Ruskin

I know a place. A cave. Not fine with dripping crystal; rustic, rather.

It is not deep, although narrow paths and holes and halls of it riddle the ridge.

Instead, its claim to my regard, or yours, lies in its openness.

The limestone hill spreads wide and offers you itself in the person of one stone room

the size of a country church (unsteepled, plain, but rising high).

The neighbors dance there–square and buck–on the smooth uneven floor,

and take their rest on benches around rough walls, fanned by the cool breath of the earth

while they talk, admire and tap to tunes.

In the heat outside, grasshoppers and cicadas beat dry grass and the light bends the brush on the creekbank. A fine view as any stained glass.

Ruskin Cave, with its natural auditorium 350 feet long, 80 feet wide and 40 feet high provided a most interesting feature for the school.
—William O. Batts

Ruskin Cave College Preparatory School opened in 1904, and took its name from the cave that provided the school’s auditorium. The founder, the Rev. R.E. Smith, deliberately limited the enrollment to 200 and mandated military training. Unlike many schools at the time, the school was officially coeducational. The school’s educational emphasis was on musical education, both instrumental and vocal, but classes also included literature and religion. (1) Many faculty left during World War I to serve in the military, and the school had to close in 1918.

[Miners and moonshiners: Historic industrial uses of Tennessee cavesMidcontinental Journal of Archaeology, Fall 2001 by Douglas, Joseph]

The locations and shapes of caves varied, so only a few were easily accessible and had enough level space to meet the needs of even small-scale industry. Still, there are some examples of this use in the state. In Fentress County, William York, father of World War I hero Alvin York, used a cave on his property to house his blacksmith shop, though the business never really prospered (Crocker 1979). A more significant example, albeit short-lived, came from Ruskin Cave in Dickson County. Ruskin Cave was the site of industrial activity even before the Ruskin Cooperative Association, a socialist commune founded by Julius Wayland, bought the property for its new home in 1896. The cave had been known since the early 19^sup th^ century, when it was called the Great Cave, a reference to its spacious size. In 1877 Bud Norris and Thomas Rodgers formed a partnership, bought the cave, and erected a grist mill there. A newspaper account from 1886, in addition to stating the cave was a local attraction and used for dances, also noted that “[n]ear the mouth of the cave is standing a grist mill, which is run by a stream of water proceeding down the bluff from the cave” (Anonymous 1886:n.p.). The settlement that grew up around the cave became known as Cave Mills.

After the Ruskin Cooperative Association bought the cave and surrounding lands, members of the community began to intensively use the cave, both in traditional domestic patterns, such as for food storage and an icehouse, and as an industrial space. The scale of the domestic usage was larger than most other known examples in Tennessee. The community stored so much meat in the cave that the inhabitants built rail tracks in the cave to facilitate transport. As for industrial use, the cave stream continued to power the grist mill, but the community also set up a small commercial cannery in the cave, This was part of a surge of industrial activity at the village, which like the cave was now called Ruskin. The Association developed a remarkable and paradoxical entrepreneurial spirit, with enterprises including a wide range of factories, shops, and mills.

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5 thoughts on “Ruskin

  1. I enjoyed both the poem and the historical information on Ruskin Cave. Believe it or not, I have vague memories of being there once, as a child. I think they had a box supper and dance, as best I remember. I seem to remember that there was a huge roped off area, in the back, and that we were told to stay away from there that it was a “bottomless” hole, or bottomless well? I do remember the dancing, and what fun people had socializing. I think I was there only that one time, long, long ago.

  2. I remember the Forth of July picnic and barbeque. The dancing was so much fun to watch. There were some great buck dancers down there. Flashy! They were still calling that hole “bottomless”.

    Jay said:
    I remember camping in the cave as a Boy Scout, way back inside (around a curve, so it was dark). We were running around the place, when no one else was in there (no dancing or official types). I was being chased, and jumped off the platform. I failed to notice the thick wire “railing”. It caught me, and tossed me back on the platform (no injury to speak of). Needless to say, I was tagged, and became “it”. :-)

  3. My grandparents, John and Gladys Hunt, lived across the creek from Ruskin Cave for about 50 years. My father was born and raised in that community. We loved going over to Ruskin Cave for picnics and concerts when it became a campgrounds. My grandfather would take me swimming quite often in the summers. When I was in 7th grade, my class took a field trip there back in 1987. We waded the creek, toured Jewel Cave, and my grandmother came over and gave a talk of the history of the cave. I hold a great fondness for that area as it brings back so many memories. Enjoyed the pictures you have posted.

  4. My husband bought both the Ruskin Cave, Jewel Cave and old Hunt Farm back in the mid 90s. It was sold to the Jackson Foundation in 2004. This property has moved me so much over the years. I do hope what is left of the college can be restored, Wonderful History. I would like permission to post a copy of your poem on my facebook. Please let me know if this is ok. Thanks.

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