Ruth’s Tea Room reunion Saturday
Winchester — Ruth’s Tea Room was never just a business to Vivienne Jackson.
Started by her parents in 1925, the restaurant she lived above most of her life and ran herself until it closed in 2005 always had an intentionally homey atmosphere, said Jackson, 87, of Winchester.
Rather than a commercial kitchen, first her mother, Ruth E. P. Jackson, and then she cooked in a small kitchen not much different from those found in many homes of the time.
She loved decorating for the seasons, especially Christmas, and remembers liking to have a tree so large that customers questioned how she got it inside. Each year a friend would trim it “until he got mad and tired” and told her yet again to get an artificial one.
Jackson liked small touches, such as linen tablecloths, red flocked wallpaper, Christmas lights all year round, and having Hershey’s Kisses for her “youths” — the teens and young people who would spend hours at Ruth’s.
She watched over them — especially the young girls — to make sure they weren’t bothered. But she also had standards of etiquette and expected the young people to live up to them if they wanted to stay, she said.
“I had to teach some of them to keep the spoons out of their cup so they didn’t get it in their eye when they took a drink. I said ‘When you get invited to the White House and know what to do you will reflect on me,’” she said with a laugh.
It is some of those young people she is most hoping to see all grown up at a reunion held to honor her and Ruth’s Tea Room, although she is also eager to see other former patrons.
The reunion will be held from 2 to 4 p.m. Saturday at the site of the former restaurant, 128 E. Cecil St. It was organized by a group of former patrons to remember a Winchester landmark and the woman who made it a home away from home for so many years, said Jim Riley, one of the coordinators.
“It is something we wanted to do to honor Vivienne,” he said. “She is 87 now and she ran Ruth’s Tea Room for decades. There are enormous numbers of people who went there and knew her. She is kind of an institution.”
The building at the corner of Kent and Cecil streets that housed the restaurant was torn down in September 2008, so the event will be held under tents in the vacant lot.
It is free and open to the public, but the people that organizers most want to attend are those who frequented the restaurant, he said.
In addition to visiting with Jackson, organizers hope the former patrons will write down some of their memories of the restaurant in notebooks that will be provided and that Riley wants to donate to the Stewart Bell Jr. Archives at Handley Library. “It is a unique place and history that needs to be documented.”
The event will also feature light refreshments and a steady soundtrack of popular music that once played at Ruth’s, said Kay Muterspaugh, another organizer.
There will be a raffle to win a tea event donated by the Coach and Horses Tea Room in Winchester and proceeds will go to Jackson, Riley said. “She lives pretty modestly, so we wanted to help her out.”
While Jackson was surprised when she learned about the reunion, “now she is getting into it,” Muterspaugh said.
Jackson will attend with her dog, a boxer named Solomon. Through the years she had many dogs that were a regular sight in the restaurant and one of the aspects that made it feel so much like a home, Muterspaugh said.
Between her parent’s time and her own, Jackson said Ruth’s Tea Room served at least three generations of patrons.
The restaurant was primarily a night spot, opening in the evening and staying open until the early hours of the morning. Despite the late hour, parents knew their teens were safe at Ruth’s, Riley said. He was introduced to it through his son, Josh Riley, who loved Ruth’s as a teen and is also helping plan the event.
It was a special place to many people, as evidenced by a Facebook group called “In Loving Memory of Ruth’s Tea Room” that has 256 members, Riley said.
Boyd and Ruth Jackson started the restaurant in 1925 and their daughter was born the following year. She helped out some when she was growing up, but it wasn’t until 1943, when her mother suffered a heart attack, that she took on a major role.
Two weeks before her high school graduation from Douglas High school, Jackson became the restaurant’s main cook. “I would run upstairs to her sick bed and get information and carry out her orders. People didn’t know the difference.”
Ruth Jackson died in 1953. Boyd Jackson ran the restaurant until 1961, when he had his first major illness. He died in 1983, leaving his daughter the sole owner.
Although the couple was African American, most of their customers in the early years were not and came because of word of mouth, Jackson said.
She isn’t sure of the timeframe, but at one point her mother wrote to apply for a liquor license. An agent that was sent told them that they had to have separate entrances and rooms for black and white patrons, and since they already had both, they got their license, she said.
Race wasn’t a big issue in the restaurant. She sat people in the different sections “but that doesn’t mean they stayed there.”
She remembers when two families — one white, one black — wanted to sit together. To accommodate them and stay within the law, she placed tables on either side of an interior window between the two rooms so they were separate but still together.
The restaurant was the type of place that served people from all walks of life and they got along together, Jackson said. “If they didn’t, they were barred.”
Ruth’s Tea Room reunion will be held from 2 to 4 p.m. Saturday at the site of the former restaurant, 128 E. Cecil St. Admission is free and open to the public.
— Contact Laura McFarland at firstname.lastname@example.org