RUSKIN — Faded newspapers, maps and photographs snake around a corner of an art studio — pieces of the past that yield both answers and questions, a collection of memories and mysteries.
Can you help?
"If we were fishing for sharks, we'd be chumming the water," said local historian Arthur "Mac" Miller at the Big Draw Studio, just north of Shell Point Road on U.S. 41. "We're putting out some interesting things to attract those who might know something."
Miller, a professor emeritus at New College of Florida in Sarasota and a descendant of some of Ruskin's earliest settlers, hopes to build an electronic database of pictures, maps and information as part of the John Ruskin History Project.
Every Friday in October from 4 to 6 p.m., Miller and other historians will take digital photographs of old pictures and other items, in addition to recording interviews with longtime residents. The group welcomes all contributions.
Miller said many people probably have historic items that they don't realize would be valuable to the project.
Those who share will get their stuff back, along with digitized copies on a compact disc. Miller's 26-year-old daughter, Claire, who has a degree in library and information science, is helping.
Miller wants people to stop by even if they're empty-handed. Perhaps they can identify people in old photographs or help fill in story gaps, he said. Maybe they'll see something that reminds them of something they forgot.
"Objects, I think, are the key to memories," Miller said. "And memories are the key to history, and history is the key to civilization."
The items currently on display come from Miller's personal collection.
There are a few scraps of paper money once used by Ruskin's famed Commongood Society, an advertisement for Bahia Beach from the 1950s and a nearly 100-year-old megaphone that once broadcast pride for Ruskin College, among other things.
Visit the spread, and Miller leads a walk through time, beginning with the indigenous people that lived atop a shell mound at the west end of Shell Point Road and ending with maps that show how dredge-and-fill projects made Ruskin what it is today.
Miller will talk about John Ruskin, an English philosopher who had a vision of a cooperative community with an emphasis on education and the arts. Ruskin died in 1900, without ever making it to America.
Then Miller will talk about his own grandfather, George McAnelly Miller, who came to live atop the shell mound in 1906 and brought John Ruskin's community to life as the Commongood Society.
Members shared public property and the grounds of Ruskin College. Women had the right to vote long before the national suffrage movement. The society survived until 1967, but much of it, now county-owned lands including the Commongood Park and boat ramp, still exist.
There are also the stories of Paul B. Dickman, a real estate entrepreneur who opened the now-demolished Coffee Cup Restaurant and of Ruskin's tomato-production heyday.
The history is rich. But Miller wants more.
"We're casting a very wide net," he said. "Because history starts yesterday. Today's going to be history tomorrow."
Kim Wilmath can be reached at email@example.com or (813) 661-2442.