"A Hill to Climb"
Ruth A. Steinert
Forty years ago, the late Ruth A. Steinert published a much-celebrated book that describes Tamaqua's early days in intimate detail.
But the legacy of "A Hill to Climb" is only one facet of a remarkable individual, a bon vivant who impacted her community more than, perhaps, any other woman in Schuylkill County.
Steinert was a civic leader, businesswoman, and author.
She also was a poet, actress, and playwright.
Although childless, she led her town in recognizing the importance of children and, at the same time, pioneered the cause of animal rights.
In her own way, she was the Lillie Langtry of Tamaqua, a 20th-century, cultural icon who left an indelible mark.
Steinert's community, specifically, was her beloved South Ward, which her ancestors helped to settle after emigrating from Germany.
She adored her neighborhood and its good, hard-working mining families. In return, her neighbors respected her.
"She was a dear friend, always a kind woman," said June Krell, 81, Steinert's Penn Street neighbor since 1953.
Steinert was born in the South Ward in 1898, daughter of Henry and Anna Storch Steinert.
The family owned and operated a grocery store which they'd opened in 1870 at 157 Penn St.
The store featured freshly cut meats and food staples. Business was so brisk they hired a deliveryman.
"My grandfather was Earl Breiner," said Lois Breiner of Tamaqua. "His first job in town was driving the horse-drawn delivery wagon for Steinert's store."
Steinert managed the business and is remembered for her generosity, lending a hand to struggling families.
"She would always talk to me about poor people who didn't have much," Krell said. "They would buy on credit, or on the book. She'd give them the first meal free. It'd be pork and sauerkraut because it was a meal that could feed the family."
In spare time, Steinert dabbled in her number one passion all things arts and literary.
On June 23, 1923, her original play, "The Waif of Sunshine Inn," debuted at Tamaqua Liberty Hall, with Steinert as director.
The cast included Dorothy Oliver, Sadie Koch, Harry Kleckner, Thomas Reichelderfer, Charles Newton, Ethel Reed and Paul Wagner.
Proceeds were donated to the Ladies Bible Class of St. John's Reformed Church. Interestingly, class members had volunteered to clean the hall to obtain free rent for the play's debut.
Steinert carried herself with grace and dignity and with a dash of panache. Red, upswept hair. Fancy bow. High-collared blouse and broche. She was an Edwardian woman blazing a trail during the era of women's suffrage.
By the 1940s, Steinert joined with Ruth Kropp and other neighbors to launch the annual South Ward Baby & Pet Parade.
"At first, they wanted to give a prize to the prettiest baby," Steinert said. "But I told them 'You can't do that! Every mother thinks her child is the prettiest and that's the way it's supposed to be!'"
The festival grew into a major event and sparked the annual South Ward Soapbox Derby, one of the first in the nation.
During the mid-1940s, Steinert also launched what became the Tamaqua SPCA. She spearheaded a community program of humane treatment of animals and she served as perennial president. It was a position she'd hold for the rest of her life.
She also served as matron, Pilgrim Chapter 137, Order of Eastern Star.
Stage and screen
Steinert's creative spirit flowed like a flowering vine, her talent entwined within an array of original poems, stories and plays.
In 1947, her short story, "Christopher," grabbed first place in writing competition sponsored by the Schuylkill County Federation of Women's Clubs.
Her skills as a grocer/proprietress also garnered recognition. In 1949, she was honored by the Tamaqua Business and Professional Women's Club.
Steinert was particularly proud of a hobby, collecting Victoriana and period costumes. Throughout her life, she recognized that "the play's the thing." She was a thespian who starred on stage and screen at a time when many coal-region women wouldn't have dared to pursue such lofty dreams.
"I remember seeing her in the movies. It might've been a black-and-white silent film," said Krell's daughter, June Krell-Salgado, Salisbury, Md., who admired Steinert's drive and determination.
"She really was ahead of her time," said Krell-Salgado.
In 1957, Steinert appeared in "Damn Yankees" at Lakewood Musical Playhouse, Barnesville, a popular summer stock company. The place was made famous by Ohio's Kenley Players, billed as "America's Most Exciting Summer Theatre."
Breiner, who served as theater apprentice a decade later, recalls Steinert as legendary.
"I was at Lakewood in the summer of '66 and they still talked about Ruth trying to change 'Damn Yankees' to 'Darn Yankees!'" said Breiner.
In later years, Steinert sold the store and adjoining living quarters, and moved into a large corner Victorian at West Rowe and Nescopec sts. There she served as devoted companion and nurse to elderly Anna Weldy Ellick Logan, sole survivor of the family that owned the late-1800s H.A. Weldy Gun Powder Works, a Tamaqua forerunner to Atlas Powder Co.
Steinert continued to oversee the Tamaqua SPCA. She also penned memoirs of her family and the growth of the South Ward. Her enchanted memories led her to publish a 190-page hardcover, "A Hill to Climb." The reminiscence was illustrated by Krell-Salgado and made available to the public in March, 1974.
Steinert's flawless prose is imbued with humility. For instance, her book politely asks readers to give her the benefit of any doubt.
"You, too, are an individual, with not another being exactly like yourself. You, no doubt, would have a much more interesting life," she wrote.
Exactly two years after the book's unveiling, fate reared its head with a tragic sequence of events.
On Sunday evening, Mar. 15, 1976, Steinert went to check on 95-year-old Logan and found her dead.
Steinert was stunned and broken-hearted. In fact, many believe the shock proved to be too much.
Three days later, Steinert was found dead inside the house, attributed to natural causes. She was 77. Her obituary listed no survivors, although she was believed to have had an estranged brother.
A public liquidation auction took place several weeks later. Sadly, virtually all traces of Steinert's grand and memorable life disappeared in one single day.
Her extensive collections are believed to have been discarded. Gone are the period costumes, playbills, photo albums, early Tamaqua memorabilia, and Steinert's poems, stories and writings.
The bulk of her financial estate was left to the Tamaqua SPCA. But after a change in control some 20 years later, the organization left town. The Ruth Steinert Memorial SPCA is now located 35 miles away in Pine Grove.
In her will, Steinert left her portable sewing machine to dear friend Krell. It's now used by Krell's daughter-in-law Jessica.
A small Victorian, drop-leaf, parlor desk where Steinert authored her works, including "A Hill to Climb," went to friend Frances Kirk, R.N.
Kirk passed away on Jan. 21, 2000. But before her death, Kirk presented the desk to writer Donald Serfass, who'd aided Steinert by proofreading the final draft of her book before publication.
Thus, only a few tangible pieces of Steinert's life remain in the town she loved.
Still, 116 years after her birth, Ruth A. Steinert is remembered as an astute businesswoman, talented local author, animal rights activist, role model for women's rights, and patron of the arts.
She was a free spirit who reached for the top, a noble daughter of the South Ward, ever loyal to the place she called home.
"It was her hill to climb," Krell said.