Just when you think you’ve heard it all, here’s the next anecdote: More than a century ago, Dickson County was home to one of the most famous townships in the world.
It was started by Julius Wayland, publisher of one of the country’s most influential socialist publications of his day. The Coming Nation, as it was known, advocated the eight-hour workday, equal pay for women and the abolition of child labor – concepts that seemed much stranger then than they do today. today.
The Coming Nation also promoted the idea of a utopian industrial colony, and in 1894 some of Wayland’s supporters agreed to participate in such an endeavor. Using income from his newspaper, Wayland purchased approximately one thousand acres near the Dickson County community in Tennessee City. Since the commune was based on the ideas of English social critic John Ruskin, it became known as the Ruskin Cooperative Association.
One can only imagine what the residents of Dickson County thought when a few hundred strangers showed up and began to build a “utopian” community. These newcomers invested part of their money in the colony and, working together, built houses and commercial buildings and set up all kinds of businesses. The most important of these was a new printing press for The Coming Nation, which in 1896 had a circulation of 60,000. The colony also produced trousers, belts, suspenders, coffee and chewing gum.
In 1897 the colony moved to a site about five miles away. It ran along Yellow Creek and included a cave with a huge entrance that settlers used as a meeting place and cannery. A few hundred yards away, the colony constructed a three-story building that served as a printing house, dining hall, nursery, and library.
Ruskin was created to be self-sufficient. All food was grown or raised on site and meals were served in a communal dining hall. People who lived and worked in the community were paid in certificates that could be used in exchange for goods. The value of the certificate was based on the amount of work that had been done. For example, a coin representing seven hours of work could be exchanged for a pound of coffee. Alcohol was banned, and health care and child care were free.
“There are 300 colony members and they have 1,800 acres of land,” said an 1899 article in the Sandusky (Ohio) Star. “They have no officers, no officials, have no use for law, issue their own money, have no church, have farms, factories, raise whatever they have to eat and only pay for the necessary clothes and utensils.”
This all sounded good in theory, but the Ruskin Cooperative Association was destined to become a footnote in Tennessee history. The first sign that something was wrong came in 1895, when Wayland left the colony due to ownership disputes in the newspaper. There were also bones of contention over religion and equal rights for women, among other things.
Disputes led to a trial in the summer of 1897, and from then on legal problems tore the colony apart. When some members decided to leave, there were disputes over how much money people had originally invested in the place.
Finally, in 1899, some of the founding members attempted to have the corporation dissolved. Soon after, the Ruskin Colony and most of its properties were auctioned off in an event attended by approximately 1,500 people. “Hundreds of people came looking for bargains, and found them: fine horses sold for as little as $10, mules for $9, hogs for $5,” John Egerton wrote in “Visions of Utopia”.
Soon after, 240 of Ruskin’s members moved to Georgia, merging with another utopian colony there. But that didn’t work either; Ruskin’s colony completely disbanded in the fall of 1901. Most people who had spent money to help start the place and devoted years of their lives to the cause had nothing to show for their efforts, except one compelling story.
The land on which the commune of Ruskin existed is still rural and unspoilt. Just 15 years ago, the Dickson County Renaissance Center operated a children’s day camp there (which my son attended). I’m sorry to say that the day camp no longer exists. Today the Ruskin property, including the cave, is a wedding venue.