Recent renovations have put a whole new face on the 135-year-old house, among the oldest still standing in Karnes County.
The house, which is owned by the Karnes County Historical Society, has been slowly and steadily restored in recent years thanks to efforts of the society and other individuals. The roof and foundation were identified early on as priorities and this work was done about a year ago, setting the path toward further improvements.
Karnes County Historical Society board member Sue Carter reached out to Kate Ruckman, knowing that Kate has experience in restoring old houses in the historic King William Historic District in San Antonio, and also has a special connection to the house. Carter was hoping Ruckman might be willing to get involved with the efforts.
“I happily agreed,” Ruckman said.
Ruckman has a very personal connection to the home, as she is the great great granddaughter of the man who built the house, John Ruckman.
Ruckman recruited Robert Alvarado to help with work on the Ruckman House in Helena. Alvarado has a degree in construction science from Texas A&M University and shares Ruckman’s interest in historic preservation working with her on several restoration projects.
“It’s sort of become a business for me,” Ruckman, a retired computer programmer, said. “I love it!”
Alvarado and his crew of workers that Ruckman described as “excellent” – led by Master Carpenter Joe Ramos, have put in a great deal of work into repairing the house’s dramatic front porches and re-installing the original columns which have been stored inside the house for many years.
Alvarado credits how well the Ruckman House has held up through the years largely to the cypress wood used in its construction. He said cypress wood is far less susceptible to rotting than pine, which is more commonly used.
Ruckman said she was happy to learn that Alvarado and his crew agreed to do the work, even though it meant they would have to travel an hour to Helena each day, and then another hour to get home.
“I had been thinking about making a monetary donation to the Ruckman House restoration, but hated to just give money without any control over how it would be used,” Ruckman said. “So I came up with a plan to offer to donate the labor and materials to restore the front porch.”
Once the porch work was completed, the Karnes County Historical Society agreed to hire Alvarado and his crew to do more work on the house in the weeks leading up to the annual festival. The crew painted the front facade, and with the porch restoration, the finished result presents an overall appearance that is dramatically different than what Karnes Countians are accustomed to seeing. The work represents a significant step toward fully restoring the 4,520-square-foot house to how it looked just after it was built in 1878.
The Ruckman House holds special memories for Kate Ruckman, especially the days she spent there as a child with her great great aunts, Hester “Hett” Alice Ruckman and Margaret Elizabeth “Monie” Ruckman.
“Aunt Monie made regular trips to Helena to check on the house (known in the family simply as “The Old House”), and I got to go along frequently,” Ruckman said. “Sometimes she would let us kids take a little something from the house: a light pull, a door knob, a scrap of fabric – they seemed like great treasures to a little kid. Monie was a talented artist in her youth and one of her watercolors hangs in the family parlor of the house.”
“Aunt Hett was sweet as pie, but Aunt Monie was more feisty,” Ruckman explained. “She drove a maroon Pontiac Bonneville, and if anyone tried to pass her out on the highway, she would floor it, and say, ‘Oh no you don’t, Sir!’”
Hett and Monie were the last two people to live in the house and around 1958 or 1959 they moved to a house in Karnes City. Hett died in 1963, and a few years later Monie donated the house to the Old Helena Foundation, predecessor of the Karnes County Historical Society.
“We would love to restore the whole house, but it will be very costly,” Ruckman said. “So we hope to do a little at a time, as funds become available.”
Members of the Karnes County Historical Society would welcome contributions of any kind toward further efforts to restore the house. For more information call 210-710-4896 or visit www.karnesmuseum.com.