The Legacy of Ruth Wells, As Told By Dick Whitney

📷 An inscription that Ruth Wells wrote to a reader of her book, The Wells Family. Courtesy Dick Whitney and The Optical Heritage Museum

Ruth Wells- Her influence to Southbridge and the region continues today

By Dick Whitney, Executive Director of the Optical Heritage Museum (Sponsored by Zeiss)

Sept. 2018 – I was recently asked to write about Ruth Wells, a person who helped shape our community and three decades after her passing still greatly influences Southbridge and the region today. While I knew her socially (from meeting at Coffee Hour at Elm Street Church in the mid-1980s), I was too preoccupied with raising my family to have gotten to know her better, which I now regret. My interest in local history and the heritage of our town/American Optical had yet to be developed when she was alive. In recent years as a result of my work as Executive Director of the AO/ Optical Heritage Museum, I now frequently run across aspects of her work and achievements.

Ruth Wells was born in Boston in 1907 but settled in Southbridge in 1928 when she married George B. Wells, the Grandson of George W. Wells, who was instrumental in the early founding of American Optical. Ruth was a driving force in the community until shortly before her death in 1989.  Her contributions to Southbridge and the region are felt to this day, and many cultural / historic attractions are a direct result of her vision, hard work and generosity.

A.B. Wells Residence, Courtesy Dick Whitney

Her support helped found these important local resources:

  1. Old Sturbridge Village
  2. The Arts Center
    A diagram planning an early version of Old Sturbridge Village, called Quinebaug Village at that stage of development. Courtesy Dick Whitney.
  3. Optical Heritage Museum
  4. Capen Hill Sanctuary

Old Sturbridge Village

Perhaps the most notable and biggest contribution to the region was her work in helping to found Old Sturbridge Village. The Village began as a collection of Antiques collected by her father-in-law Albert B. Wells. His house, now the Wells Center building in Southbridge, housed the collection in the 1930s. In 1936, the Wells family purchased land in Sturbridge for $6383.18. Prior to the war, work began on Old Quinebaug Village (later renamed OSV) The map shown is how it appeared in 1942 prior to its opening and appeared in the AO News. During the war, work continued on the Village with Ruth involved. In 1945 however, Albert became too ill to continue work on it and Ruth took charge.

She was responsible for the relocation/ construction of many of its buildings such as the Salem House and served as a guiding force in its development.

 “What Ruth did during the years following the 1938 Hurricane and flood and the years from 1945- 50 was to change the basic direction and philosophy of the Village from that of a family affair toward an institution that indeed would be used educationally and on a self-supporting basis, setting it forever apart from many other such villages which became and remained family museums.”excerpt from The Wells Family book by Ruth Wells.

Optical Heritage Museum

As with the Village, Ruth was involved in establishing the Optical Heritage Museum. Ruth’s experience with Old Sturbridge Village living museum came in handy when American Optical agreed to form the Optical Heritage Museum in 1983. This coincided with the 150th Anniversary celebration of the birth of American Optical. True to form, Ruth was heavily involved in helping set up the museum, which at that time was located at the base of the marble staircase in the AO Main plant to the right of the front doorway. The photo at right and just below is of Ruth and John Young (the museum’s first curator) in the museum preparing for the opening in June 1983.

Ruth Wells with the first director of the Optical Heritage Museum, John Young, in 1983. Photo courtesy of Dick Whitney.

 At the time of her work on the museum, Ruth Wells lived at 111 Main St., a historic Southbridge home which she purchased in 1977. In 1985, there was a proposal by the Optical Heritage Museum to relocate from its original home in the AO Main Plant. There was a desire to have the Museum establish a permanent home. Ruth was such a generous and community-oriented person that she offered her home in the hopes that it would become the Optical Heritage Museum’s new location. This ultimately did not happen, as at that time long-term funding for the museum’s operation could not be secured. The museum, while inactive for many years, was retained in Southbridge and thanks to Zeiss (who bought AO Lens Company) it was reopened in 2013 at 12 Crane Street in Southbridge.

The Quinebaug Valley Council for the Arts and Humanities (Arts Center)  

 Prior to Ruth’s death in 1989, she arranged for her home to become the future home of newly established QVCAH (Arts Center)

 The following is excerpted from the Our History section of the website for the Arts Center (linked here):

The Quinebaug Valley Council for the Arts and Humanities, more commonly known as the Arts Center, was constructed by Ebenezer Ammidown sometime between the years 1832 and 1836. Its magnificence resulted in that it was the largest single residence in the town at that time, which gave it the nickname “Ammidown Castle”. Ebenezer D. Ammidown was born in 1796 and lived here until his death in 1865, when the property passed among his heirs for the next 30 years

 The Ammidown family of Southbridge was large and quite successful in agricultural and commercial enterprises. Ammidown’s nephew, Chester A. Dresser lived with him for a while, and perhaps for that reason, the house was eventually purchased by Dresser’s widowed daughter-in-law. The home remained in the Dresser family for years, and is thus generally known as the “Dresser House” or “The Pines” after the hemlock trees that were planted around the property. The house remained in the Dresser family until 1977 when it was sold to Ruth D. Wells, wife of Mr. George B. Wells, who then donated the property to the Quinebaug Valley Council for the Arts and Humanities.”


Dick Whitney photograph of 111 Main Street, taken in 2004.

Capen Hill Nature Sanctuary in Charlton MA. (1977 land donation/founder)

 Another lasting legacy to the region demonstrating Ruth’s foresight and generosity was her donation of land in Charlton in order to form Capen

Her vision to contribute to our community is much appreciated and it is rare to have one individual leave so much that is active almost three decades after her passing.

Recommended reading

An inscription by Ruth Wells in the book she wrote. Courtesy Dick Whitney and The Optical Heritage Museum.


A signed copy of Ruth Well’s book “The Wells Family” is a part of the Optical Heritage Museum collection.  A copy is available at Jacob Edwards Library or may be purchased at the Old Sturbridge Village Bookstore.

The cover of Ruth Wells’ book. Courtesy Dick Whitney and The Optical Heritage Museum.

Special thanks to Margaret Morrissey (Jacob Edwards Library) who researched and located Ruth’s obituary and related information used in this article.

An article by Raymond Hernandez in The News (Southbridge, Worcester County Newspapers, Dec. 15, 1989), announces Ruth Wells’ passing. Courtesy Dick Whitney and The Optical Heritage Museum.



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