Look across the street from Hendricks Head Beach and you will see one of Southport’s most important pieces of history. The Ruth Rhoads Lepper Gardner House, best known as Ruth’s House, may also become an important hub of community, science and art for the region.
Gardner died in 2011. In 2013, her family sold the house and property, which included Hendricks Head Beach, to to Southport. The town bought the 3.5 acres, subdivided the beach portion, and put the rest on the market through Pottle Realty Group.
That is when Land for Southport’s Future (LFSF), a nonprofit 501(c)(3), was created and secured from the town the first refusal right to purchase the property. Taking the next step, LFSF has now successfully negotiated the purchase price of $800,000, signed the purchase and sale contract with the town, and placed a cash deposit on the Gardner property. In the meantime, LFSF has been fundraising to buy the property from the town.
Southport’s Nancy Prisk launched LFSF in 2015 as a group of residents who want to see Ruth’s House stay with the people, including those who share a vision of community engagement and education.
“It’s one of those great public spaces that you just don’t see anymore,” said Prisk, listing off all the rooms in the house. "One of the bedrooms is going to be designated as the Rachel Carson library. We've already had a donation of art of Ruth's to go into the house and we've had a donation of some of Rachel's books. That space will be one that will enable us to have our Center for Science and Art."
"It's going to be a small footprint," explained Prisk. She added, LFSF members envision a space for lectures, discussions, group meetings, studying, school-related activities and independent programming. They are even looking into installing a certified kitchen where volunteer grandmothers can bake cookies and teach the children how it is done.
The content The house would host other peoples’ content, not to conflict with any existing programs.
“And any existing program that finds our space to be best for their program? Bring it on, that’s what we want,” Prisk said.
Gardner was a “feisty little lady, a visionary,” smart, industrious, and a talented artist and person, Prisk said.0
"When she was raising her nephews, she hosted what was called a 'mothers' club' and that was the mothers whose children were up at the school. She would have them come and they would do special activities here where they could spread things out and have more space. And she was forever having people come and visit, she was forever engaging with people at her beach."
Gardner was always engaging the community and was always welcoming to everyone. With Southport’s history of being a home to renowned environmental scientist Rachel Carson as well as home to Gardner, Prisk said that having a center for community and education will be a great win for the people of Southport and of the region.
“With Rachel being a writer and Ruth being an artist, there are other properties, here … where there have been significant painters, writers, artists, people who came because they felt connected,” said Prisk. “You can only imagine years back when this was just a lawn and people would come strolling through, the kinds of rich conversations that took place. That is what has inspired us to make this a base for community engagement.”
Part of the goal is bringing out these stories and bringing people together to pass the history on. Combining that with the legacies of Gardner and Carson, Prisk said if the area does not do something to commemorate history – “we're missing the boat.”
Many donors so far have been waterfront property owners and when asked what they have to gain from supporting LFSF's acquisition of Ruth's House, said Prisk, they say, "I want everyone to have it."
“We want young families, so one way to have that happen is to have a very vibrant community engagement space,” said Prisk. “We want something that everybody feels they can come to and be a part of.”
When the building is purchased, it will go into an LLC in the name of the People of Southport. “It's kind of funky,” said Prisk explaining that the transaction will be going from the town, representative of the people, to a nonprofit, also representative of the people. However, it is not a gift, Prisk explained, as the negotiated price is still $800,000. An endowment fund will also be created to secure the financing for future maintenance.
Fundraising is still not done yet, but Prisk and LFSF are happy that nearly three hundred supporters have participated in drawing Southport closer to keeping Ruth’s House and it's land forever. Where the fundraising is in relationship to the goal, Prisk said they do not like to draw too much attention to it.
“We don't want people to look at a thermometer,” said Prisk. “We want people to give from their heart.”
This article has been slightly updated from its original posting.