In her prime, Ruth Campbell was a zesty businesswoman-turned-politician and community activist with an intrepid yet gentle charm.
Past her 97th birthday, the grande dame of Homestead remained that way. A workaholic who won’t be seen without her pearls, Campbell was the director of Homestead’s Historic Town Hall Museum for almost 25 years before retiring last month. She was the only director the museum has ever had and was responsible for fundraising and collecting much of the memorabilia on display.
There’s no question that Campbell — who married into one of the first 10 Homestead families in the ’40s — was known as the face of the museum by locals and foreigners alike. Rarely does an online review of the landmark leave out a mention of “Miss Ruth,” usually as the “sweet old lady” who helps visitors explore South Dade’s history by sharing her own.
“When I walk in there, I see a teenage me, a young adult, a businesswoman, a wife, councilwoman, mother and grandmother,” Campbell, now widowed, said. “It’s like stepping back in time and seeing every phase of life in this wonderful city. So when people come by, I can’t help but immerse myself and tell stories, encouraging them to participate in their community.”
The museum was Homestead’s first municipal building, built in 1917. It would be many years before the two met up, the building full of municipal memories and the woman who would become its curator, but she played a leading role in saving it and turning it into a museum.
Campbell was born in Owensboro, Kentucky. When she was young, her family moved to Michigan for work during challenging economic times. In 1942, Campbell, then 22, ventured to Homestead to visit her favorite aunt, she said — a decision that changed the course of her life.
“I fell in love with the best place on earth: Homestead. What was going to be a short visit turned into a whole new life,” she said. “The rest is history and I’m now almost 100 sitting in front of you.”
Campbell quickly got her first job at the Homestead Grocery Store on Krome Avenue. It wasn’t long before she moved on to work at the military base as an operator scheduling aircraft departures. When the base was closed after the destruction of the 1945 Hurricane, she became the owner of a local beauty salon, travel agency, and ice cream parlor.
Around the time she began to open her businesses, she met her future husband, Harold Milton Campbell, at a Dick’s Drive-in restaurant. Harold Campbell was the son of one of Homestead’s first settlers. The pioneer farming family sold most of its produce locally, mainly potatoes. Today, one of Homestead’s main roadways is named after them — Campbell Drive. The couple had one son.
A devoted volunteer at the Chamber of Commerce, Campbell later chaired the Woman’s Committee of the Redland District Chamber of Commerce in the ’60s and soon after gathered more than two dozen local organizations to create an economic development plan for the small town.
“I welcomed development and still do. Why wouldn’t I want this place to grow? For people to come visit — and stay — here? I sure did,” Campbell said, chuckling.
Campbell was elected as councilwoman in 1963 and served as Homestead’s first female vice mayor, then temporarily left local politics to become a member of the State of Florida Cosmetology Board. Right before Hurricane Andrew, Campbell was reelected and played a key role in raising funds to help the distressed city recover. Campbell was pivotal in gathering community leaders to bring the Homestead Miami Speedway into town to help boost the crippled economy and revitalize the city.
A few years later, she left office after more than two decades of service and became the museum’s first director. She continued to serve on the Miami-Dade County Historic Preservation Board, the Homestead Center for the Arts Board, the Pioneer Museum Board, and the South Dade Chamber of Commerce.
“She’s still known for taking Homestead’s first black councilwoman, Yvonne Brassfield, under her wing,” said Bob Jensen, local historian and president of the museum. “It’s just the kind of woman she was and is. Always willing to love others, mentor them and serve them. You would see it every day at the museum.”
Nick Sincore, who served as mayor during Campbell’s tenure, said Campbell “had so much knowledge she could tell you what happened, what’s happening and even tell you what was going to happen in Homestead.”
“She was tough up there, a wonderful woman and leader,” Sincore said. “I was her mayor, and I listened to her advice — she was always right. I know we all have to quit one day, but I hate to see her quit. She has so much knowledge that we can’t afford to lose it. If anybody wanted to know anything about Homestead, they’d go to her. She’d know, she’s been here the longest.”
The petite Campbell was known for working way more hours than she should. Officially, she was employed to work four hours a day, five days a week.
“That was never the case,” said Campbell’s close friend Bonnie King-Moran. “Miss Ruth was always there early and always left late — not because she was overworked, but because she has a deep, deep love for people and felt she needed to get in and prepare for the daily visitors. Once she was there, it was hard to get her out. It was almost like her home.”
Homestead’s historic Town Hall was built in 1917, four years after Homestead incorporated — only the second city in Miami-Dade County to do so. The Town Hall served the needs of residents for almost 60 years.
The lower floor near the front of the building housed fire trucks and a hose-drying room, while the area in the back sported four jail cells for men. On the second floor were municipal offices and a multipurpose meeting room. The jail cells for women prisoners were in a separate building.
In the mid-’50s, the police and fire departments moved to other locations and the Town Hall was remodeled. The jail cells were removed and the bottom floor was turned into office space for the growing city government. In 1975, a new City Hall was built. Since then, Homestead City Hall has moved three times. In 2016, the city moved to its new headquarters — right behind where the museum is today.
After the city vacated the old Town Hall in the mid-’70s, the building was used as a senior center and housed state corrections and probation offices.
In 1980, the city’s downtown core started to bloom and was in need of more parking. The council voted 5-2 to demolish the building to construct a parking garage. Campbell and then-councilman Irving Peskoe strongly opposed the decision and ultimately got it overturned by organizing the opposition — work that led to more than $230,000 in grants and community donations for the restoration of the building.
Campbell sold hundreds of memorial bricks to raise funds to buy a 1924 Homestead fire truck for the museum. She also obtained a 1920s piano from a Homestead pioneer family and a 1960s Air Force uniform.
Ultimately, Campbell said, the museum’s board suggested it was time for her to retire. “There is a time for everything and I am in acceptance of that. After all, I am 97,” she told the Miami Herald.
Campbell says she’ll miss giving tours and taking pictures of visitors experiencing Homestead for the first time. Her most recognized museum-goer? Marilyn Monroe, who she said came in with a bicycle club and her bodyguards and greeted Campbell graciously.
“I have pictures to prove it,” Campbell said. “I’ll be putting it up on my walls. Who knows, maybe my house will be the new museum.”