By STEPHEN FLANAGAN JACKSON
A contemporary group of energetic and civic-minded women is rallying the South Shore community to support financially a much-needed renovation project of its clubhouse, one of the most historic buildings in Ruskin.
The Ruskin Woman’s Club is kicking off efforts to seek funds from the public for repairs and renovations of the splendid old manor built in 1914, right smack in the middle of Ruskin, Florida, on what is now US 41, also known as the Tamiami Trail.
The building once housed the headquarters of the former Ruskin College and was the residence of the president and his wife. Unfortunately, Ruskin College had a brief lifespan. Due to World War I’s need for young men and women in military and related services and a devastating fire to another part of the campus where classes and dorms for about 160 males and co-eds were located to the west on College Street, the final lights went out for Ruskin College in 1919. However, the distinguished three-story building with its peaceful and serene grounds still stands and today serves as the headquarters for the Ruskin Woman’s Club as well as a reminder of the famous but little-known and little-appreciated influence of John Ruskin, the famous English philosopher, on this area.
George and Adaline Dickman Miller relocated themselves and Ruskin College from the Chicago area to the current site in Florida, where they started from scratch in 1907. That year George Miller bought 12,000 acres from Florida Naval Stores in order to establish a cooperative community and reopen Ruskin College. It could easily be said that the Millers were Ruskin’s first snowbirds. However, they came south and they stayed south.
Mr. Miller and Mrs. Dickman Miller also selected “Ruskin” for the naming of this small, rural settlement in Florida, about 25 miles east, as the sea gull flies, across the Gulf of Mexico bay from Tampa. On Aug. 7, 1908, the Millers officially founded the town of Ruskin. The Ruskin Communal Society and Ruskin College soon followed under the Millers’ leadership.
By 1909, Miller’s family was joined by those of his wife’s three brothers, A.P., N.E., and L.L. Dickman. More acreage was added, and organization of the community of Ruskin began.
The Millers and the Dickmans used the sale of land as the first step in their cooperative system. A certain percentage of funds was reserved from all land sales to finance community services, among them the proposed Ruskin College. As well, for each acre sold, a certain portion of land was set aside for the “common good” of the community. Landless residents could acquire “common good” land through service to the community. These “common good” lands also served as backing for Ruskin’s locally issued currency. “Common good” script was paid for work on roads and other community projects. During these times of financial panic when other sources dried up, this script remained in circulation.
The Millers established Ruskin and reopened Ruskin College here in order for students, male and female, to gain vocational training, so they could earn their way through a four-year college by working in a cooperative business associated with Ruskin College.
Miller had operated two other Ruskinian colleges, based on John Ruskin’s vision and values, Ruskin College in Trenton, Missouri (1899), and Glen Ellyn, Illinois (1905). Ruskin College, also based on John Ruskin’s beliefs, officially opened in Florida in 1913 as a coeducational industrial and liberal arts college, offering three years of preparatory work and four years of college studies. By 1918 the school had 300 students who attended classes in the morning and in the afternoons either worked on the 20-acre farm, in a weaving shop, laundry, leatherworking shop or woodworking shop. In this manner, maintenance costs were held down by the products made by the students, and poorer students could “work their way” through. Furthermore, Miller attached a transcendent value to physical labor. Abstract intellectual endeavor was to be aided and informed by manual work, constantly returning the scholar to the realities of life. Dr. Miller died in 1919, and the loss of many students to the Army during World War I brought an end to the college’s operation.
In 1919 there was a tremendous fire in Ruskin and all of the original buildings, except the president’s home (now the GFWC Ruskin Woman’s Club) burned to the ground. The building derives some architectural interest from the originality of its treatment. It also remains as a symbol to an historically conscious community of its utopian beginnings. Since 1974, the Miller House has been listed on the US National Register of Historic Places.
The namesake of the college, John Ruskin, was a distinguished writer, art critic, social reformer and philosopher who was born in London in 1819 and died in Cumbria, England, in 1900. The first Ruskin College, originally known as Ruskin Hall-Oxford, had been established in Oxford, England, in 1899; in 1921 it became part of the University of West London where it exists to this day.
Now, all these years later, many of the current residents and visitors to Ruskin have little or no knowledge of John Ruskin, the Millers, the noble purpose of the founding of the town or the innovative college. The George McAnelly Miller House at 508 Tamiami Trail is a reminder of all that. And to preserve the historical interest, as well as the physical presence of the house, the members of the Ruskin Woman’s Club have taken on the awesome responsibility of keeping alive the image and reality of John Ruskin and Ruskin College.
The old Miller House requires drastic and urgent re-construction work to its basic, important under-pinnings as well as extensive updating of its electric system. The Ruskin Woman’s Club members view this as one of the best contributions they can make to Ruskin now and for the near future. They are seeking small, medium and large financial contributions to enable their plans to become a reality. The Ruskin Woman’s Club appreciates and understands that if it does not successfully take on this huge fund-raising project to maintain and to upgrade the historic Miller House, something important could be lost to one of the “finest stretches of funk [that] Florida has to offer on the Tamiami Trail.”
In the second half of the 1800s, John Ruskin was seen by some in England and the US as “a voice crying from the wilderness and seeking to call a lapsed people back into the paths of righteousness.” That same call is beckoning now from the Ruskin Woman’s Club. The best response from the public would be current contributions for the renovation of a historic home, which symbolizes John Ruskin’s social ideal that “human happiness requires a mix of head, heart and land.”
The Ruskin Woman’s Club predecessor was the Woman’s Twentieth Century Club, organized in 1912 for the purpose of individual culture and civic involvement. Dr. Minerva Cushman was its first president. The club joined the Federation of Florida Women’s Clubs in 1919, becoming the 19th federated club in Florida. For a number of years, the club met in members’ homes. In 1928, an invitation from the chamber of commerce to use its building as a meeting place was accepted.
During the same year, Miss Harriett Orcutt, a charter member, donated her large private collection of books to the club for use as a public library. These books were moved to the chamber building for that purpose.
An effort was made to build a clubhouse on the property known as Hibiscus Park, for which a lease was granted by the Commongood Society. This plan was eventually abandoned due to lack of funds.
The present clubhouse was acquired from the Miller family in 1940. Also in 1940, the Woman’s Twentieth Century Club was renamed the Ruskin Woman’s Club.
The Miller Home was constructed in 1914. The president’s wife, Adaline Dickman Miller, designed the house as a conscious attempt at a Swiss-style chalet. The building is all that remains of Ruskin College, an unusual communal and educational enterprise on the east side of Tampa Bay.
Over the years, the GFWC Ruskin Woman’s Club has been instrumental in accomplishing many worthwhile projects in Ruskin. These include the Ruskin Cemetery and the Ruskin Branch Library, which opened in 1966. The Ruskin Library was originally housed inside the National Heritage Property until it was moved to another temporary location. From its inception the GFWC Ruskin Woman’s Club has been an integral part of the social, cultural and economic development of Ruskin. Ruskin Woman’s Club is a 501(c)(3) registered with the Florida Department of Agriculture and Consumer Services as a non-profit charitable organization.
Donations for the current renovation project can be directed to
• Ruskin Woman’s Club, P.O. Box 547, Ruskin, FL 33575.
• GFWCRuskinWomans Club.org/donations/. 813-296-3900.