Cerro Gordo County Iowa
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The Globe Gazette
Mason City, Cerro Gordo County, Iowa
Sunday, November 6, 2011

Umbargers worked to preserve M.C. history
By Kristin Buehner

MASON CITY — A shared love of history guided lifelong Mason City resident Ruth Umbarger and her late husband Duane to compile and share for generations to come their invaluable research about Mason City’s history.

From an index of Mason City’s earliest newspapers to an indexed collection of historic photos donated to the Mason City Public Library, the Umbargers have worked behind the scenes for years doing painstaking research and collecting historic photos.

“I think we can learn from some of the things in the past,” said Ruth, a pleasant, soft-spoken woman and former schoolteacher, now 87.

The Umbargers’ collection of historical photos, for example, is made up of negatives and prints made by Duane from photos he took of original prints and some negatives from people willing to share what they had “but not willing to part with it,” Ruth explained.

A longtime Mason City police officer, Duane made use of his numerous contacts to accumulate the photos, his wife said. He died in 1999.

Ruth indexed the collection and later donated it to the Mason City library archives.

The Umbargers also worked with Mason City unofficial historian Art Fischbeck and Mason City native Jim Chimbidis of Chicago to produce “Remember When ... Mason City: A Historical Album,” published in 1985 and funded by Pioneer Federal Savings and Loan Assoc.

Ruth was in charge of layouts and captions.

“She did all the planning of that book and the layouts, determining the chapters,” Fischbeck said. “And what a great job she did. She is a remarkable person, a person of an untold amount of patience.”

In 1990, the Umbargers published a book, “History of Old Cerro Gordo 1850-1890,” a collection of memories of early settlers gleaned from letters, diaries and reporters’ interviews. Proceeds from sales went to the Kinney Pioneer Museum, where the book is still available for purchase.

In 1995, Ruth completed a Subject Index to Mason City Newspapers on Microfilm, indexing 29 Mason City newspapers published from 1858 to 1919.

“I think that’s one of the most useful, lasting things that we did,” Ruth said. “Duane contributed greatly to it by reading the microfilm.”

Ruth also served on the city’s 150th Anniversary Committee to prepare a photo display at the MacNider Art Museum in connection with Mason City’s Sesquicentennial.

“We contacted Mason City businesses, government and churches and asked them to submit stories and photos,” she said.

In 2004, Ruth was recognized for her contributions to a downtown historical and architectural survey at a city Volunteer Reception.

The former Ruth Janssen grew up on a farm between Mason City and Rockwell. From a rural school with a total of five students she transferred to Mason City High School in ninth grade.

Waiting for a ride home after school, she got into the habit of going to the public library, then located in the Carnegie Library building. “That’s where I learned to love books and history,” she said.

After graduating from Mason City Junior College, Ruth transferred to the University of Minnesota.

She earned money for college by teaching at two one-room rural schools, Lime Creek No. 7 and Falls No. 7.

Following her college graduation in 1946, she taught social studies and history at Forest City High School, then married Duane in 1952.

The couple had three daughters, Anne, Janet and Jean.

Their historical collaboration began in the 1970s, about the time Duane took on a project of researching the history of the Mason City Police Department and creating a photo exhibit for a display case in what was then the new police station at 78 S. Georgia Ave.

Ruth, meanwhile, had taken on the task of writing a history of the Presbyterian Church in Mason City, to which the Umbargers belonged.

Ruth was also volunteering at the Kinney Pioneer Museum, where she served on the board of directors.

Ruth also put her efforts into the North Central Iowa Genealogical Society, where she served as librarian. The Umbargers have traced all eight lines of their families’ genealogies.

Ruth credits her years of working as a paraprofessional in the media center at John Adams Junior High School for her interest in library work.

Over the years, the Umbargers acquired a microfilm reader and built a dark room in their home, where Duane could develop his photos.

They collected city directories and histories of neighboring towns.

“I donated much of it to the Genealogy Society,” Ruth said. “I knew what was in the collection and what was needed.”

The work the Umbargers have done has been invaluable, said Terry Harrison, archivist and historian with the Mason City Public Library.

“The Umbarger photo collection and historical materials are very valuable for research,” Harrison said. “Every time we’ve ever called for help, Ruth was always willing to share their historical resources — photos, dates, giving leads when we were at a dead end.”

“We were a team,” Ruth said of her work with Duane. “He was the one who went out and made the contacts with people. I was more behind the stage.”

Transcription by Sharon R. Becker, September of 2014



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