By MELODY JAMESON
RUSKIN – On the frontier here one hundred years ago, this community’s women were enjoying a legal equality unknown to their sisters in northern cities. Their votes and their voices carried the same weight as those asserted by men.
That fact well may explain both how and why their organization would become a backbone of the community, growing with it, continuous in its service, strong and supporting, for a full century, and counting.
That organization, now known as the Ruskin Woman’s Club, begins public observance of its centennial on March 4, opening a display of artifacts and photos in the Tampa Bay History Center demonstrating its proud and lengthy record of achievement.
Come April, its members will host a public reception complete with authentic period garb on the grounds of their historic headquarters, the three-story home that was a cornerstone of Ruskin’s first college, which, in turn, was a key factor in the Commongood Society, the name taken by the communal settlement’s pioneers.
In 1912, when The 20th Century Club, precursor of today’s woman’s club, formed, its members held equal voting rights in the Commongood Society, the organization that anchored the fifth and last U.S. settlement named for and founded on the principles of English social critic John Ruskin.
In northern cities at the time, where women had few options beyond those granted by husbands, the campaign for woman’s suffrage – the legal right to vote in U.S. elections – was being waged by the likes of Elizabeth Cady Stanton and Susan B. Anthony. Yet, in Ruskin “A woman could be president of the Commongood Society; she could be president of anything!,” notes Dr. Arthur “Mac” Miller, the son of pioneers, in his authoritative history of the area.
In fact, an outstanding one was. Miss Harriet Orcutt, novelist, teacher, leader, served the society both as secretary and as president, plus was a charter member of The 20th Century Club. In 1928, she would donate her large, personal library to the club, making it the first public library in the community and one maintained for years by club members.
That independence has characterized the RWC through the years, underpinning its programs and projects, sustaining it during lean times, attracting new members and fresh leadership.
Improvement, both personal and in the community, was the first objective in 1912, according to a 75th anniversary booklet prepared in 1987. Members sought to meet the objective in their monthly meetings featuring progressive programs and in their community as they undertook an extraordinary range of efforts that have highlighted their history, year after year.
Members of the club became involved in the war effort as the second decade matured, working with the American Red Cross, active in veteran’s assistance programs and supporting child labor laws. Under the leadership of Adeline Dickman Miller, wife of Ruskin College’s first president, the group endorsed equal rights for women in 1918 with a resolution sent to U. S. President Woodrow Wilson. The club actively supported prison reforms, participated in lobbying the Florida legislature for “old age pensions” for citizens 65 and older long before social security was created and campaigned for a $300,000 federal appropriation for the state board of health.
In 1940, the family of Adeline D. Miller deeded to the woman‘s club her beloved home, the three-story dwelling facing the Ruskin Inlet and built in 1912 with heart of pine floors and fireplaces on two floors that she designed with Swiss Chalet features. It was the last of the original Ruskin College structures, added to the National Register of Historic Places in 1974 and dedicated as a National Historic Site in 1976.
Come the ‘60s, the RWC led a movement to recondition and reactivate the Ruskin Agricultural Park and this effort snowballed, eventually becoming a community betterment group known as The Ruskin Roundtable. The club also steadfastly pursued efforts to establish a branch of the county library system on the south shore of the Ruskin Inlet, just east of U.S. 41.
In subsequent years, the women of RWC joined efforts to keep Cockroach Bay in a natural state and undertook beautification of the Ruskin Cemetery and took on publication of the Ruskin Telephone Book. The club for years sponsored an annual Christmas Bazaar, has staged dramatic presentations, hosted chamber of commerce breakfasts, and published a Diamond Jubilee Cookbook. Its scholarships awarded to graduating seniors at East Bay and Lennard High Schools annually assist local youngsters with a start on college careers. And the list goes on.
So, to what do leaders of the 80-member Ruskin Woman’s Club attribute its long list of successes accumulating over a century? “Women care,” says incoming President Iris Mixon. It is women, she suggests, who notice needs and become exercised enough to do something about them. And women together can be very focused “doers,” determined to reach goals that benefit those around them, adds Betty Jo Council, a member for the last quarter century. This fact has been proved time and again in the RWC history, suggests one of the newest members, Tina Trent. Trent, a relative newcomer 18 months ago and incoming club historian, has been cataloguing the extensive collection of club memorabilia that dates back to its inception in 1912. “Women,” she notes, “have been at the center of every community endeavor.”
They also see no reason that the Ruskin Woman’s Club, forged on a frontier, polished through a first century of service, and prepared to carry on indefinitely, will not celebrate its bi-centennial in 2112.
Copyright 2012 Melody Jameson