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History of Ruskin women spotlighted

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That spotlight began shining first this week at the Tampa Bay History Center in Channelside, as the three-panel exhibit of artifacts went up, tracing Ruskin’s very early years forward to the present.

By MELODY JAMESON

RUSKIN – “We are not thinking as much New Thought as we think we are. It is all old. People have thought it before. Again. And again. And again.”

These are the words of Harriet E. Orcutt, journalist, novelist, teacher, campaigner for women’s and worker’s rights, pioneer, organization officer, land owner, Ruskin’s first librarian – and, clearly, something of a philosopher.

She never married; her passions were words, truth, books. She cared deeply about the fledgling community on the eastern shore of Tampa Bay and gave freely of her many talents.

And she’s one of the many women who contributed through the years to build the community of today. They’re all being recognized this month, in the spotlight, at three different venues.

That spotlight began shining first this week at the Tampa Bay History Center in Channelside, as the three-panel exhibit of artifacts went up, tracing Ruskin’s very early years forward to the present.

Produced by The Ruskin History Project, Inc., this display on the center’s second floor tells the Ruskin story through photographs, narratives and rare objects, from the days pre-historic peoples and strange magnificent animals roamed its forests to its turn of the century roots as a cooperative organized on the principles of John Ruskin and centered with the first Ruskin College through the mid century when farming and agricultural ingenuity flourished, when The Coffee Cup restaurant drew visitors from great distances to its present prized for easy living without metropolitan congestion.

The hand-operated meat grinder patented in 1803 that was used regularly in The Coffee Cup to produce fresh hamburger and the antique Victrola which provided music for young students to dance by on the third floor of the college president’s house and the books handled by pioneering forefathers – they’re all here enticing visitors back a century or more.

The historical exhibit is bookended by two of the community’s groundbreaking journalists — Orcutt at its recorded beginnings and Aleta “Jonie” Maschek who has recorded much of its history known today.

Orcutt covered the Chicago World’s Fair, was published in scores of periodicals and wrote at least three novels before arriving in Ruskin before the first decade of the 20th century had ended.

By 1911, she had joined Ruskin’s Commongood Society, subsequently would serve as its secretary and then president, and would be a charter member of the 20th Century Club from which the Ruskin Woman’s Club would grow.

Maschek began her career in 1949 when female journalists were not particularly welcome in newsrooms. She worked in early television in Seattle and then in Chicago and ultimately in New York before making her way to Tampa where she was a producer for WFLA, the NBC affiliate. She recalls interviewing both Presidents Carter and Reagan, as well as Astronaut Buzz Aldrin and actor Vincent Price.

She arrived in Ruskin with her husband, Matthew, in the late 1970s and soon began to chronicle the area’s history through the eyes of settlers’ descendants, first in the pages of The Shopper Observer News and then by compiling those reports in book form. At last count, she had created nine volumes opening windows on the past.

Through her years in Ruskin, she has been involved in many community endeavors, has operated two clothing boutiques, and been crowned Tomato Festival Queen.

Now nearing her 90th birthday, Maschek still writes a fishing column each week for The Observer News.

The Tampa Bay History Center exhibit will remain in place through the month of April, according to Mac Miller, an organizer of the Ruskin History Project.

A second venue earmarked for spotlighting Ruskin’s outstanding women will be the local library on Sunday (April 15). From 1 to 4 p.m. that day, the Tampa -Hillsborough County Public Library System will be staging one of its “road shows” commemorating the facility, its keepers and its founders as it looks ahead to a milestone. Come 2014, the library network will celebrate its centennial, with the Ruskin Branch Library in the vanguard as one of the oldest in the system, according to Jennifer Dietz, a senior librarian managing the system’s historical observances.

In preparation, specialists will be on hand Sunday afternoon to video or audio tape all library-related recollections of local residents, Dietz said. “If someone remembers a story hour as a child or discovered a book at the library that impacted a life or met someone special at the library, we’d like to hear the story,” she added.

County library personnel also will be scanning any documents related to the library’s history which local citizens may have in their possession for saving in its archives, the librarian noted. The scanning process does not harm the documents which are returned immediately to owners.

In addition, a selection of about 20 Burgert Brothers photographs will be on display in the library during the afternoon. Burgert photos, taken by the Tampa professional photographers around the city and its environs through the early 20th century have graced calendars, exhibits and edifices across the region.

And portions of the Ruskin Woman’s Club exhibit which was hung in the Tampa Bay History Center last month are to be displayed at the library on Sunday, The RWC panels presented at TBHC in March also traced the club’s 100 year history with photos, narratives and artifacts.

The current Ruskin library building, dedicated in 1966, is a direct outgrowth of the first library cobbled together in Ruskin by Orcutt a century ago.

Light refreshments will be available, courtesy of Friends of the Library.

A third commemoration of Ruskin’s women and their achievements is slated for Saturday, April 21, inside and around the historic structure that now is the RWC clubhouse as the organization celebrates its 100th anniversary.

The three-story home with architectural touches reminiscent of a Swiss Chalet and located on the west side of U.S. 41 just south of the Ruskin Inlet is the only original building that survived the 1918 fire that destroyed the first Ruskin College campus. It was the home of Dr. George McA. Miller and his wife, Adaline Dickman Miller, as they worked to build the commongood society membership and college student body.

 At the same time, the genesis of the contemporary woman’s group – the 20th Century Club – was developing, becoming a backbone of the community through the first world war and the subsequent depression. In 1940, Mrs. Miller’s family deeded the home to the Ruskin Woman’s Club that had evolved from the former organization.

From its initial formation by Orcutt, through the years, Ruskin women sheltered and guided and grew their local library. Books were housed variously in the home of Aurora Edwards, an early pioneer, in the Miller house and in a little chamber of commerce office, before the first permanent library was established in the mid-1920s.

And, on April 21, members of the RWC, many in period dress, will celebrate it all during a public reception between 10 AM and 4 PM. Portions of the elaborate RWC centennial exhibit designed and coordinated by Dr. Tina Trent leading a team of five members will be displayed inside their clubhouse. And activities for children as well as their parents are being planned on the grounds, according to Betty Jo Council, an RWC officer. Light refreshments also are planned.

Orcutt well might be astounded if she could see the results of her labors today. It might even trigger her wry sense of humor which was unleashed at one point as she lamented the loss of a barrel full of books in the inlet. Surely, it was for the instruction of the fish, she suggested, adding meaningfully “ that is why they are so hard to catch!”

Copyright 2012 Melody Jameson

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