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Addressing a mystery

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image At more than a century old, the Elliot Addressing Machine found in a storage room on the third floor of the grand house that is now the Ruskin Woman’s Club, appears to be ready for work. Photo Mitch Traphagen

On the third floor of the Ruskin Woman’s Club stands a mystery.

By Mitch Traphagen

RUSKIN — On the third floor of the Ruskin Woman’s Club stands a mystery. The third floor reveals the grand home’s diverse past with a classroom chalkboard on the wall of one largely empty room and, on the floor below, the living quarters for the president of Ruskin College and his family. It is a compact yet heavy device, with numbers and letters in a wheel, a foot pedal and guides.

The mystery of what it is was quickly solved. Robin Roberts of the Woman’s Club sent a photo of the object to David Payne at M&M Printing. He identified it as an Elliot Addressing Machine. The Office Museum website he used as a reference had only a drawing of it, but Payne, with extensive experience in the printing business, matched it up to the photo Roberts had sent and figured out how it would have worked.

The machine was expensive in its day. Back in 1906, it would have cost $150, nearly $3,800 in today’s dollars. That was a considerable investment for the fledgling colony of Ruskin and for the college with grand dreams.

Why it was there, however, was more difficult to ascertain. There is really no way to say who used it and for what purpose. Seeing the machine, now more than a century old but still appearing as though, with some clean up, it could be ready for work, conjured up even more questions. At some point in time, someone last used this machine, probably carefully putting it away after a day of work, never knowing that in the next century, a time of laser surgery and laser printers, people would look at it with questions. Someone, somewhere in the passing of time, last used it. Then, things changed.

But mysteries tend to exist only until someone finds an answer. Dr. Mac Miller, son and grandson of one of Ruskin’s founding families, has an idea where it came from.

“It produced addresses for mailings of early newspapers and promotional materials,” Dr. Miller said. “After the fire that took the college, the Woman’s Club [then the president’s home, which had survived the fire] pretty much became the repository for valuable things and things that had sentimental value.”

Miller believes the machine was used to print addresses for the Ruskin Bugle, a newspaper and land sales promotional circular for the Ruskin Commongood Society. He believes the machine started out in Kansas, used by Julius Wayland, editor of a newspaper named, The Coming Nation. In the late 1800s, Wayland moved on to Ruskin, Tennessee, a short-lived utopian society that was a forerunner to the Ruskin Commongood Society in Florida. Wayland then came to Ruskin, Florida, possibly bringing the machine with him.

Miller has reason to believe this — he remembers seeing a photo of Wayland sitting at the machine.

“Kansas to Tennessee to Florida, that was quite a trip in those days,” Miller said. “It’s very possible that this is the same machine that addressed the papers back in Kansas.”

But Miller acknowledges there is no real trail of evidence. The machine was popularized in the early 1900s, although Sterling Elliot, who was himself a publisher and created the machine for his own use, built an earlier model in 1897. When others saw it, however, and realized it was an ingenious machine for making address labels, Elliot saw an opportunity and became a manufacturer. The first commercial machines were marketed in the early 1900s, just about the time that the Ruskin Commongood Society was building a dream in the scrub and wetlands of South Hillsborough.

As a group, they were forward thinking and such a device, despite being costly, could easily have been justified. The colonists had found a home in the wilds of Florida and had every reason for optimism.

“The Ruskin College and the Ruskin Commongood Society had their own printing plant,” Miller went on to say. “My father worked there as a boy.”

Not many years later, in 1918, a fire devastated the college, sparing few of the college buildings. What is now the Ruskin Woman’s Club and was then the home of the college president, Dr. George McAnelly Miller, Mac Miller’s grandfather, survived the fire. At some point, the Elliot Addressing Machine, having itself survived the fire, was likely taken into the home and then lost only to the passing of time.

On the third floor of one of the grandest buildings in South Hillsborough, the chalkboard in what was once a classroom only whispers its past. At one point, lessons, perhaps homework assignments were written on it but were never completed. There is a last time for everything, after all.

In the storage room is the Elliot Addressing Machine, a substantial investment in hopes and dreams. One evening long ago, someone sighed after a long day of work, most likely printing address labels for the Ruskin Bugle, then perhaps cleaned the machine with care, pushed back the chair and went home. And then, he or she never returned.

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