Forgotten utopias in the country of no castles
I n the Tampa exurbs, splashed across the side of a half-occupied strip mall, is a vast mural depicting the Victorian art critic-cum-philosopher-cum-political economist-cum-painter-cum-social reformer John Ruskin. He gazes out at an expanse of concrete and asphalt, most of his jaw coated in white paint to conceal an underlying scrawl of graffiti. It seems like a high-brow joke, to paint one of the nineteenth century’s leading critics of capitalism and industrialization to preside over a hollowed-out commercial landscape of accountants’ offices, pet grooming businesses, and laundromats. But this is Ruskin, Florida, after all, the town founded in 1908 that bears his name. And despite its appearance—“an interstate exit,” as one nearby resident described it to me—this place was once a radical experiment in utopian socialism, though it’s a lousy bet that many people around could tell you so.
That weedy Florida parking lot wound up being the strange and unspectacular last stop on a tour I undertook this winter through the Southeast, in an attempt to retrace what I came to think of as the great, unheralded Ruskinian migration. Ruskin, Florida, it turns out, was not the only experimental Southern community to draw inspiration from the Victorian sage. Several families who occupied the town, I learned, were veterans of other defunct Ruskins: one in Ware County, Georgia, and the earliest in the hills west of Nashville, whose ragtag population of socialists, feminists, populists, anarchists, and free-love advocates peaked at a few hundred people.
Only months prior, this history had been invisible to me. I was devoted in graduate school to Ruskin’s work, dazzled by his commanding intellect and resplendent prose (though I was never so smitten as to found a colony in his name). To my knowledge, however, he had never occupied much space in the broader American cultural imagination. Generally speaking, if Americans are familiar with Ruskin at all, it is as a fusty embodiment of aesthetic snoot, or for two conspicuous episodes in his biography—one of which found him unable to consummate his marriage (the defunct but still popular theory is that he was horrified by pubic hair after a lifetime of regarding classical statuary), and the other involving him being sued for libel by James Whistler after accusing the latter of “flinging a pot of paint in the public’s face” (Whistler won, and was awarded a single farthing). All of which is to say that I was thoroughly baffled, while browsing Google for some half-forgotten Ruskin quotation, to find my search bar auto-generate “Ruskin, Florida,” and even more surprised to discover that this wasn’t an accident of nomenclature, but the apotheosis of a neglected socialist history of American Ruskinphilia.
Born in London in 1819, John Ruskin was an unlikely candidate to inspire any transatlantic utopias for the simple reason that he regarded America with little more than contempt, even revulsion, despite never having visited. “The ugliness of the country must be unfathomable,” he confidently mused; it exuded “calculation, over-hopefulness, and getting-on-ness,” as well as “scraped cleanliness and business and fussiness,” and was populated by a “crude” people. “Though I have kind invitations enough to visit America,” he wrote in 1871, “I could not, even for a couple of months, live in a country so miserable as to possess no castles.”
Ruskin’s social criticism directed its sharpest barbs at the ravages of industrial capitalism and its flimsy intellectual foundation in abstracted principles of political economy. In a sense, Gilded Age America was the most fully realized avatar of these fears: a nation seemingly bereft of culture and run rampant with crass acquisitiveness, what he called the “great Goddess of Getting-on.” Ruskin’s solution, however, was not what most Americans would have called “socialist.” Rather, to combat capitalism, he proposed a highly stratified and quasi-medieval society, organized principally around the family unit and the craft guild. Still, his system accorded equal dignity to all workers by eschewing dehumanizing industrial labor, and by disallowing competition in wages. Whatever its apparent contradictions, Ruskin’s politics was a major early inspiration to the American socialist movement, which had seen its brand bolstered considerably by the financial panic of 1893, though it was still decades away from its most intimate flirtations with the political mainstream. What filtered down to Ruskin’s American adherents was a set of basic principles: that unfettered commerce is inimical to human flourishing, that work ought to be creative and dignified, and that education is a universal moral right. Good precepts all, but hardly enough substance upon which to found a utopia.
Nevertheless, to Julius Wayland, an Indianan real estate broker turned socialist publisher, Ruskin was the utopian spark, the person to whom he “owe[d] more than any other my understanding of social evolution.”Wayland informed the readers of his newspaper, the Coming Nation, that “there are no works that will do you as much good as Ruskin’s. No family able to buy should be without all his works” (Wayland sold editions of those works through his newspaper). In 1893 he began publicizing the creation of a new “Cooperative Village,” to be populated by colonists willing to either pony up five hundred dollars or solicit two hundred newspaper subscriptions (a socialist entrance exam would later be established).The next year, Wayland purchased a thousand acres in the hills some fifty miles west of Nashville. The land was cheap, and it was far from the dehumanizing industrialized North. Colonists began flowing in, though a lack of arable land and reliable water supply soon forced them to relocate to a new site nearby, one that boasted fertile soil, a bucolic stream, and a colossal limestone cave.
On the day I arrived, the site looked considerably less hospitable. Yellow Creek had overflowed following days of unrelenting rain, and heavy machinery, brought in to assist with cleanup efforts, was scattered across the sodden fields. It was hard to believe that Wayland had enticed some one hundred and fifty colonists to relocate here only six months after Ruskin’s founding. Its denizens were, in the main, middle-class skilled laborers or professionals who came from the Midwest or Northeast, and all were white. (While the Coming Nation advocated for African Americans to create their own socialist communities, Wayland maintained a strict prohibition on black colonists.) The new arrivals were regarded with justified suspicion from the locals, who balked at the Ruskinites’ lack of religious devotion—a group arrived charily at the inaugural Ruskin cave dance armed to the teeth in a show of intimidation—but grew to tolerate their oddball neighbors, attending the colony’s events and even sending their children to the colony school. Ruskin’s cultural life eventually came to thrive, boasting concerts and performances (including not a few minstrel shows) and a library, in which the offerings ran the gamut from the political theory of Ruskin or Kropotkin to more practical texts such as How to Grow Cabbages and Cauliflower or Celery for Profit. Sympathetic visitors arrived from across the nation to hail its successes.
Ruskin’s economy was driven primarily by sales of the Coming Nation, whose presses Wayland had moved to Tennessee, but soon the colony was churning out a remarkable array of products: Ruskin Leather Suspenders, Ruskin Chewing Gum, Ruskin Leather Belts, even a dubious snake oil called Ruskin Ready Remedy. (The colony’s embrace of mechanical modes of production, it should be noted, was decidedly un-John-Ruskinian, and owed more to another one of Wayland’s inspirations, the utopian thinker Edward Bellamy.) Workers called each other “comrade” and were paid equally for time worked, regardless of occupation, in the form of scrip valued at different hour amounts. Tobacco, for instance, cost a colonist two labor hours. In time, even domestic work would be absorbed into the system, so that childcare or housekeeping generated income at the same rate as employment in the printery or cannery. “LABOR IS KING,” read the Ruskin motto.
Ruskin now operates as a boutique wedding venue by the nonprofit Jackson Foundation. Newlyweds can pose with their bridal parties in front of Commonwealth Hall, the three-story building that once housed the printery, library, and communal dining hall. It’s the only original structure still standing, overlooking a newer stone building that I learned is the modern-day bridal suite and the erstwhile home of the outlaw-country singer David Allan Coe, who lived on the land in the eighties. (The cage where he purportedly kept his pet monkey still stands nearby.) Wedding receptions take place in Ruskin Cave, which contained the colony cannery and steam laundry, and where the Ruskinites held their dances.
It’s a strange end to this chapter of the Ruskin saga, especially given that one of the rifts that doomed the commune was between advocates of free love and their rival marriage advocates. But this was only part of the story: another fracture opened between atheists and believers, and others complained about the increasingly uncouth nature of the inhabitants—“Characters so deficient in moral principles as to be outlaws. Character so besotted in ignorance as to be beyond hope,” per the community’s art teacher. Most importantly, conflict broke out between the most uncompromising collectivists and their more individualistic compatriots. In 1899, following a protracted, internecine legal battle that pitted many of the original settlers—generally committed to a more hierarchical governing structure—against newer arrivals, the colony was officially dissolved, its assets sold at auction. Some of its residents returned north, homeward, while a few others lingered in the area, or drifted to other nearby experimental communities. The majority of the Tennessee Ruskinites, however, some two hundred fifty of them, set their sights on reconstituting the colony somewhere new.
I assumed I wouldn’t be able to see the interior of Commonwealth Hall, which is presently unused (the exterior has been given an impressive renovation, presumably to facilitate the wedding photos). So I was surprised when my host, a representative from the Jackson Foundation, offered to show me inside. The Hall has played many roles since its utopian days—an Evangelical college, a drug rehabilitation center, a for-profit haunted house—but it felt, for the most part, as if no one had stepped inside since the colony’s demise. Its grand staircases were missing balusters, patterned wallpaper sagged from its ceilings, and splintered remnants of desks and bookshelves littered its rooms. Fake cobwebs clung next to real ones in the corners, and on the first floor, the original cornerstone, reading 1896, sat atop a wooden crate. It felt like an ignominious monument.
But my guide, Regina, seemed enthusiastic to show me something. She ushered me into a room where the plaster had been torn away from the wall. It revealed a four-foot-tall, handwritten list of Ruskin colonists beneath, along with a note reading, “There were 249 Colonists who went to Duke Ga. 40 miles north of Waycross This property was sold for $1505 dollars.” She couldn’t say what its provenance was, its geography was slightly off, and it didn’t look like it dated back to the nineteenth century, but there was something gratifying in the intimacy of the tribute, rendered even more so by its apparent secrecy. She pointed to one name, Dr. Walter Van Fleet. “He was a botanist,” she explained. In later years, he bred a rose varietal he termed the Ruskin Rose. One of her colleagues, she told me excitedly, had been in talks with a breeder in New England. Together they hoped, someday soon, to bring the Ruskin Rose to Ruskin.
It was pouring the next day as I descended from the Cumberland Plateau toward Georgia’s coastal plain, tracing roughly the same route taken by those two hundred forty-nine Ruskinites, who, shaken but sanguine about their new southern prospects, spent some eighty percent of their existing funds to charter a train to Waycross, Georgia. The colony had sent an agent to scout for a locale, and considered settling in Alabama or Virginia before being invited to a place called Duke, home to a small, struggling settlement of former Ohioan socialists who welcomed the prospect of an influx of new colonists. Loading everything that remained of the Tennessee colony onto the train, the Ruskinites were in buoyant spirits; their band performed an impromptu show in Nashville, and the train was adorned with banners reading SPECIAL TRAIN OF THE RUSKIN COLONY, PUBLISHERS OF THE COMING NATION, attracting crowds of gawking locals along the whistle-stop.
Their spirits must have sunk, slowly, as they reached their destination. One of the youngest colonists had suffered a fall before departing, and while she lingered on throughout the early stages of the trip, by the time they reached Atlanta, the train had to be delayed so that the travelers could procure a coffin. Moreover, the landscape would have grown palpably hostile as they traveled southeast from the capital. Over the course of my drive, the air thickened and the temperature rose precipitously, to the point that I found myself fumbling for the AC in mid-winter. The broadleaved trees of the plateau slowly yielded to the palmettos and pines that thrive in the sand that coats southeast Georgia, evidence of the region’s previous life as the bottom of a vast sea. By the time I arrived in Waycross, I was almost to the border of the Okefenokee Swamp.
The marshlands were a far cry from Tennessee’s comparative Eden. Hosting copperheads, rattlesnakes, alligators—who regularly paraded down town streets—and an assortment of other unfriendly bog creatures, the country was hostile to pretty much anything other than disease. Farming the sandy soil would prove difficult, given the unsuitability of the crops and techniques the colonists had previously relied on. The existing facilities, too, were a mess. The Duke Colony—which was renamed Ruskin with little delay—had built shoddy, unpainted, single-story structures, most of which were necessarily set off from the community by great wooden fences hastily constructed to protect against rampaging razorbacks. The incoming colonists were also effectively broke, and had been forced to auction off most of their machines for producing manufactured goods. Those industries that they were able to revive—suspenders, coffee, brooms—were plagued by frequent fires. Even today, the wildfires that sweep through the region with ever-increasing regularity have left many of the surrounding pine stands looking like burgeoning Christmas tree farms.
A sympathetic journalist visiting from the Brooklyn Eagle marveled at the deprivation on display in what he described as little more than a “clearing in the wilderness”: “There is no scenery, there are no views, there are no streams, it is warm, not to say hot; there is no bar, ice is a commodity unknown, there is no running water, there is no bath tub.” Only a steady breeze, he reported, “makes it possible to live.” Despite these conditions, Ruskinian optimism persisted through the early months of the colony. But as Ruskin’s industries struggled to make financial ends meet, the attendant poverty, sickness, and hardships began to corrode its collectivist ideals. The school, so integral to Ruskinian notions of reform, closed; families took to eating their meals alone, and the Coming Nation saw its subscriptions plummet. Desperate for solutions, many of Ruskin’s women began exploring a brand of spiritualism known as the New Thought, a kind of turn-of-the-century version of “The Secret.” Eventually, a fierce factionalism broke out between the original Dukeite settlers and the Ruskinian encroachers, and when one of the former contingent emerged as the community’s leader, a group of women frustrated over their meager subsistence payments hurled him down a flight of stairs.
By 1901, the increasingly farcical fortunes of the colony came to an end. Other buildings burned down, and there were rumors of arson, of financial documents hidden away in the pines. Ruskin, Georgia, hopelessly over its head in debt, disbanded for good. Its property was auctioned off by the local authorities, just as it had been in Tennessee.
Given the slapdash nature of construction at the Georgia site, and its propensity to catch fire, I wasn’t expecting to find much in he pine barrens outside Waycross. Nevertheless, I stopped at the city’s modest tourist bureau—more or less a countertop displaying alligator paraphernalia across the room from the window where locals pay traffic tickets. A wire basket solicited applications for something called Swampfest 2019, but so far, there were no takers. After being passed around among several staff members, my assumptions proved accurate: there wasn’t anyone who could help me. For all I knew, there wasn’t anything more of Ruskin to tell, but I drove out to the old site anyway.
The railway that once shipped out thousands of copies of the Coming Nation across the country is still there. (In fact, CSX is a major employer in the area, to the extent that the tourist bureau promotes Waycross as a mecca for “train watching.”) As is the Old Ruskin Church. Despite many of the shingles on its elaborate gables having been chipped away, and its steeple having been marred with corrosion, the church was unexpectedly beautiful, a quiet exemplar of the Carpenter Gothic. A padlock bolted the door shut, but a sign indicated that services were still held each Sunday. It wasn’t quite the relic of Ruskin that I wanted it to be—the church predated the Ruskinites, and only happened to share its territory with the more secular-minded colonists.
On my way out of Georgia, I stopped in the heart of the Okefenokee swamp, the sprawling morass of wetlands on whose borders Ruskin had been so precariously constructed. Though it was February, it was a steamy, Mesozoic eighty-five degrees and, feeling myself like a naïve Ruskinite fresh off the train, I was stupidly dressed in jeans and a sweatshirt. I walked a mile down a winding boardwalk constructed a foot or so above the mire, a safe distance from anything that might be lurking below. Then, halfway to a distant observation tower, I came across an alligator. It was lying, placid and unblinking, in a thick stratum of muck. An hour later, on my walk back, I saw the alligator again. It didn’t seem to have moved an inch, and looked, in fact, to have sunk even further into the mud, almost up to its eyes. Another hour, I reflected on the way back to my car, and it might be interred in the swamp entirely.
No celebratory train steamed into Ruskin, Florida, in 1906. Rather, the residents of what would be the last Ruskinian colony arrived in a slow trickle. The chief visionary behind the operation was George McAnelly Miller, a philologist who believed the King James Bible to be a mistranslation obscuring the text’s true meanings, which, it turns out, sounded a lot like the core tenets of turn-of-the-century socialism. Miller had presided over two ill-fated Ruskinian adventures in the Midwest in the form of work-study colleges, neither of which lasted more than a few years. He had also spent a brief sojourn among the Tennessee Ruskinites, serving as a legal adviser. Along with his wife and her family, the Dickmans, Miller purchased some twelve thousand acres off the east coast of Tampa Bay, land gutted after years of turpentining by imported convicts, in whose ramshackle former residences many of the new colonists, some of them ex-citizens of Tennessee and Georgia, made their homes. The only other settlers in the area were trappers and fishermen, known to the newcomers as the Crackers.
Like its predecessors, Florida’s Ruskin was committed to both gender equality and racial hierarchy—as in Tennessee and Georgia, no black settlers were permitted. The project was funded with land sales, and some of the proceeds were allocated to collective im- provements and the colony’s centerpiece, a new Ruskin College. Students adhered to a strict work-study regimen, accompanying their socialist educations with farming, land-clearing, leatherworking, or printing. Currency was again in the form of scrip, and commerce outside the cooperative was strictly forbidden (as were cigarettes and booze). Their initially circumspect relations with the Crackers cooled, and the Ruskin News soon proudly proclaimed: ALL ROADS LEAD TO RUSKIN.
If that’s no longer quite true, there are still quite a few roads in Ruskin. In fact, certain parts of Ruskin seemed to be mostly road—multilane arteries heralding new development and leading to what is now a hodgepodge of shrinking, vestigial agricultural plots, shady, century-old streets lined with Sears-catalog bungalows, and, increasingly, massive swaths of contemporary tract housing. Its downtown is more or less the sward of concrete over which John Ruskin’s portrait maintains his dutiful regard. (In an ironic twist, some of the Dickman scions have become local real estate magnates—I noticed signs for PAUL B. DICKMAN, INC. REALTY all around town.
Despite the flurry of construction, and in contrast to its cousins in Georgia and Tennessee, the commonwealth of Ruskin, Florida, has left a considerable architectural footprint: four entire buildings. One, a former college building, is operated by a nonprofit that works to support the children of migrant workers, and which is in the process of selling it off, virtually ensuring its destruction. Another is a residence, known informally as the “Art House,” which was formerly owned by a man who claimed to be an ex–Michael Jackson choreographer and who once imported the entirety of a nineteenth-century New York City bar into the living room, where it still remains. A third, the former President’s House, houses the Ruskin Woman’s Club, and was modeled after a sketch in John Ruskin’s The Poetry of Architecture that particularly appealed to George Miller’s wife, Adeline. (In one room, called the “Quiet Room,” the story goes, George and Adeline would hold séances to commune with Ruskin himself.) The three structures share a certain architectural grammar—Swiss chalet by way of the Gulf Coast—a kind of “Ruskin style,” perhaps. It seemed like a humble sort of victory.
There’s also Mac’s house, tucked away down a dirt road among a thicket of palms, Spanish moss, and longleaf pines, within view of the narrow Ruskin Inlet, which empties into Tampa Bay. Its towered, irregular mass looks a little like the eccentric uncle’s home to which an orphan might be whisked away in a children’s novel. Mac is George Miller’s grandson and, without a doubt, the leading authority on the history of Ruskin, Florida. He welcomed me inside enthusiastically when I arrived, dressed incongruously in athletic shorts and a striped button-up. The interior of his home felt like a Ruskin museum: the walls were adorned with old local maps—from back when a good portion of the streets were named after socialist thinkers—and a clumsy painting of Venice that Adeline made in imitation of J.M.W. Turner, John Ruskin’s great artistic hero.
Unlike the Ruskins of Tennessee and Georgia, Mac told me, the Florida iteration petered out gradually. The college, in an already financially precarious situation, was forced to close amid the tumult of World War I, which deprived the college of a student body (and thus, their tuition). Ruskin as a communitarian project would never recover. The postwar land boom kept sales high for a while, but the town’s collectivist ideals eroded over time; though the official community association, the “Commongood Society,” ceased function only in 1967, it had for decades been a moribund institution. Ruskin joined its predecessors in the historical footnotes.
If Ruskin, Tennessee’s history is hard to see among the Instagram-friendly, weddingday sheen, and Ruskin, Georgia’s was literally burnt off the map, the lack of historical presence in Ruskin, Florida, has much more to do with actual politics. As Mac put it, a “great silence fell upon the early life of the community” during World War I, occasioned by the suspicion to which self-pro- claimed socialists were increasingly subject. It was a silence that persisted for decades; “the records of the early community,” said Mac, “were literally kept under lock and key.” It wasn’t until the 1970s that Mac felt he could start talking openly to members of the original Ruskin about the original Ruskin, and only then because, as George McAnelly Miller’s grandson, he “could be trusted, presumably, to do an interview without having it wind up in a newspaper that a principal member of the Hillsborough County Board of County Commissioners grew up as a socialist.”
To this day, if Ruskin’s history is remembered at all, it’s remembered with certain prudent, circumspect omissions appropriate to an area that is, as Mac told me with practiced neutrality, “Trump country.” Speaking to residents interested in local history, many of whom were raised in the heyday of McCarthyite fear-mongering, such deliberately non-ideological terms are the only safe way to talk about the Commongood Society. When Mac gives history talks to the community, he said, he avoids words like “socialism,” “communism,” or, God forbid, “utopianism.” Better to use the comparatively benign “intentional community.” He must even be careful when discussing the town’s namesake. A year ago, Mac told me, a particularly pious member of the Woman’s Club had a portrait of Ruskin removed from club grounds because the accompanying explanatory text described Ruskin’s loss of religious faith. The portrait, Mac noted with amusement, has yet to be located.
Ruskin himself never offered any coherent thoughts on the colonies that took his name: he suffered a mental breakdown in 1890 and spent the last years of his life confined to his home, battling hallucinations and delirium. When, in 1897, the Tennessee Ruskinites sent him a letter soliciting his blessings, his secretary replied: “Sir, I am directed by Mr. Ruskin to thank you for your letter, and for the compliment you have done him. Mr. Ruskin wishes me to express his regret that continued ill-health makes it impossible for him to break the ten years’ silence which he has been obliged to observe.” Three years later, he was dead.
The fact that, in all likelihood, John Ruskin was never able to give a second’s thought to his American acolytes felt appropriate after witnessing firsthand the Ruskins’ various endpoints: wedding venue, pine barrens, suburbs. I was left with a fearful proposition: that perhaps one of the animating spirits of America is a kind of principled forgetfulness, a deliberate amnesia singularly appropriate for a land so miserable as to possess no castles. That the business of “getting-on-ness” has no room for utopias, and even less for remembering them. I thought of the Ruskin mural, the shock of white paint covering his mouth.
Chauffeuring me around Florida, Mac at one point asked if I was interested in something called shell mounds. I confessed I had no idea what he was talking about, and he explained. The coastal Indians of the Tampa region relied on the water for their sustenance. They would harvest oysters from the sea, and after eating them, discard the shells upon a single pile. Over decades, centuries, the pile grew. The particular mound near Ruskin, Mac estimated, would have reached some thirty feet into the sky, and spanned one hundred fifty feet in diameter. We pulled into a marina on the Little Manatee River, whose parking lot marked the site of the shell mound. By the time the Ruskinites arrived, Mac said, a local entrepreneur had constructed a fishing lodge atop the mount; it would later be rechristened “Ruskin Hall.” Eventually, the settlers decided to build a new road to the water. They cut down hundreds of pines, and laid the logs, side by side, along the proposed route. Naturally, this made for a bumpy ride, so to smooth things out, workers slowly dismantled the mountain of shells and used them to fill in the gaps. It was that road, long since paved over, and those shells that we drove upon as we rode back into Ruskin.
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