As we approached, the grasshoppers leapt out of our way, their rapid wings clicking a familiar sound synonymous with a southern summer.
The nineteenth-century home loomed its old yet mighty shadow, despite its wooden frame struggling to endure the test of time and the ongoing years. Before us now towered the enduring presence of the old Ruckman House.
The house was built in Old Helena in 1878 for John Ruckman and his family. John had come to Karnes County in 1857 and settled in Helena after serving as an officer in the Confederate Army during the Civil War from 1862-1865. Helena at that time booming and growing town on the Texas frontier, strategically located on the well-traveled road between San Antonio and Goliad.
Helena was the county seat of Karnes County and thrived with various shops, hotels, saloons, mercantile stores, stables, farms, and ranches. The hardness of the Wild West left it’s mark on town history as Helena was also the destination for outlaws, gunslingers, cowboys, and land feuds.
In the midst of Helena’s order and sometimes chaos, John Ruckman and his wife Eliza built their two-story home to raise their eight children, and forged a family life within the community. The Ruckman home quickly became an important place of activity during the years of Helena’s growth and prosperity. John became a prominent and respected figure in Helena as a postmaster, banker, store merchant, as well as a well-known rancher, farmer, and Presbyterian church leader.
Today the Ruckman home still stands as a historical landmark of a bygone era and a distant generation, a testament and link to the past. The home is listed on the national register of historic places. Ruckman descendents lived in the home until 1958. In 1967, the house and surrounding property was deeded to the Old Helena Foundation, which eventually merged with the Karnes County Historical Society. The historical significance of the house and its continued preservation efforts are kept alive by people like Paul Ruckman and Sue Carter.
Paul Ruckman is the great-grandson of John Ruckman, and great-nephew to Thomas Ruckman, who founded Helena in 1852. A current resident of Karnes City, Ruckman takes pride in the deep history of his family heritage and the Helena home that still remains as a symbol of that legacy, a legacy that Ruckman says is important to preserve for future generations.
“I think we have a lot to learn from our ancestors,” said Paul Ruckman. “It goes back to some of the great values they had when they first came here long ago- the hard work and self-reliance.
According to Ruckman, the home and its survival is something very personal, but also something that he believes should be personal and treasured by all who respect history and revere history’s lessons.
“It’s part of my family heritage,” Ruckman continued. “My great-grandfather built it, my grandfather grew up here, and as a kid I remember spending the night in that upstairs room…that was a long time ago.”
Sue Carter is president of the Karnes County Historical Society and is focusing on strong efforts to preserve and restore the Ruckman House. As the years go by, the various deterioration and accumulative wear threaten the continuing existence of the house. Much needed repairs, restoration, and reconstruction are needed to preserve the house. The delicate and painstaking process of the restoration will require much needed funding, according to Carter.
“It’s the only home of its kind left in our county that was built in 1878,” said Carter. “It means a lot to us and it is a huge responsibility for our organization to take care of it. We’re really going to have to work on fundraisers and work with architects and contractors to get estimates on what it’s going to cost to save this building. We’re really at the crossroads. We’re going to have to fix it up or we’re going to lose it, and we don’t want to lose it.”
According to the historical society, many uses have been envisioned for the house, once it is restored to usable condition and function. Some of the uses of the house would be as a museum, an example of nineteenth-century architecture, historic tours, an educational center for children, on-site history lessons for students, among others. Also, as a large house with large rooms, it will be used for things such as meetings, arts and crafts lessons, live demonstrations of early Texas frontier skills, and much more.
“We need to embrace our past in order to embrace our future,” Carter said. “Where we come from and our relation and respect to those who have gone before, help shape our identity as Texans and, more importantly, as human beings.”
“We’re here because of our ancestors. Whatever happened in the past, we are now here at this point in our lives because of what they did. By recognizing some of their accomplishments and really learning from them, we can make our lives and our future better.”
For more information about the Ruckman House or to make a tax-deductible donation for its preservation efforts, write to the Karnes County Historical Society at P.O. Box 162, Karnes City, Tx 78118 or call 210-710-4896.