics of their work, hand carving intricate patterns along the ceiling trim, windows and fireplaces.

Thomas filled the house with fine furniture. Much of it was imported from England, from the likes of famed furniture makers Chippendale and Hepplewhite.

Any furnishings or items not belonging to the Ruggles family are still from that time period, in order to make the house as authentic as possible.

A trip back in time

What: Historic Ruggles House

Where: 146 Main St., Columbia Falls

Tours: Monday-Saturday 10 a.m.-4 p.m. Sundays, noon-4 p.m.

Contact: 483-4637, www.ruggleshouse.org


Laura Cole is a summer 2015 intern for the Ellsworth American, writing primarily for Out and About, the paper’s guide to Downeast Maine. She was born and raised in St. Louis and studies journalism and political science at the University of Missouri.