Ruskin, British Columbia

1895-1899
Alternative names: Ruskin Mills; Canadian Co-operative Society
Location: About 50 km east of Vancouver, in Maple Ridge, at the junction of the Fraser and Stave Rivers; north bank of the Fraser, west bank of the Stave.  49.2 N, -122.43 W.

Ruskin BC was built around a sawmill managed by its workers. The builders set up the Canadian Co-operative Society (CCS) to guide the creation and management of this experimental project which included the mill and a settlement. Inspiration came in part from a wealthy, university-educated Canadian, Charles Whetham (1857-1938). Whetham and the settlement initiators were, in turn, inspired by the nineteenth century English social critic and man of letters, John Ruskin (1818-1900) whose ideas for bringing about social reform through arts and crafts organizations were widely discussed at the time.

Traditionally, the land and waters in this region had been in use by the indigenous Sto:lo peoples, members of the Coast Salish language family. More specifically, people of the Kwantlen First Nation have long lived, fished, and picked berries in this part of the Fraser Valley, and they remain in the area.

Maple Ridge (Pitt Meadows) property map circa 1900 showing Ruskin within the Fraser Valley region located at the extreme bottom right.  Note “Indian Reserve” and “I.R.” Source: Canadian Federation of University Women 1972, 58-9.

The plan to set up a co-operative sawmill at the junction of the Fraser and Stave Rivers emerged from meetings in the area at which John Ruskin’s ideas were discussed. In particular, Ruskin had written about designs for a society that would mitigate the harmful effects of industrialization and capitalism. He proposed that society turn away from mechanized mass production and instead foster the production of high quality goods by artisans.  He reasoned that if workers created products largely by hand using their skills and imagination their lives would be more satisfying because they would be less alienated by systems beyond their control.  Ruskin’s strategy was to experiment with designing arts and crafts communities based in part around a guild system reminiscent of the Middle Ages. It was a very unlikely answer to worker poverty and alienation in late nineteenth century British Columbia: guilds, including Ruskin’s, were more hierarchical than co-operative, and milling logs inevitably required heavy mechanical equipment.

Detail of Maple Ridge Municipality property map, showing “Ruskin” extreme lower right, with the Fraser below and the Stave flowing on its eastern side. Source: Canadian Federation of University Women 1972, 59.

Still, Charles Whetham — who demonstrated strong commitment to community development throughout his life — was open to John Ruskin’s general objectives. He willingly collaborated with a group of young men to develop experiments in settlement styles if they might improve conditions for workers. The CCS looked for land and was eventually given use — but not ownership — of a four-acre site ideally situated at the Stave-Fraser junction.

Segment of map showing the Whetham property (lot #439), with the second school in the northeast corner; Whetham’s “Armour Landing; and a caption “Co-op Commune (later Heaps’ Mill). The latter is right at the junction of the two rivers. Source: Canadian Federation of University Women 1972, 55.

Apparently it was Whetham who suggested calling the settlement “Ruskin.” Members of the CCS were in favour of profit-sharing and joint ownership but, as it turned out, there seems to have been little profit to share and little to own. One partial exception was the second primary school built by the CCS. This one was sited further away from the mill because the noise from the machinery harmed the children. Fannie, Charles Whetham’s wife in whose name their property was owned, severed an acre lot adjacent to Ruskin and donated it to the Crown for the school.

The community’s original name was Ruskin Mills. Some homes, the first school, and a small general store were clustered around the saw mill. The women of Ruskin Mills ran a co-operative vegetable farm. By 1897 the CCS had 54 members. When a post office opened at the start of 1898, the settlement’s name became simply “Ruskin.” The economic base was timber. Its survival depended on upstream logging, hauling the logs to the Stave, and floating them down the river to the mill to be cut and shipped.

The CCS faced bankruptcy in late 1898. A very dry summer resulted in insufficient water in the Stave to float logs down to the mill which may be what forced the end of this financially precarious Society. The CCS had obtained the mill’s equipment from a lumber manufacturer, E.H. Heaps & Co. Those assets had to be surrendered to Heaps in 1899 when the Society failed. Later that year the management changed: Heaps’ son took over managing the mill from the CCS member, John Willband.

Despite that setback, nine Ruskin citizens still carried a dream of a co-operative settlement and tried again in 1899. They intended to start a farm and raise livestock in Boundary Bay in what is now Tsawwassen near the Canada-US border. Once again a group met in Charles Whetham’s house to create the constitution and by-laws for their new project, this time called The Industrial Union. Once more, Whetham contributed ideas and organizational expertise. As Justice of the Peace for the County of Westminster, Whetham legalized the founding document. This second initiative had less success than the first because The Industrial Union couldn’t raise enough money to buy the land they wanted. The organization lingered on for a short while but eventually disappeared after 1901.

Charles Whetham did not envision himself working or living in either of these experimental settlements. Until he and his family left BC in 1903 he gave much of his time to community projects and public service, not to regular employment. He lived on his 68-acre (27.5 ha) property, which faced the Fraser and adjoined the Ruskin settlement, and which he had named “Walden.” This clear reference to Henry David Thoreau suggests Whetham’s interest in alternative styles of living on the land.

“Walden,” the Whetham home, near Ruskin BC. Source: Braches 2012, 18.

The extent to which any of John Ruskin’s ideas were actually implemented in Ruskin BC remains unclear. A review of the documents incorporating the Canadian Co-operative Society (1895) and The Industrial Union (1899) would be helpful. So far, little information describes the settlement itself, how in practice the CCS ran the village and the mill, and how structures were grouped on the land around the mill, as Andrew Scott notes (2017). See the Canadian Federation of University Women (1972) for an account that uses local and regional sources. Fred Braches’ research (2012) provides a great deal of information about the life of Charles Whetham, his activities, and family. Lang (1999) gives a broad introduction to Ruskin’s ideas about designing communities and the guild system, and also proposes connections between Ruskin and the utopian ideas of William Morris and Ebenezer Howard.

by Beth Moore Milroy, with Jennifer L. Wardle
16.06.17

References:

  • Braches, Fred. 2012. “Charles Whetham: A remarkable resident of Ruskin.” Whonnock Notes No. 18 (summer). http://www.whonnock.ca/whonnock-history/pdf/WN18-Whetham.pdf.  Accessed 28.05.17.
  • Canadian Federation of University Women, Maple Ridge Branch. Sheila Nickols, ed. 1972. “Ruskin,” in Maple Ridge: A history of settlement, 52-64. Lithographed by Fraser Valley Record.
  • Kwantlen First Nation. http://www.kwantlenfn.ca  Accessed 31.05.17.
  • Lang, Michael H. 1999. Designing utopia: John Ruskin’s urban vision for Britain and America. Montréal: Black Rose Books.
  • Maple Ridge Museum. http://mapleridgemuseum.org/discover-our-stories/our-neighbourhoods/ruskin/.  Accessed 31.05.17
  • Scott, Andrew. 2017. “Appendix,” in Promise of paradise: Utopian communities in British Columbia, 228. Expanded 2nd ed. Madeira Park, BC: Harbour Publishing.