The Salad Bowl of America
The founding of the unincorporated town of Ruskin is one of the most unique narratives on the Gulf Coast of Florida. Established by Dr. George Miller, his wife, and his brother-in-law, Albert Dickman, Ruskin was Miller’s third try at an education-based, utopian commune.
Miller’s approach combined his Christian faith with the theories and writings of the British scholar John Ruskin, who called for social reform and espoused the need for higher education for the masses. In 1906, Miller and his wife Adeline relocated to Hillsborough County after 2 failed attempts to build their socialist university in the Midwest.
Dickman was much more a businessman, but he saw the opportunity for profit from the venture, and traded 550 acres in cold, wet Missouri for the money for an initial downpayment on 13,000 acres the brothers bought from Captain CH Davis in 1907 and the Ruskin Commongood Society was founded.
The first goal was construction, so the Society built a saw mill and started platting out the community, setting aside land for the college. Dickman’s family built one of the first, and the last still existing home on the outskirts of the property.
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Albert Dickman believed the prospective growth of the newly founded Ruskin would be limited by the community’s limited access. The train stopped at Tampa, and he had found by his own experience that travelling on dirt road between the two cities took approximately 8 hours – if it hadn’t rained recently. So he bought a boat and started a ferry service.
Several of the newly arriving colonists took it upon themselves to build some 25 miles of roads, including the future 301 interstate, then known as the ‘Wire Road,’ because it ran alongside the telegraph and telephone lines.
The college grew steadily until the first World War. When most of the school’s 160 students left to serve on the battlefield, or work on the war effort in larger cities, the school closed its doors, intending to reopen at some point. But that would never happen. A fire devastated the campus, followed shortly by the death of Dr. Miller while on a book tour in Ohio.
Despite the loss of its founder, Ruskin continued to grow, and, due to their socialist and agricultural leanings, actually prospered during the great depression. Albert Dickman’s son Paul had been a student at Ruskin college before he was drafted during the war. After he lost most of his holdings in Tampa, he returned to Ruskin to farm and found that by applying a combination of his father’s business sense and his socialist education to transform the community into “America’s Salad Bowl.”
In 1935, the town started an annual festival to both attract visitors and celebrate their primary crop: the Ruskin Tomato Festival.
By World War II, Ruskin had grown to almost 2000 residents, many of whom worked in Tampa, where word of the community’s idyllic lifestyle spread and the community grew, as did their contribution to local agriculture.
In 1967, the Commongood Society was officially disbanded and by the 1970’s, the community was well on its way to 20,000 residents and the Tomato Festival had become “Ruskin Days,” then “The Ruskin Tomato and Heritage Festival,” still celebrated today.
Unfortunately, the death of Paul Dickman in 1976, followed by several years of poor crops cost the community heavily, leading thousands of residents to abandon the farm life and move to Tampa or St. Petersburg, never to return.
Today, despite the negative impact of NAFTA on its primary tomato crop, the community has largely rebounded, turning its orange groves and tomato fields into urban housing. Its population has doubled since t5he year 2000, now back to about 17,000 year round residents. It is the home to the Cockroach Bay Aquatic Preserve, which boasts more than 300 species of birds, as well as archeological remains from the area’s long dead indigenous tribes. The legacy of John Ruskin still draws intellectuals and artists to the area, although he probably wouldn’t approve of the area’s newest employer. In 2016, Amazon opened a 1-million square foot warehouse in Ruskin that ships all across the United States.
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Quick Facts About Ruskin:
- The Leisey Shell Pit in Ruskin is one of the largest and most extensive ice age fossil depository in the world.
- Backstreet Boy Nick Carter and his siblings: solo singers Aaron & Leslie Carter, call Ruskin home.
- John and Clarence Anglin, formerly of Ruskin, 2 of only 5 (possibly) successful escapees from Alcatraz. They broke out of the inescapable prison in 1962 and were never found.
- Ruskin is home to the only remaining Family Drive-In Theatre still in operation.
- Florida actress and singer Willa Ford grew up in Ruskin.