Just when you think you’ve heard it all, along comes the following anecdote: Over a century ago, Dickson County was home to one of the world’s most famous communes.
It was started by Julius Wayland, publisher of one of the nation’s most influential socialist publications of its era. The Coming Nation, it was called, advocated the eight-hour workday, equal pay for women and the abolition of child labor — concepts that seemed a lot stranger then than they do now.
The Coming Nation also promoted the idea of a utopian industrial colony and, in 1894, some of Wayland’s followers agreed to participate in such a venture. Using earnings from his newspaper, Wayland bought about a thousand acres near the Dickson County community of 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 Dickson County residents thought when a few hundred outsiders showed up and started building a “utopian” community. These newcomers invested some of their own money in the colony and, working together, built houses and commercial buildings and set up all sorts of enterprises. The largest of these was a new printing press for The Coming Nation, which by 1896 had a circulation of 60,000. The colony also produced pants, 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 an enormous entrance that the colonists used as a meeting place and cannery. A few hundred feet from there, the colony built a three-story building which they used as a printer, dining room, nursery and library.
Ruskin was set up 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 scrip that could be used in exchange for goods. The value of the scrip was based on the amount of work that was done. For example, a piece of scrip that represented seven hours of work could be redeemed for a pound of coffee. Alcohol was forbidden, and health care and day care were free.
“There are 300 members of the colony and they have 1,800 acres of land,” an 1899 article in the Sandusky (Ohio) Star said. “They have no officers, no public officials, have no use for law, issue their own money, have no church, have farms, some factories, raise all they have to eat and only pay money for clothing and utensils needed.”
All this sounded great in theory, but the Ruskin Cooperative Association was destined to become a footnote in Tennessee history. The first sign that something was wrong occurred in 1895, when Wayland left the colony because of conflicts about ownership in the newspaper. There were also bones of contention about religion and equal rights for women, among other things.
Disputes led to a lawsuit in the summer of 1897 and, from that point on, legal problems tore the colony apart. As some members decided to leave, there were disputes about money people had originally invested in the place.
Finally, in 1899, some of the charter members tried to have the corporation dissolved. Not long after that, the Ruskin colony and most of its property were auctioned in an event attended by an estimated 1,500 people. “Hundreds of people came looking for bargains, and they found them: fine horses sold for as little as $10, mules for $9, hogs for $5,” John Egerton wrote in “Visions of Utopia.”
Shortly thereafter, 240 of Ruskin’s members moved to Georgia, merging with another utopian colony there. But this didn’t work out either; the Ruskin colony completely disbanded by the fall of 1901. Most of the people who had spent money to help start the place and devoted years of their life to the cause were left with nothing to show for their efforts except a fascinating story.
The land on which the Ruskin commune existed is still rural and unspoiled. As recently as 15 years ago, Dickson County’s Renaissance Center operated a day camp for kids 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.