Ross Winn: digging up a Tennessee anarchist

A couple of years back, at a conference in Ohio, an acquaintance of ours described to us how he had, in some research, happened upon an anarchist publisher who had lived and died our neck of the woods: central Tennessee. Did we, he asked, know where Mount Juliet was? This tiny Southern town was twenty minutes from our front door, and we were surprised when he explained how this man published radical literature from there a century ago. Would we be interested in tracking him down, maybe finding his grave and doing a rubbing? Sure, thought, it sounded like fun at the time, and genealogical research was something we were new at, but willing to put our heads together on.

A year later, we knocked on farmhouse doors, scavenged for clues in the files of the Mount Juliet library, and eventually id ourselves standing in the room of the home the man had died in, talking about quilts with one of the last descendents of his wife's family. Sparing all of the details of our continuing journey, this article attempts to piece together what we know, so far, about a man who dedicated his life to publishing radical ideas in the form of self-published and individually printed magazines... the ancestors of today's `zines. As far as we know this is the first time anyone — anarchists, historians, and publishers included — has taken an active interest in pursuing his work and memory and compiling it into any sort of concrete history...

From the woods of rural central Tennessee, in the early part of the last century, a man named Ross Winn toiled under the burdens of continual poverty, harsh conservative religious surroundings, and the later terminal grip of tuberculosis to dedicate his life to the printing of anarchist literature and ideals. The setting sounds a bit overly romantic, but then, so did most of the man's printed prose. Ross was a poet at heart, his drive to supply the American anarchist movement with an “organ of radical thought” never got in the way of his lyrical embellishments and individual ability to rip open his targets with the printed page.

Born in Dallas in 1871, Ross Winn picked up typesetting as trade that would later lead him to print and edit several anarchist magazines throughout his life. He clearly understood the value of the free press at an early age and sought to learn the intricacies of maintaining it from the ground up, in order to control the medium and aim it in a radical direction. In the late 1800's, every small newspaper was DIY, and printing required a proficiency in the time-consuming task of layout and typesetting that readers in this day can easily take for granted. Ross worked as a field hand (he was the son of farmers) picking cotton until he made enough to purchase his first printing outfit, a small hand-operated press.

The earliest published writing we have by Winn is in the magazine Twentieth Century, from January 1894. Ross was 23 when he wrote this piece, a reflection on a future based on voluntary cooperation.

Entitled “Let Us Unite”, it makes clear that even as a young man, Ross saw the need for the radical elements of society to come together under a common cause. Putting differences aside, he proclaims that “we have had coercion enough. For ages man has ruled with sword and bayonet, with bars and chains... and now are we not civilized enough to dispense with it forever?” (Twentieth Century, Jan. 18, 1894)

A later piece, appearing in Free Society in December of 1900, makes mention of his becoming a “young `convert'” in realizing his own radical political notions twelve years earlier, when he was only 17 years old.

Ross continued to write and send his contributions to other radical papers, most notably Free Society and also The Firebrand, a weekly paper out of Sellwood near Portland, Oregon, which saw a short but renowned run from 1895-97. Sometime in 1894, Ross began his first paper, known as Cooperative Commonwealth. He then edited and published Coming Era for a brief time in 1898 and Winn's Freelance in 1899.

These are his first known forays into the realm of self-publishing radical journals, and he garnered subscriptions through announcements in other papers of similar content. Unfortunately, as soon as November of 1899, the intrepid young publisher had to succumb to the troubles that would continue to burden him his entire life: how to offer and maintain a good quality and good-content paper, each page hand printed, for a modest and affordable subscription rate without going into debt. He ceased publication and called on his subscribers to turn their support, financial and otherwise, towards Free Society.

Ross was by no means discouraged, however, and in 1902 he was at it again. In a June issue of Free Society, he made the announcement of the upcoming publication of his new paper: Winn's Firebrand. It's likely he fancied the name of the then-defunct weekly, and the name accurately describes the devotion and abject zeal that he put into his new endeavor. His vision was for a paper that would “occupy an entirely new field. It will appeal to the cultured, the thoughtful, and the progressive of all classes. It will be just the kind of literature for missionary work among the masses” (Free Society, June 15, 1902). Clearly, Ross saw the printed magazine as the most effective tool for social awakening, but he also saw the spread of anti-authoritarian ideals as his distinct calling, a work that he passionately viewed as a personal duty. And Tennessee became his base of operation: “In establishing the magazine (in Mount Juliet), as an independent publication, the flag of revolutionary thought is planted on Southern soil, and a residence of a lifetime in this section convinces me that it will be a fruitful field for libertarian ideas, if the right methods are used to present them.”

In 1901, Ross met Emma Goldman in Chicago and found in her a lasting ally. As she wrote in his obituary in Mother Earth in 1912, Emma “was deeply impressed with his fervor and complete abandonment to the cause, so unlike most American revolutionists, who love their ease and comfort too well to risk them for their ideals.” Winn kept up a correspondence with Goldman throughout his life, as he did with other prominent anarchist writers at the time. Joseph Labadie, a prominent writer and organizer in Michigan, was another friend to Ross, and made several contributions to Winn's Firebrand in its later years.

In the same year, Ross married Augusta Gertrude Smith (known affectionately as “Gussie”), and she soon gave birth to their first and only son, Ross Jr. In Gussie, Ross found a strong and willing partner, who worked with him until his death and through a life of poverty, often aiding in the publication of his papers. The three moved into her family's home in Mount Juliet, an old house originally built in the 1790s and later purchased by Gussie's father, who ran a general store and a mill nearby. The region Mount Juliet is nestled in was also known as Silver Springs and sits about a twenty minute drive on the interstate from what is downtown Nashville today.

Every man, they say, has a religion; my religion is Anarchism. In contemplating the future, I see it radiant with the sunlight of universal liberty. I see the grim specter of war fade forever from the scene and over all spread the white pinions of peace. I see the jails turned into workshops, courthouses into institutions of learning, and where once fell the awful shadow of the gallows, I see the flowers bloom.

— Ross Winn from the original Firebrand(of Oregon) October 13, 1895