Legends and Lore
by Theresa Ludwick
There is no human experience that can hold a candle to love. Hearts are enslaved by it, thrones are abdicated for it, and without it, poets would have nothing to say. In the Bible’s Song of Solomon, love is described as “stronger than death.” Yes, love burns. Just ask (if you could) the late Ruth Colbath of Passaconaway, New Hampshire, in whose case love burned for 39 years in the form of a light kept lit each night after her husband left home and failed to return.
Ruth Priscilla Colbath was one of five daughters born to Amzi and Eliza Russell who, in 1831, purchased five 100-acre lots in the town of Passaconaway. The Russell clan were true original pioneers of New Hampshire’s north country, living off the land and what they could gain from their sawmill and store.
Ruth met and married Thomas Alden Colbath and together they farmed the land. When Colbath left his wife, she was 41 years of age. No children are recorded as having been born to the couple.
When Ruth’s father, Amzi, died in 1877, much of the land was sold to pay off the mortgage and back taxes, but the original home and some acreage remained in the family. In 1887, Ruth’s elderly mother transferred ownership of the farm and land to Ruth and Thomas and the three of them resided there together.
One might wonder at the motivation which led Thomas Colbath to leave the farm one day in 1891. Was his mother-in-law a nag? Was life on the farm a difficult drudgery? Was his wife ugly? Whatever the reason, Colbath said to Ruth, “I’ll be back in a little while,” and left, not to return in his wife’s lifetime.
True to love’s form, Ruth is said to have left a light on for her husband in hopes of his return. For 39 years, she waited, in the meantime caring for her mother, running the farm and becoming the first postmistress of the Passaconaway Post Office, a position she held from 1891 to 1906. In 1905, Mother Eliza passed away, and Ruth kept up her lonely vigil, struggling to get along as best she could.
Finally, in 1930 at the age of 80, Ruth Priscilla Colbath’s life and light were extinguished. She never saw her dear Thomas again, never bore his children, and never got the chance to cuss him out for leaving. Surprisingly, however, Colbath did return three years after her death (knowingly or unknowingly) only to find an empty house and land that had been divided and bequeathed to four of Ruth’s cousins.
Thomas Colbath gave no rational explanation for his departure 42 years earlier. He claimed to have remained in the Passaconaway Valley for about a year, and then begun to wander farther away. With the passage of time, ashamed and embarrassed, he could not bring himself to go back to his wife. His return in 1933 was as mysterious as his departure and, after a little while, he left again for parts unknown.
Ruth Priscilla Colbath was buried in the village cemetery along with the rest of her family, not far from the house. Did Thomas ever visit her grave? Did he ever kneel beside it and speak penitently to his faithful, wounded wife? Was he ever sorry that he abandoned so true a partner and so potential a love? Lastly, did he ever consider the cost, in kerosene, of her devotion? Let’s hope so, the rat.
(The Russell-Colbath House is located on the Kancamagus Highway in the White Mountains and is a registered historical site. Admission is free, though donations for its upkeep are accepted and appreciated.).
"The View from Fiddlehead"
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