Project Description

Photography courtesy of Randall Davis

Old Ruskin Church   Org 1895

The story of the Old Ruskin Church will be an ongoing one and we will add to it as we go.  The most interesting thing about the church itself is the Victorian architecture, complete with the most intricate finishes and details.  One would expect to find something like this in an urban New England setting but not in the piney woods of Ware County.  We cannot find the exact date of the church construction but a “sister church” located nearby – albeit in terrible condition – was built in 1899.  It seems pretty certain that the same builder was responsible for both churches.  The architecture and detailing of both churches are very similar and we think that Ruskin was built a few years earlier and was already here when the “Ruskinites”  arrived.  We are told the original church was Methodist and was part of the Hebardville Circuit.  It is now a Body of Christ Church.

The other aspect of the Old Ruskin Church that makes it unique is the fact that it is all that is left of the town of Ruskin, which was formerly a small sawmill village named Duke.  A very strange thing happened at the turn of the century that resulted in the name change and the establishment of the village of Ruskin, named for John Ruskin, an English art patron and socialist who espoused a utopian society that would ‘show that contemporary life could still be enjoyed in the countryside, with land being farmed traditionally, with minimal mechanical assistance’.

Georgia’s version of this Ruskinite colony was formed in 1898 by the American Settlers Association, a group of farmers looking for a better way to do things.  They discovered the community of Duke, bought a thousand acres and changed the name to Ruskin.  Some of these settlers were from a similar colony in Tennessee, formerly known as Cave Mills but also had the name changed to Ruskin.  About 100 families arrived from Tennessee into the little community in October of 1898 to establish ‘a community of people on a cooperative basis of Industrial Brotherhood’.

At its zenith, Ruskin had ‘two newspapers, a printing press, a shingle and planing mill, a broom factory, cereal, coffee and leather suspender businesses, a large library, big farms, post office and a railway station with a big sign that read RUSKIN‘.  Alas, Industrial Brotherhood was very difficult to achieve in practice and many problems soon arose.  It all came to a sad end in August of 1901 when their newspaper, The Coming Nation, announced that Ruskin was being abandoned and its members were ‘scattering to their original homes’.

The sweet little church in the Georgia piney woods predated Ruskin and managed to survive all these years.  There is nothing left of the community to show it ever existed.  The sister church, Ezekiel New Congregational Methodist, discussed above has just about faded away as well.  If you scroll to the end of the photo sequence (use the red arrows above) you will see that she is on her last legs.  It makes you realize how fragile these old treasures can be and it makes us grateful for the love and care the members have given Old Ruskin for almost 150 years.  Thank you for your stewardship.

In the introductory photograph as well as the close-up above, we find an array of many of the decorative elements that define this church as “Rural Carpenter Gothic”.  We see steep, pitched roofs, gingerbread ornamentation and fancy scroll work.  Above, we see the extended fascia board featuring what appear to be stylized, bat-like images featuring eyes, wings and feet!  These shapes appear on the sloped barge boards as well.  The entablature board to the left features a repetitive pattern of cut-outs with inverted/mirror images.  The entablature board is supported by carved brackets and a central carved decorative piece.  The shingle pattern in the gable is a “Square-butt”, although modified to appear somewhat irregular.  In a phrase, Rural Carpenter Gothic means..…a whole lot of things going on at once!

The interior of Old Ruskin is not as elaborate and fanciful as is the exterior.  The curved ceiling is an artistic way of raising the eye and imparting to the sanctuary a greater sense of welcoming openness.  The columns needed to support the large steeple and belfry are softened by their chamfering.  The large 2 over 2 clear glass windows on all four walls provides abundant light within.  The dividing rail and partition reflect the earlier times when men sat on one side of the church and women and children on the other.  The overall effect inside this meeting house is one of order, tranquility and reverence.

This view of the chancel, altar and pulpit reflect the Carpenter Gothic design elements of the exterior.  Though simplicity is the byword throughout most of the sanctuary,  the fancy scroll work and repetitive patterns we see on the balustrade echoes those seen on the exterior and would not have been found in churches of an earlier era.

This photograph exhibits how interior church design changed in rural churches from the early to the late 19th century.  Gone are the angular flat pine board pews to be replaced by more modern, curvilinear sides, feet and seats.  On the other hand, the finished, 4 inch heart pine floorboards, the horizontal interior wallboard, the simple window frames with clear glass and the bead board dividing wall are about as traditional and authentic as you can get.

This ornate pulpit is a triumph of Rural Carpenter Gothic ornamentation and design.  The builder of the Ruskin church was a master craftsman with a strong sense of design.  Not what you would expect in this part of Georgia 135 years ago.  There has to be a story behind the church builder and where and how he acquired these unique skills.  We will keep looking for it.

Old Ruskin Church, Ware Co, Ga

What a tranquil rural setting in the tall Georgia pines.  Note that the church has a tin roof which has proven itself over time as the best solution for keeping the old churches dry.  It works but they do rust over time and you can clearly see different vintages on the main roof, the belfry and the front alcove.  However, on the next photo you will see what happens when a different sort of roofing material is used and gets to the end of its life cycle.  Not a pretty picture.  Two churches built in the same period by the same builder.

Ezikeil Church, Ware Co, Ga

Ezekiel is located a few miles away and is the “Sister Church” to old Ruskin.  Ir was still active as late as 1974.  At some point there was some fire damage in the upper part of the church, but the biggest foe of these old treasures is weather.  And the best friend for an old church is a tin roof.  This one had some kind of composition roofing placed over the original wood shakes and it just doesn’t hold up nearly as well as tin.  Thank goodness tin became the roofing material of choice in the late 19th century or you would see a lot more of this sort of rapid deterioration.  The sadness of a deserted and dying historical treasure like this is deep.  We must preserve them while we still can.  We can all thank the members of the Old Ruskin Church for saving her from a similar fate.

Old Ruskin Boarding House

The Ruskin “experiment” only lasted a short time, but nonetheless it was a serious enterprise that attracted people with some means who loved the arts and were not afraid of hard work.  The above turn of the century photo of the old Ruskin boarding house will give you a sense of their commitment and station in life.  It was in many ways, a noble attempt to put working people in a ‘a community of people on a cooperative basis of Industrial Brotherhood’.  John Ruskin was an intellectual force in his day who was able to convince people there might be a better way.  Many people have advocated similar thoughts and systems over the years.  It sounds good…………it just doesn’t work.  The short life of Ruskin is a testament to that.