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Rebecca Ruth, Bourbon Balls and Surviving

In honor of Women’s History Month I’d like to introduce you to Ruth Hanly Booe, a little known figure but one who was definitely a pioneer in her own right.

She invented the bourbon ball candy.

That, however, is somewhat of a side note in her story.

Let’s begin in the beginning.

Rebecca and Ruth

The year, 1919.

Two, unmarried, part-time teachers, Ruth Hanly and Rebecca Gooch, meet and become friends.

For reasons now lost to history, the pair decide to start their own candy business. I’m guessing they thought it was more profitable than part-time teaching.

Photo of front porch of Rebecca Ruth Chocolates store. Banner with photo of Ruth Booe on left, and a large snowman decoration on right.
Ruth is the one on the left. **

Now, someone reading this might question why I pointed out they were unmarried. Well, you see, times were different in 1919. Remember, women didn’t have the right to vote until 1920.

Back then it was unusual, if not down right frowned upon, for women to start a business without a man, usually a husband, somewhere behind the scenes and usually out in front of them.

Undaunted by all of that, Rebecca and Ruth ventured forth, combining their first names to create Rebecca Ruth Candies, now called Rebecca Ruth Chocolates, and when Prohibition kicked in the next year, they took over a suddenly unused bar room of the Frankfort (Kentucky) Hotel as their storefront.

In addition to a well-trafficked pedestrian location and plenty of space, a marble table inside the bar just happened to be perfect for making their chocolates.

That 12½-foot table, by the way, is still used in the business, now called “Edna’s Table” in honor of long-time employee Edna Robbins, who retired from the company in 1986 at age 90, after 67 years working there.

Though not all has been roses for the business, as we will soon see, it was successful in those first years. Due in no small part to what appears to be extrovert personalities of the founders.

According to company lore, it was not a bit unusual for either one of them to strike up a conversation with a stranger, or simply just start talking at the silent movie house, and declaring how great Rebecca Ruth candies were, while maybe, or maybe not, letting on that they were an owner.

The Marriages

Fast forward five years and, in 1924 Ruth marries Douglas Booe, pronounced Boo. Three years later she gives birth to a son, John.

He would be their only child. Douglas died eight months later, just three years after they were married, of a lung disease contracted from inhaling mustard gas while fighting in World War I.

Historical market indicating Booe is credited as the inventor of the bourbon ball and the mint kentucky colonel.
Historical marker honoring Ruth Hanly Booe sits outside current Rebecca Ruth Chocolates location. **

Meanwhile, Rebecca marries in 1929, decides she wants to focus on raising a family, and sells her share of the business to Ruth.

Let’s sum this up. Ruth gets married, has a son, her husband dies, and she becomes sole owner of her business, all in a five-year span.

Oh, and, that’s the year the Great Depression begins.

If you haven’t figured it out by now, Ruth was not one to throw in the cooking towel. Though business dramatically dropped, her mail orders became almost non-existent and she was finding herself selling by the piece, rather than the box, just to keep the business afloat, keep a roof over her head and raise a son, she persevered.

She even created one of the business’ most popular candies during that period, the Mint Kentucky Colonel, described as having a refreshing herbal mint center with hidden salt and roasted pecan, all dipped in rich dark chocolate.

Hardships Continue

I wish I could say all was good at Rebecca Ruth after the Mint Kentucky Colonel was created, but such is not the case.

Ruth’s house, which by this time was her business location, having moved out of the old hotel bar room for financial sake, burned to the ground in 1933. Only Edna’s table survived.

Small dining area inside Rebecca Ruth Chocolates with a coin operated riding horse, painting of Abraham Lincoln and words, Life is Sweet, painted on wall.
Life is Sweet inside Rebecca Ruth Chocolates. **

Ruth had no choice but to turn to the bank for help. There was just one, small, itsy-bitsy, problem. Actually, it was a big problem.

She wasn’t married.

Another history note, It wasn't until 1974, when the Equal Credit Opportunity Act passed, that women in the U.S. were granted the right to open a bank account on their own. Technically, women won the right to open a bank account in the 1960s, but many banks still refused to let women do so without a signature from their husbands.

I have no idea how Rebecca Ruth Chocolates was handling its banking all those years.

Even though the Rebecca Ruth business could clearly demonstrate its ability to survive through the toughest of times, Ruth was unable to get a loan because she didn’t have a man.

Her now six-year-old son didn’t count.

P.S. Ruth was asking for $50, the equivalent of around $1,200 today.

The Hotel Housekeeper

Saddened, entirely at a loss as to what to do next, Ruth leaves the bank and stops by the Old Frankfort Hotel to gather her thoughts.

Old fashion sign with information, similar to what is in this blog post, and photo of original bourbon balls.
Sign inside Rebecca Ruth Chocolates provides Ruth's abbreviated history. **

There, the hotel housekeeper, a woman by the name of Fanny Rump, really, true story, that’s her name, sees her sitting there and asks her why the sad face.

Ruth proceeds to tell her tale, which, as you know by now, is a pretty amazing one, and how it seems Rebecca Ruth Chocolates has met its end.

Whether by divine providence, twist of fate, or just pure luck, history was changed that day all because Fanny Rump was placed in Ruth’s path.

Fanny wasn’t married, didn’t have a family, it was just her. She wasn’t one to especially live life on the high side, didn’t have anyone to spend money on and over the years had put a little money aside here and there, roughly in the neighborhood of $50.

Fanny, with a heart as big as all outdoors, loaned Ruth that $50, her life’s savings.

Bourbon Balls

Ruth invested that $50 in new equipment and supplies and Rebecca Ruth Chocolates was back in business. Things went so well that, within a matter of months, she repaid Fanny that $50, with interest.

Along about this time, 1936 to be exact, Eleanor Hume Offutt enters our story.

Store display with bourbon balls and several other chocolates and candies.
So many choices! Just give me one of everything please. **

Offutt was quite the dignitary of the time. Wealthy, she spent younger years in Europe, Germany and Italy. She went to boarding school in Lausanne, Switzerland.

Later in life she ended up in Kentucky where she was highly involved politically and was even present when the Kentucky governor signed the 19th amendment, that one that gave women the right to vote.

I should interject a quick geography note here, for those who don’t know, Frankfort, Kentucky, where Rebecca Ruth Chocolates is located, is also Kentucky’s state capitol.

All of that comes as way of explaining why Offutt happened to be on hand for Frankfort’s 150-year anniversary in 1936 and found herself talking to Ruth one day.

During the conversation, Offutt happens to mention that she enjoys a bit of bourbon whenever she’s eating one of Ruth’s Mint Kentucky Colonels (we mentioned those above.)

Ruth spent the next two years dedicated to perfecting the recipe. The resulting recipe remains a secret to this day but the candy was an immediate hit, for about a year.

Actually, it was still a hit, it was the making of it that became the problem.

Enter World War II and rationing, especially on sugar, a pretty important ingredient in candy making.

I mean, seriously, can this woman have any more roadblocks in her life?

This time it was her customers and friends coming to her aid. They saved their sugar rations, as well as coffee cans, another needed supply, you have to have something to package the chocolates in after all, and donated them to Ruth so she could keep her doors open.

Rebecca Ruth Today

In this day and age of business selling out to large corporations, it’s nice to know Rebecca Ruth remains a family-owned business.

Two, two-story white houses attached by a short closed-in porch between.
Yes, that really is the Rebecca Ruth Chocolates factory and store. **

After 45 years of keeping the doors open, Ruth retired in 1964, handing the keys over to her son, John. He, in turn, expanded the company’s mail-order and wholesale sides of the business.

He passed the keys over to his son, Charles, in 1997, and when you stop by today there’s a good chance you’ll see Charles’ daughter, Sarah, Ruth’s great-granddaughter, working there, preparing to be the next generation to lead the business.

Lest you have the idea that Rebecca Ruth is some small, local, mom-and-pop, business, you should know it sells FIVE MILLION pieces of candy, all over the country, each and every year.

Nearest and dearest to my heart, three million of those are bourbon balls.

If anyone is thinking of what to give me for Christmas, that’s as good of a hint as you’ll ever get.

The truly amazing thing is the “factory” is a couple of small two-story houses, sitting side-by-side, that have been joined together, not far off the Frankfort main street.

There are just 35 employees. When you go on the factory tour, you’ll see two people, two, total, putting the pecans on top of all the bourbon balls coming out of the assembly-line machine.

There’s two more, two, total, placing them into boxes.

It’s mind-boggling that five million candies can be created in such a small place by so few people.

They don’t allow photos during the tour back in candy-making land, so here’s a video with a behind-the-scenes look:

Grandma Campbell’s Bourbon Balls

Without making it sound like I’m bragging or anything, I’m kind of known for my bourbon balls. Every year, when I was still gainfully employed, I’d make a batch to take into the office around Christmas time.

People were usually asking me around Thanksgiving if I was going to be bringing them in that year.

Selfie photo of author holding a chocolate mustache on a stick in front of his face.
I mustache you, what is your favorite bourbon ball recipe?

The recipe was handed down to me by my Grandma Nell Campbell. It has since been handed down to Darling Daughter to carry on the tradition.

Mine, however, are entirely different from those made by Rebecca Ruth. These are not cooked in and have a combination of vanilla wafers, cocoa, nuts and a couple other things.

Stay tuned though, I’m thinking the idea of dipping them in chocolate sounds realllllly good.

When I do make that next batch, I’ll raise one or two in toast to Ruth Hanly Booe, a woman who can teach us all about surviving, perseverance and making it past the obstacles set in our way.


**I allow use of my photos through Creative Commons License. I'm not looking to make money off this thing. I only ask you provide me with credit for the photo by noting my blog address,, or a link back to this page.


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