Ruth Arbuckle has to hold the “Historical Edition Columbia Missouri Herald” so close that the weathered pages brush her nose. But she can still read the 1895 account of Boone County’s history — the tale of a community her ancestors helped to define.
“They are why Columbia has become what it is,” Deborah Thompson, director of the Boone County Historical Society, said of the Gordons and similar families.
“The Gordons created a community of education and business — essentially commerce,” Thompson said, noting that the family contributed many lawyers and doctors to Columbia in their pursuit of higher education.
The legacy began with David Gordon, who left Kentucky and settled in Boone County in 1818. It continues today with the oldest living link, his great-great-great-granddaughter, 90-year-old Ruth Arbuckle.
As the family’s first homestead, the Pop Collins cabin, is prepared for relocation and renovation — it will be moved from Stephens Park to Kentucky for renovation, then returned to Columbia for a new home in Nifong Park — Arbuckle remembers when the cabin was still a center of community activity.
“It was used for Scouts, Campfire Girls, book clubs — a lot of things,” Arbuckle said. She once used the cabin for LOG, or Lots of Girls, meetings during her years at Hickman High School.
David Gordon built the log cabin in 1818 while working on the family’s mansion. Before the mansion was destroyed by fire in 1999, it was one of seven homes in Columbia built by Gordon descendants. Gordon Manor, the mansion that burned, dated to 1823. The newest is Summerlee, which was completed in 1973.
The Gordons helped define the Columbia landscape in ways well beyond the cabin and the family’s five other remaining homesteads.
John Boyle Gordon, David’s son, gave part of his farmland to create the now-historic Francis Quadrangle at MU. And Arbuckle’s grandfather, Carey Gordon, is credited in the book “Bench and Bar of Boone County Missouri” for having shot off the little finger of Jesse James in a skirmish during the Civil War.
But it is Arbuckle, with almost a century behind her, who is Columbia’s living connection to the past.
When she returns to Columbia four to five times a year, she stays at Summerlee on Hill Haven Lane with grandson J. Arbuckle and his family. She most recently left her Chesapeake Bay home in late March for her 90th birthday party, a family reunion at Jack’s Gourmet Restaurant.
“Jack’s used to be The Coronado,” Arbuckle said during that visit, referring to its name during her years as an MU undergraduate, 1932-1936.
At the reunion, she sat down at a piano to share with her family one of her lifelong passions. “I was playing songs I had probably danced to,” she said.
Her love of a good song dates to 1939, when Arbuckle began teaching music as Miss Ruth Weaver at Jefferson Junior High School.
When she visits these days, she plays for a more mature crowd — the residents at the Eldercare and Lenoir Health Care centers.
“I love to see what a language music is for people,” she said. “Those that can’t sing wiggle their hand. Others can’t read, but sing because they know all the songs.”
Arbuckle, who this month started using a walker, said she entertains with what she called American oldies at her Maryland home as well.
From 1939 to 1941, during weekends and on holidays from teaching, Arbuckle worked at Mueller’s Florist in downtown Columbia. She said arranging flowers for friends is still one of her many “sidelines.”
But Columbia doesn’t recognize Arbuckle for impressive lineage or passionate teaching, or for elegantly arranged flowers.
Columbia knows her as “Mrs. Ice Cream.”
For more than 35 years, Arbuckle was one-half of a couple obsessed with all facets of ice cream. Her husband, Wendell “Buck” Arbuckle, studied the crystals inside the dairy treat, and together they shared a passion to perfect the frozen concoction.
The Arbuckles opened Arbuckle’s Ice Cream Parlor in the early 1970s after the success of Buck Arbuckle’s ice cream book.
“We opened up that shop on Broadway because we never had practical experience,” Arbuckle said — they wanted to perfect serving ice cream as well perfect its taste.
Although the Arbuckle and her husband contributed to Columbia’s growth at that time, she can’t hide her amazement of the pace of development she’s witnessed in what she called her “90-year saga” in the city.
For Arbuckle, growth on the city’s south side is especially shocking. But it’s a shock Arbuckle experienced first-hand when the state needed part of her farm for expansions of U.S. 63 and Route B in the early 1970s.
“It went through and ruined a pond,” she said of the changes that cut her 200 acres in half. “We took huge catfish and put them in the little pond.”
Arbuckle still oversees the 100 remaining acres adjacent to Route B, home to more than 60 black Angus beef cattle.
The Arbuckles took their ice cream expertise around the world. For 10 years, mainly in the 1960s, she and her husband traveled to Japan, Germany and France telling people how to duplicate American ice cream production and distribution.
“I would teach them how to run an ice cream parlor,” Arbuckle said, “because that’s what I did.”
She and her husband also worked with Central Dairy in Jefferson City in the late 1950s to develop a special ice cream formula called “Tiger Tiger.”
The couple sought to support ice cream research for future enthusiasts as well, so they left the university an endowment in 1987. It ensures funds for the staffing of an ice cream laboratory and related instruction at MU.
In 1989, the Arbuckles decided the MU campus needed ice cream on demand and opened Buck’s in Eckles Hall, which still functions as a parlor, laboratory and teaching facility.
Ice cream from Buck’s is part of an annual tradition at MU; it’s served to freshmen after they walk through the Columns as part of their initiation to campus.
“I always loved the idea of the whole Quad being filled with people eating ice cream,” she said. “What a beautiful picture.”
She had a choice to give the money to North Carolina State, Purdue or Maryland universities, but picked MU. “Since I grew up here, I just thought it would be good to give Missouri a chance to be outstanding in ice cream.”
Ice cream, in fact, is at the heart of Arbuckle’s philosophy.
“Life is like an ice cream cone,” she said. “Just when you think you have it licked, it drips on you.”
“But,” she added, “you can always clean it up.”