Pacific Northwest Book Review
The utopian socialists who settled in western Washington state at the turn of the 20th Century cared little for money, politics or the class struggles of the world outside their communities. They saw an opportunity for a prosperous new life on their own terms.
Communal societies of like-minded people living in harmony tend to last for short periods of time, mostly because people get older, their needs change, they move on or they die.
The Washington Territory was still pretty undeveloped in 1885 when several groups of idealists decided to start socialist colonies in places with names like “Equality” near Bellingham, “Freeland” on Whidby Island and “Harmony” near Mossyrock. There was also a colony in Burley, the short-lived Puget Sound Cooperative near present-day Port Angeles and the Keil Colony near Naselle.
Washington’s population soared during the economic depression of the 1880s and the territory officially became a state on Nov. 11, 1889, thanks to growing cities like Seattle. Many of these early utopian colonies had hundreds of members and lots of children, but not necessarily skilled workers and farmers. The colonies were not obligated to help each other and tended not to last long without organization.
Most colonies were farm-based and put members to work in the fields. A well-run farm can produce a surplus of food, but selling this food can be problematic. City folk don’t want to buy sauerkraut in cheap, broken barrels, but good barrels require the talents of a skilled barrel maker. Specialists with knowledge, talent and experience were difficult for colonies to find and retain. A skilled blacksmith is needed in a colony and he or she can train unskilled apprentices in the art of blacksmithing, but at some point the blacksmith will realize he can do much better for himself and his family if he leaves the colony for a blacksmithing job in the city.
Author Charles Pierce LeWarne’s “Utopias on Puget Sound, 1885-1915” is passionately researched and puts history in context with detailed stories from letters, records and newspaper accounts about life at the time, and profiles on colorful characters and charismatic leaders.
The Equality Colony was very prosperous under the direction of Norman Lermond, but eventually Lermond got burned out and left, and the colony collapsed soon after. Lermond converted his own home into a grand park and arboretum, but the society he had formed and bequeathed his estate to voted to log all the timber and sell the land after his death.
In the 1995 introduction, LeWarne explains how the optimism and idealism of the 1960s and early 1970s at the time of the book’s first publication supported communal living lifestyles similar to the cooperative, utopian socialism of the 1890s, even though other conditions were different.
One major problem with achieving equality in communal societies is that everyone needs to find a way to help out somehow for it to be fair. It’s not fair for one person to have to work 14 hours a day to get the same benefits as another person who only works a few hours a day or doesn’t work at all. Large families with lots of non-working members can place a burden on the rest of the colony, which could lead to resentment and disharmony. There was no social security program at the time, so people who were sick, injured or too old to farm had to rely on the kindness and generosity of their communities.
Reviewed by John Morgan, 5/28/2015
"Utopias on Puget Sound, 1885-1915"
By Charles Pierce LeWarne
Published in 1975 and again in 1995 by the University of Washington Press
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