A Famous Breakup, Reexamined
By Kelli Huggins / Visitor Experience Coordinator
Breakups are hard. And as one Sullivan County couple discovered in 1907, they’re even worse when your breakup unexpectedly makes headlines across the country.
Barbara Rutz and Joe Moser were a nice (if possibly unconventional) couple from the hamlet of Obernburg. They began courting when she was 21 years old and he was 25. It started out as a traditional courtship, complete with long, romantic buggy rides. Friends, family, and nosy neighbors believed that marriage was in the near future for the two lovebirds.
Except, it wasn’t. Obernburgians would joke, “Haven't you ever heard of Joe and Barby? Why, they’ve been goin’ together for fifteen years and they say there’re no nearer married than they were the first day.” The couple continued to date and those same nosy neighbors came to accept their lengthy courtship as something “as regular as the coming of day and night.” It doesn’t seem like anyone was hostile about the arrangement, it instead was viewed as a charming quirk.
But then, Joe Moser proposed. And Barbara Rutz declined.
The gossip mill churned. All of the neighbors were talking — perhaps a gentle feat, when there are only about 60 people in your town. Why had Barbara given Joe “the mitten” (a slang term for declining a proposal of marriage)? The reason given in the press came down to a family dispute. Joe didn’t want to live with his soon-to-be mother-in-law and Barbara refused to kick her out. Considering the situation to be at an impasse, Barbara gave Joe the boot.
The breakup was bitter. To anyone who would listen, Joe complained about how much money he had spent on Barbara. Her ears burning, Barbara told friends that if Joe was so put out, he could present her with a bill.
Everyone took her words as jest. That is, until Joe prepared the following itemized list covering their 15-year relationship and sent it to Barbara:
Barbara sent her mother to the post office to meet Joe and pay off her debt. An eavesdropping bystander reported that Mrs. Rutz said, “Now, Joe Moser, you have got every cent back that you ever spent on Barby. I don’t believe you spent any more and I have my suspicions that you never spent that much.”
Barbara said little, but was seems to have been offended by the bill. Her rebuttal was as follows:
“What hurts me is where he charged $3 for taking me to Mrs. Frolich’s party. She is my sister. Why, Joe was invited there, and I’m sure he ate more than $3 worth of food that night… I never asked him to come over moonlight nights in the haying season, and if he did it was of his own accord. But if he lost any money by it I am glad he charged for it. I’m sure it is much better to find a man out even if it does take fifteen years, rather than marry him and find out later.”
Joe was less tight-lipped. He claimed to have actually spent more, but admitted, “fifteen years is a good spell of time and there is no use trying to get everything down. I’ll just freshen my memory up a bit and try to get some of the main items down. Of course, I can’t remember the dates, but she’ll have to trust to my bein’ square.” He said she had expensive tastes. He said he only billed her because she asked.
On the surface, it’s easy to brush this off as a tale of small-town gossip. But these were real people whose love life was covered by papers in Kansas, Mississippi, Montana and California. Journalists and editors miles away, with no personal knowledge of Barbara or Joe, told their story as a punchline and an embodiment of the stereotypically wholesome peculiarities of rural life. To my knowledge, neither Joe nor Barbara asked for this attention to their personal business. It must have been humiliating.
As I was researching Barbara and Joe, I discovered genealogical trees on Ancestry.com that had been created by Barbara’s second cousin, twice removed, Denise Schneider Patti. Denise had painstakingly tracked her family’s history and had uploaded photographs of Barbara. I messaged her and requested a chat. She responded quickly and we arranged a phone date.
My call with Denise gave me more insight into Barbara’s life. Barbara’s actual name was Johanna Barbara Maria Froehlich. She was adopted as a young child by her aunt Magdalena Froehlich Rutz and her husband Jacob Rutz. Jacob died in 1906 (the year before Barbara and Joe’s breakup) and left his estate to Barbara and Magdalena. This sheds some light on the issue of the “mother-in-law” in the news story. Joe might not have wanted to live with his mother-in-law (many people could probably sympathize with his position), but Magdalena had taken Barbara from a tough situation and raised her as her own.
And what about Joe Moser, who was was branded a commitment-phobe by his gossiping neighbors and strangers around the country? Well, it turns out that he wasn’t so averse to settling down as he was portrayed. Six years after his break up with Barbara, Joe married 37-year-old Amanda Muth in November 1913. The Mosers had three children and remained married until his death in 1943.
Barbara remained living with her adopted mother, Magdalena. It’s likely that together they ran a boarding house, the High View Cottage. Family photographs show Barbara smiling. She’s often pictured, milk pail in hand, with her charming herd of Dutch belted cows. She died in 1946
All photographs of Johanna Barbara Froehlich Rutz are from the collection of Clara Froehlich Bestenheider, Barbara’s niece, and appear here courtesy of Denise Schneider Patti.
The drawing of Barbara Rutz and Joe Moser is from the article “Puts in a Bill for Expenses in Long Courtship,” Leavenworth Times (Leavenworth, KS), April 28, 1907, 11.
 “Spent $71 in 14 Years,” Barre Daily Times (Barre, VT), April 23, 1907, 3.
 “Puts in a Bill for Expenses in Long Courtship,” Leavenworth Times (Leavenworth, KS), April 28, 1907, 11.
 Denise Schneider Patti and I spoke on February 6, 2019. She generously shared her research and family stories for inclusion here. She has done incredible research on Irish and German families in Sullivan County and I am grateful to her for preserving and sharing that history.