The Ruskin Cooperative Association (RCA) was established in Dickson County in 1894. Founded when publisher Julius Wayland moved his socialist weekly, The Coming Nation, from Versailles, Indiana, the colony was named for famed English social critic John Ruskin. Intended to be a cooperative commonwealth, workers were paid in scrip which could be exchanged for goods or labor. In addition to agricultural endeavors, Ruskin operated a canning factory and produced goods as diverse as suspenders and chewing gum.
When Wayland left the community after only one year, factionalism began to erode the Ruskin experiment. The colony was soon embroiled in a bitter power struggle between the original settlers and newer members, and the distracted colonists were unable to resolve key issues including women’s rights and education. Although Wayland and early leader Isaac Broome had strongly promoted education as the basis of society, the plans for a “Ruskin College of the New Economy” were never realized. By 1899, only five years after its inception, the cooperative was bankrupt.
During its brief existence the “Ruskin Experiment” achieved international notoriety, but, in reality, the RCA began to unravel quickly. Most residents simply would not or could not keep pace with the ideological and intellectual advancement envisioned by the founders. Factors such as the loss of charismatic leader Julius Wayland, the financial panic of 1893, and a series of ill-advised fiscal choices undermined the Utopian dream.
In 1899 a few Ruskinites tried to revive the colony by removing its remaining assets and a few loyal members to Georgia to make a fresh start, but, after a brief struggle, the new community soon sputtered out as well. Isaac Broome later complained that the Ruskinites would rather “smoke, gossip, and spit tobacco” than improve their minds.
By 1897, considered the community’s zenith, there were 250 residents, from 32 states and several foreign countries; they had assets of $100,000, 1,800 acres of land, and 75 buildings; they were a diverse commercial enterprise:
- a farm
- a grist mill
- a steam laundry
- a cannery
- a machine shop, a café
- a bakery
- a school
- a commissary
- many products made in the homes that sold over the counter and by mail