Friday, December 4, 2020

Florence Ruhmell Swindle

With this being the time of year you normally see the Salvation Army out with their red kettles, I thought it was appropriate to share Ruhmell's story. You'll see why as you read on.

Mrs. Roy Bell
(photo from 
"Athens Banner-Herald")
Florence “Ruhmell” Swindle, daughter of John William Swindle and Eula Mae Patridge, was born August 25, 1899 on a farm in Arnoldsville, Oglethorpe County, Georgia. She was an only child. Ruhmell would be my 3rd cousin 2x removed, with our nearest common relatives my 4th great grandparents, Charles L. Lankford and Miss Moore.

On June 25, 1900, Ruhmell and her family lived in a rented home in Beaverdam, Oglethorpe County, Georgia. Her parents had been married four years. It wasn’t just the three family members living there though, the house was filled with family. John’s mother Sarah and Eula’s mother Mary, both widowed, lived there, along with Eula’s brothers Walter and Francis, and sisters Anna and Sallie. John and Walter were both working as farm laborers. The family lived a short time
in Madison County before moving to Athens, Clarke County, Georgia when Ruhmell was nine.

By April 29, 1910, Ruhmell and her parents had moved to
the Puryears District of Clarke County where her father worked as a farmer on a general farm. The census enumerator noted that Ruhmell’s mother was the mother of one living child. On December 17, 1914, Ruhmell wrote a letter to Santa Claus that was published in The Athens Daily
. In reading her letter, you get a sense of who Ruhmell
was at an early age. Note, I’m not sure who Claud was in her letter.

Dear old Santa Claus:

I thought I would write to you to let you know what I wanted.

I want you to bring me a locket chain and please bring little Claud a rubber doll and a tie and please bring us some fruit too. Please don’t forget the poor and orphan children.

Wishing you a merry Christmas.

Your little girl,


Ruhmell never lost sight of helping the poor. She carried that sentiment through the rest of her life.

John William Swindle, Ruhmell Swindle, and Eula Mae (Patridge) Swindle
(photo shared by Kay Bell)

On September 19, 1915, armed with a marriage license issued by Judge Orr in Clarke County, Ruhmell married Roy Frederick (Freddie) Bell, son of William J. Bell and Harriett Paul. Now married, Ruhmell knew she wanted a family. In an article published by the Athens-Banner Herald on January 28, 1971, Ruhmell told the reporter named Alfred Sawyer … “Life in the country is lonesome. I was an only child and didn’t have anybody to play with while I was growing up. When I got married, I said I wouldn’t stop with any one child. I had four of them, and there were plenty of playmates and plenty of fighting.” Ruhmell and Freddie started their family about November 1919 when their first child was born, Florence “Grace” Bell.

Roy Bell and Ruhmell Swindle's marriage license

On January 12, 1920, Ruhmell, her husband Roy, and two-month-old daughter Grace, lived with her parents in Ward 2 of Athens, Georgia. Roy was working as a house carpenter. Ruhmell’s father John had changed occupations and was now the owner of a beef market. Ruhmell’s mother Eula was working as a seamstress in a shirt factory. Their family grew by three during this decade—son William Thomas Bell was born in May 1921, daughter Ruth Gertrude Bell was born in April 1923, and their fourth child, daughter Betty Sue Bell, was born in August 1928. And then tragedy struck the family unit. Ruhmell’s husband Roy, a painter at the time, died on August 22, 1929 in Clarke County from hemochromatosis, an excessive amount of iron in the blood, contributed by possible lead poisoning. Roy was buried on August 23 at Paul and Lester Cemetery in Oglethorpe County, Georgia. Thankfully, Ruhmell’s parents were there to help her raise their four children, the oldest just under 10 and the youngest just 1 year old. 

On April 10, 1930, Ruhmell and her children, Grace, William, Ruth, and Betty, lived on Strong Street with her parents in Athens. Ruhmell was not working. Her father worked as a meat cutter in a retail market and her mother still worked as a seamstress, but now from home. Two boarders, Homer Anderson and Lula Milton, lived in the home with the family.

On April 27, 1940, the entire family unit was still together, Ruhmell, her four children, and her parents, although they now lived on Lumpkin Street in Athens. Ruhmell worked as a seamstress on a sewing project but had apparently just started as the census enumerator noted that she had been out of work for 52 weeks. Her father worked as a carpenter, constructing buildings. At age 55, her mother was no longer working. Ruhmell’s son William worked as a laborer in the soil conservation industry. It was noted that Ruhmell had an 8th grade education. About 1947, Ruhmell took a week’s paid vacation from New Way Cleaners, the laundry she was working at, and went to the Salvation Army to offer her services. The captain gave her a tambourine and put her to work in the Normaltown neighborhood of Athens. It was there she found her calling. At first, she worked in the office, answering the telephone, supervising collections, and “overseeing the dime table,” a slotted table people put change in. She finally hit the streets with her tambourine, collecting donations. Ruhmell became a regular in the neighborhood with everyone knowing who she was. She eventually quit her job at the laundry to work full-time for the Salvation Army.

Ruhmell Swindle Bell (photo shared by Kay Bell)

Life moved on for the Bell family. Grace married Bascom Mitchell in February 1944. She died in Athens in June 1970 and was buried at Evergreen Memorial Park. William served in the U.S. Navy during World War II and married Cornelia “Lounell” Whitehead in March 1952. He died in Athens in March 1993 and was buried at Evergreen Memorial Park. Ruth married Edward Piatek in April 1943, moved to New Hampshire after Edward was discharged from the Army, and then back to Athens after his death in 1954. Betty never married and lived with her mother. Ruhmell lost both of her parents in the 1950s—her father in November 1951 and her mother in August 1958. They were both buried at Oconee Hill Cemetery in Athens. The family also grew during this time with the addition of three grandchildren and two great-grandchildren.

Through it all, Ruhmell continued to support the Salvation Army. In 1984, she, along with her tambourine, spent two days a week in downtown Athens collecting donations. On February 29, she told reporter Greg Freeman with The Red and Black from Athens that she had stayed so long working for the Salvation Army because she liked the job and enjoyed working with and meeting people. That probably goes back to her being lonely as a child. She liked to be surrounded by people, including the students at the University of Georgia. They made her happy and often returned to her corner in Athens years after they left school. Ruhmell told the reporter she didn’t work in bad weather because “… when it’s raining people don’t have the time to fool with you and when it’s cold, they’re always asking me why I’m not at home by a warm fire.” She always greeted people with a smile and a ‘good morning, would you like to give to the Salvation Army?’ Some only give pennies, or a handful of change but whether they donated or not, Ruhmell always left them with a kind word, ‘Thank you and have a nice day.’ 

Ruhmell died in Athens on November 16, 1996. Her death certificate listed the cause of death as cardiac standstill due to metabolic acidosis, renal failure, and a stroke. At the age of 97, her body just gave out. Her funeral service, officiated by Steve Watson, was held at Bernstein Funeral Home Chapel on November 19. Afterwards, she was buried at Evergreen Memorial Park in Athens. Her obituary noted “… She served as a Salvation Army fund-raiser by playing her tambourine in downtown Athens for 42 years. She was often seen volunteering in a blue uniform and bonnet while standing on College Avenue. She would collect money for the Salvation Army from 9 a.m. to 7 p.m., moving to different locations around downtown Athens on foot.” Her death certificate listed her occupation as fundraiser for the Salvation Army, a title I’m sure she wore proudly.

Ruhmell's grave marker (photo shared by Nancy Adams Bedell)


  • Bell Donates Herself to Army, The Red and Black, Athens, Georgia, November 17, 1987.
  • Find a Grave, database and images ( accessed 15 November 2020), memorial page for Ruhmell S. Bell (25 Aug 1899–16 Nov 1996), Find a Grave Memorial no. 151572341, citing Evergreen Memorial Park, Athens, Clarke County, Georgia, USA; maintained by Nancy Adams Bedell (contributor 46905578).
  • Find a Grave, database and images ( accessed 15 November 2020), memorial page for Roy Freddie Bell (27 Mar 1896–15 Sep 1930), Find a Grave Memorial no. 73363379, citing Paul and Lester Cemetery, Oglethorpe County, Georgia, USA ; maintained by Brenda Hines (contributor 48078033).
  • Mr. Roy Bell Certificate of Death no. 20733, Georgia State Board of Health, Bureau of Vital Statistics.
  • Ruhmell Bell Certificate of Death no. 054284, State of Georgia.
  • Ruhmell Bell, U.S. City Directories, 1822–1995, 1931.
  • Ruhmell S. Bell obituary, Athens, Georgia. Newspaper and date unknown.
  • Ruhmell Swindle and Roy Bell marriage certificate, Georgia, Marriage Records from Select Counties, 1828–1978.
  • Ruhmell Swindle, Santa Claus Letters, The Athens Daily Herald, Athens, Georgia, December 17, 1914.
  • Salvation Army Woman Popular Downtown as She Collects Friends Along with Donations, The Red and Black, Athens, Georgia, February 29, 1984.
  • Sawyer, Alfred, Know Your Neighbor, Athens-Banner Herald, January 28, 1971.
  • U.S. Federal Census, District 0086, Beaverdam, Oglethorpe County, Georgia, 1900.
  • U.S. Federal Census, Puryears District, Clarke County, Georgia, 1910.
  • U.S. Federal Census, District 0005, Athens Ward 2, Clarke County, Georgia, 1920.
  • U.S. Federal Census, District 0003, Militia District 216, Athens City, Clarke County, Georgia, 1930.
  • U.S. Federal Census, District 216, Athens, Clarke County, Georgia, 1940.

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