Be Back in a Little While…

Out on errands (presumably), a husband from a now-historically-recognized 19th-century Granite State family wouldn't return home for 42 years. Why?
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Ruth Colbath (seated) with visitors at her home, which doubled as the Passaconaway Post Office. Courtesy White Mountain National Forest Visitor Information Services

I had a long day ahead of me running errands, so I finished up my coffee and scurried out the door. I told my wife I didn’t know when I’d be back, so suggested she not hold supper for me and perhaps leave the porch light on. An hour and a half later, I was headed east across the Kancamagus Highway cruising through the Passaconaway area and looking for a rest stop. A sign announcing the “Russell-Colbath Historic Site” ahead seemed inviting, so I pulled in. 

A costumed host from the White Mountains Interpretive Association graciously invited me in, showed me around and shared the colorful history of this homestead. The Russell-Colbath House is all that remains of a former farming and logging community that once flourished here. A tour of this preserved site offers a glimpse into life in the 1800s and the struggle for survival in this remote mountain valley. The history of the house is the collective stories of the people who lived in it, including Ruth (Russell) Colbath, the grand old lady of Passaconaway. The house also keeps alive the tale of an intriguing mystery in her life. 

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Clipping of a 1933 newspaper article featuring Ruth Colbath. Courtesy White Mountain National Forest Visitor Information Services

In the early 1800s, Ruth’s great-grandfather, Austin George, heard about the plentiful game, fish and timber of the area. He settled in with his family as one of the first Europeans to homestead the area. In 1810, George built a house and barn of hewn and split white pine on the site. A hurricane swept through the valley in 1814, followed by an extremely cold summer. The back-to-back hardships caused the Austin George family to abandon their homestead and move to neighboring Bartlett. In 1829, at a tax auction, an ambitious land speculator named Thomas Russell bought 500 acres, including the George property, for $5.25. 

In 1831, Thomas Russell and his son, Amzi, built the center-chimney house that still stands today. Thomas later sold the farm to Amzi when Amzi was preparing to marry Miss Eliza George, the granddaughter of Austin George. Eliza and Amzi raised five daughters in the house, including one named Ruth. 

The family subsided on the crops they grew, supplemented by wild game and the fruits of the forests. Amzi Russell was also part-owner of a sawmill that brought the family a small income and sawn lumber. Amzi hauled surplus lumber to Portland, where he sold it and used the cash to purchase food staples and other items to trade, barter or sell to his neighbors. Amzi also supplemented his farm income by working as a skilled carpenter. With the help of his brother, they built the nearby Albany Covered Bridge over the Swift River in 1858.

Amzi Russell died in 1877, leaving a mortgage and unpaid taxes on some 8,700 acres of land he had purchased in speculation of future timber sales. To pay off the debts, all but the 100-acre home lot and an adjoining 192 acres were sold. Amzi’s widow, Eliza Russell, then deeded the homestead to her daughter, Ruth, and husband, Thomas Colbath. Not much is known about Thomas Colbath’s early years, except that he ran away from home at age 16 and went to sea for a few years before taking a logging job that brought him into the area where he met Ruth. Ruth and Thomas continued to farm the land and care for the aging Eliza, who lived with them until her death. In 1890, the first Passaconaway Post Office was set up in the Russell-Colbath house and Ruth (Russell) Colbath became the village’s first postmistress. She held the position until 1907. 

Russell Colbath Barn Owls Head Historic Photo

An old photo of the Russell-Colbath house and barn (now gone) shows mountain scenery in the background.
Handwritten note reads, “Owls head & Tremont from Colbath’s, By H.E. Milley.” Courtesy White Mountain National Forest Visitor Information Services

One fall afternoon in 1891, 41-year-old Thomas Colbath left the farm to run some errands. He told his wife, “I’ll be back in a little while,” and headed down the road. When it started to get dark, Ruth lit an oil lamp and put it in the window to help him find his way in. But Thomas Colbath didn’t return that night, or the next day. Friends searched the roads for him in vain. Did he get lost? Mauled by a bear? Suffer a heart attack? Robbed and murdered? Perhaps he had some dementia event and lost his memory? Or had he simply walked out on his wife? 

Ruth never saw him again. She remained alone in the house where she was born, eking out a living, waiting for her husband to return. Ruth lit the oil lamp in the window every night for the next 39 years, hoping for Thomas to find his way home.

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83-year-old Thomas Colbath back home again after 39 years of “running errands.” Courtesy White Mountain National Forest Visitor Information Services

Ruth died in 1930 at the age of 80. Three years after she died, 83-year-old Thomas returned. He offered conflicting explanations for why he had left and where he had been the previous 42 years. Thomas indicated that he had no quarrel with his wife. He had remained in the area for about a year, and then began wandering farther away. Some versions of the story suggest he made his way to Cuba and then on to Panama, where he worked digging the Panama Canal. Other versions have him in California or out west building railroads. After being gone for a while, Thomas was too embarrassed and ashamed to return to his wife and home. 

What inspired his eventual return is unknown. Perhaps he wanted to face his sins and ask forgiveness before he died. But that didn’t happen. Thomas was told by neighbors that his wife had died, and the home had been sold. Ruth’s estate had been settled, and the proceeds from the sale divided among her cousins. Ruth was buried in a small cemetery within sight of the house she was born in and had never ventured far from. Thomas wandered away and was never seen again. 

When my tour of the homestead completed, I resumed on my way running errands, only now with the story of Ruth and Thomas Colbath on my mind. His concept of “be back in a little while” was very different from mine when I said something similar this morning … and I don’t think my wife will keep the porch light on for the next 39 years either.

Recognizing the historical significance of the Russell-Colbath homestead, the U.S. Forest Service purchased the property in 1961, preserving the house and running a museum there ever since. In 1987, the Russell-Colbath House was placed on the National Register of Historic Places.

Categories: What Do You Know