By Charles Nelson
Histories of Ruskin’s founders often focus on the Miller and Dickman families. They are clearly important, but Ruskin would have failed as a community without other early pioneers. George Washington Cralle represents one important group of those early colonists, and his story should be remembered.
Ruskin, Florida was an intentional cooperative community. In part, it was founded on the principles of John Ruskin, an English social thinker who believed in the equality of labor, supportive communities and education for all.
Some of John Ruskin’s American admirers sought to form socialist, utopian communities in Tennessee and Georgia. Other ‘Ruskinites,’ including George McA. Miller, built college-based communities in Missouri and Illinois. All four of these communities failed.
Miller sought a new Ruskin community far from the influences of industrial America and found that isolation on the west coast of Florida. Some from each of these four failed communities followed Miller to Florida, but they were not the only ones to do so.
George W. Cralle is an example of this ‘other’ group. He had been engaged in socialist politics in South Dakota and Minnesota and likely became aware of Ruskin through national, socialist newspapers. The new town offered ideas consistent with his own: a cooperative community where all labor was considered equal and where education was free at the new Ruskin College. Family lore adds another element: he was reportedly tired of northern winters.
Cralle, his wife, Ida Belle, and their nine children arrived in Ruskin in late 1913. They secured and cleared a homesite in Ruskin’s third addition. Almost immediately, Cralle and his sons cooperatively pitched in to help their neighbors clear land, dig trenches and plant crops.
Cralle also found an outlet for his political interests by attending Socialist Party meetings in Ruskin and in Tampa. In 1916, Cralle received the Socialist Party nomination for Hillsborough County Commissioner after being strongly considered for a US Senate seat. In Ruskin, he could live among people who were compatible with his ideas of progressive reform.
A communitarian at heart, Cralle was heavily engaged in Ruskin’s development. He helped extend Ruskin’s telephone line to the planned Morris Park community. He and his sons opened a new road section near the college and were often reported to be “repairing lands for the community and for neighbors seeking help.”
The Ruskin Co-Operative Mercantile Company elected Cralle as its store manager in 1915 and again in 1916. In August 1917, Cralle was also elected as a director of the Ruskin Growers Association.
In 1923, Cralle managed the Square Deal Store. When the owner sold her business, Cralle bought much of the stock and built a new general store next to the Atlantic Coast Line Station in Ruskin, which he operated until shortly before his death in 1936. He was appointed by the railroad to be its freight and express agent as well.
In January 1916, Cralle was elected as a school trustee for Ruskin. At least three of his children, Ada, Esther and John (Jack), attended Ruskin College. Esther and Jack played basketball for Ruskin teams, where Jack was the leading scorer on the men’s team in 1917.
George was not the only Cralle to be so engaged in his community. His wife, Ida, was a charter member of the Red Cross in Ruskin. His daughter Ada organized a literary society in 1919. The Cralle sons were often seen helping their father in his many cooperative projects. While two of the boys left Ruskin to go north to make their futures, the Cralle girls married into historic, prominent South County families: Leisey, Dickman, Willis, Elsberry and Surgnier.
George W. Cralle lived his life to support his community, his neighbors and his family. He gave freely his abilities, in a cooperative spirit, and sought fair and equitable treatment for all in true Ruskin communitarian spirit. He was a true founding pioneer of Ruskin.