THE MOTHER OF ALL PICKS
By ANDREW MCGINN
It was on a February night, more than a century ago, when the home of the Iowa Stock Remedy Co. — makers of a popular worm remedy for animals known as Iowa Worm Powder — erupted in flames.
Press reports on Feb. 17, 1915, described it as a “midnight inferno.”
Local officials pinned the blaze on the likely work of “tramps.”
But with its choice location along the railroad tracks, Iowa Stock Remedy Co. wasted no time in clearing away the charred rubble and rebuilding — in fact, the fire gave the company pretext to forge ahead with a modern, three-story factory of concrete and brick.
The new building was touted as “absolutely fireproof” — a claim that held true until, well, a fire.
The building in question is the cream-colored complex that now hugs the Elm Street overpass so closely that someone in a third-floor window could wave at passing cars and trucks.
Shawn Olson had been on the Jefferson Fire Department for about a year when a group of youthful arsonists set fire to a car parked inside an adjoining garage — one of several fires that night, including a school bus that was torched. The fire spread with such ease to the “absolutely fireproof” building that Olson could only assume the worst.
“It looked like it was a total loss,” Olson recalled. “It was just so bad and ugly and charred.”
For a guy who has made a name for himself locally as a picker — someone who can root out the treasure among trash — that’s saying something.
Enter the alpha picker, Greg Ruth.
For Ruth, there’s virtually nothing in Greene County’s 571 square miles that can’t be salvaged — including a run-down, burnt-up old factory building.
Ruth and his wife of 43 years, Maralie, have spent the past several years refurbishing the three-story landmark into a combination antiques store and venue that can be rented for receptions, rehearsal dinners, graduation parties and other events.
“Greg can see the end product. He has that ability,” said Maralie Ruth, who works by day as Greene County deputy recorder. “He’s got a gift of seeing beyond.”
No one is more stunned than Shawn Olson, their picking buddy.
Admittedly, Olson thought the Ruths were in over their heads.
“I couldn’t imagine being involved in something like that,” Olson said. “But, here we are, five years later and the place is amazing.”
Decorative tin tiles on the first-floor ceiling were rescued from a combination of places around the historic Square. In other spots, the Ruths have let the arsonists’ work remain — the fire left behind the kind of blackened “patina” on the ceiling that places in downtown Des Moines would pay good money to get.
Behind the scenes, the sink in a new galley kitchen was salvaged from the Grand Junction school.
The building is still a work in progress, Maralie Ruth stressed, although a few events were held there over the holidays.
Between now and their official opening, Greg Ruth will have to figure out how to properly display 100 or so old doors on the second floor — where customers will eventually be able to pick to their hearts’ content.
“I’ve got tons of doors,” Greg Ruth explained during a recent interview, his flashlight sweeping across an area teeming with antiques. “Most people I bring in here, it just overwhelms them.”
Until now, Greg Ruth, 64, has spent a lifetime picking and collecting. Working in construction all these years has given him access to countless items otherwise destined for the landfill.
“In construction,” he explained, “I’m picking all the time.”
“Now I’m starting to sell,” he added.
The name of their store — which they hope to have open three days a week — will be Pickaway, a perfect name with a backstory that’s even more perfect.
Greg Ruth and brother Randy are, as Maralie tells it, “descendants of the biggest picker ever.”
The late Harold Ruth was the kind of dad who would drop his 13-year-old son (Randy) off at an auction with explicit directions for which items to bid on. Both brothers were then on duty for any sanding and finishing of items that might be needed.
Harold Ruth — who ran an Allis-Chalmers dealership in Jefferson before opening a Farm and City store — was also like a walking version of Google, they say, capable of identifying any old item and its worth.
So what are the odds that a guy like that would join the Navy and be assigned to a ship called, get this, the USS Pickaway?
The elder Ruth served aboard the attack transport during the Korean War, landing troops on such famed beachheads as Inchon.
Out of four kids, Greg and Randy would inherit the picking gene.
“I don’t throw much away,” Greg Ruth conceded on this day.
For the first 10 years of their marriage, Maralie Ruth explained, Christmas gifts and birthday presents were almost exclusively things that Greg had either refinished or repurposed.
Then popular tastes merged with his personal interests. Found items and repurposed housewares remain all the rage in decorating, making the timing right for an endeavor like Pickaway.
“It has been a village to do this,” Maralie Ruth said, describing the help of friends and family, up to and including Greg’s 87-year-old mom, Gayleen, who varnishes with the best.
As lifelong local residents, the Ruths are most pleased they could salvage a local landmark.
The old Iowa Stock Remedy Co. building is better remembered as one of American Trampoline’s early fabricating plants.
It was from there that Jefferson achieved the reputation as America’s “Trampoline City.” It was said that there were more trampolines per-capita in Jefferson in the late 1950s and early 1960s than any other city. The company was photographed by Life magazine in 1960.
“I’m president because I can turn somersaults on a trampoline,” company co-founder Bill Sorenson was once fond of saying.
Today, the company is known as American Athletic Inc. (AAI) and its gymnastics equipment is in use the world over.
For a time, former employees remember, AAI also manufactured javelins in the old building.
The building later served for a time as Alice Nipps’ art gallery.
“This is too cool of a building to have someone bulldoze it over,” Maralie Ruth said. “We’re happy we can be a part of the community and maintain history.”