Glimpsing Equality--Taking Bearings (The Field Trip) by Adam M. Sowards - Issue #7
Tracing an old experiment in a local landscape.
A few prefatory words
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This week’s feature is The Field Trip, and I'm excited to share with you a recent day trip and an excursion into history. Read on.
A Day Trip to Utopia
On a recent Saturday, my spouse and I took a country road that traced the lip of land between mountain and valley floor. After one curve, Colony Road met Colony Creek right where a blueberry farm spread out for acres on flat-bottom land. The trees cleared so we could scan southwestward to see refineries puffing away beyond Padilla Bay.
A few minutes later, we navigated narrow streets of a three- or four-block community. Neighbors had put fruits and vegetables on card tables for purchase. A church and a community club showed how town spirit still thrived. Between buildings and backyards, Colony Creek trickled behind the homes. We turned onto a main road, saw more signs about organic produce for sale, and turned at the crossroads where a post office, coffee shop, and café represented commerce not based solely on growing seasons.
A few minutes later we crept through our destination. Edison, Washington, is home to more than 100 people, but its reputation as a chic little town meant that the roads were busy and parking spaces crowded. We stopped at the elementary school at the edge of the community and walked into the town that was established in 1869.
For a rural community, the houses were packed tight in the four block by two block loose grid. Some lots included elaborate gardens; others had only small patios instead of yards. We circled the town’s commercial district, seeing gift stores, an art gallery, and woodworkers.
Since we moved to the Skagit Valley, we heard recommendations to visit this town for its distillery, its restaurants, its bakery. We finally made it and for lunch chose a restaurant with tables out back overlooking Edison Slough, which looped around the town.
The low tide meant we saw more mud than water. A little blond girl stood nearby and explained to her brothers and sister: “That’s quickmud. Like quicksand. Mud…but you sink in it.” The confidence of older siblings and the acceptance of younger ones may be a universal dynamic of knowledge transmission.
After our pleasant meal, we stopped next door at the bakery for a loaf of bread, a baguette, and cookies. We needed to move on.
Starting Equality Colony
By the looks of it, most of Edison’s customers originated elsewhere. That is the way of communities like this, now and in the past.
In the 1890s, Edison’s scant population boosted thanks to the failure of national politics. In 1892 and again in 1896, the Populist Party sought to upend American politics with a reforming spirit to break away not only from the two-party system but also the capitalist system. The decade witnessed the worst depression the nation had faced and severe disruptions caused by industrializing forces. The Populist Party made strides in communities and states like Washington, but its bigger dreams fizzled on the national stage.
A few disaffected and committed reformers from the Populists sought solace in socialism and hatched a plan to convert the nation to the cause. On group, the Brotherhood of the Cooperative Commonwealth (BCC), planned to seed colonies of believers whose success would convince others of the benefits of socialism and cooperation in community. In time, more socialists would be elected in states and a socialist takeover eventually would succeed democratically.
Such was the grand plan of the BCC.
And, after searching across the nation, they found fertile ground in Skagit County, right about where that blueberry farm was, a couple miles from Edison as the hawk flies. In 1897, they arrived, acquired land, and started Equality Colony.
Life among Equals
On the founding day, November 1, 1897, Equality counted 15 members; by the following summer, nearly 200 populated the colony. They built apartments for lodging and a kitchen and bakery for food. They constructed and operated a mill, using timber from the land. They cleared land and planted fields. In short order, the colony acquired around 600 acres. A short walk away, Samish Bay with its fish and shellfish offered bounty.
To be in Equality was to be committed and to recognize that eyes watched them the nation over. Norman Wallace Lermond of a wealthy New England family was the force behind the Brotherhood, and soon he relocated headquarters from Maine to Edison and joined the Equality colonists. Except he lived in Edison proper where he set up the BCC operations, including its weekly newspaper, Industrial Freedom. This circumstance did not last long. Conflict erupted—it always erupted in utopian communities—between those town residents and the colony residents down the road and across the fields. Lermond left after a handful of months.
But more than intra-socialist bickering, Equality colonists worked hard to transform forests and valley into homes, foods, and products. Such an environment meant almost endless work, as the community newspaper intimated:
Theoretically we are on an eight-hour basis, but as a matter of fact, both at the "ranch" and in the general offices, a larger percentage of the workers are putting in ten, twelve and fourteen hours. It is the universal testimony that enthusiasm for work is growing. Special work secures special "pay," not in cash, but increased respect, which is at once a stronger and nobler impulse. A shirk would better go to Siberia than to come here as a pioneer.
Certainly such a comment mostly boosted morale (or tried to), but beneath it was the reality that building a home and industry took time and energy, not easily merged with reform slogans. Reports of clearing land, crops’ progress, the amount of board feet milled, all filled the pages of Industrial Freedom, which was sent to supporters nationwide.
Not all of the community news in Industrial Freedom told of hard-working pioneers. They enjoyed themselves and could make jokes:
Some of the Socialists went to Samish Island last Sunday. They started out with two wagons, some of the men walking. But as one of the wagons broke down they piled into the other and put on four horses. They report a good time, though one of the ladies, in her hurry to get started, unfortunately left her lower teeth at home, so she was unable to do justice to the lunch.
Or this comment that revealed the rather primitive transportation system:
At present the steamboat connection with Edison is very unsatisfactory for the colony and business men of the town. It is what is called a tri-weekly, that is, it comes one week and tries to do so the next. It is hoped that in the near future regular trips will be made to this port.
Industrial Freedom’s most interesting tidbits come from the local news, but that always filled the back pages. The front page shared Socialism’s virtues and finer points. There, you confront the philosophy of the BCC’s Socialism, usually in long-winded articles that span several columns. The style leaves something to be desired, but earnestness drips through each convoluted dependent clause.
The Equality Colony looked to the future with hope and a cooperative spirit. But utopias are hard to sustain.
A decade after its founding, attrition had taken a toll. Then, some other radicals—anarchists and free-love advocates—arrived and accelerated the end. (The late-coming radicals relocated to Whidbey Island and set up Freeland, another utopian colony, just a few miles from where my spouse grew up.)
In the end, Equality Colony distributed homes to some members, sold most of the land, paid their debts, and disappeared into history.
After we purchased bread from the artisan bakery, my wife and I drove out of town along the slough and then the Samish River in which several people dropped their fishing lines. We stopped a few minutes later at a state wildlife site. With hunting season a month away, we could walk wherever we wished, no need to don orange vests or fear being mistaken for ducks.
A path took us toward the bay where we walked along the dike used to reclaim land from sea. Mudflats stretched before us; old pilings made a barnacled wall; salt air invigorated all senses, making us alert to changes.
A glance back toward Edison and Equality revealed no socialist community. Communal apartments long ago disappeared. Instead, the forest beyond those communities rises up and dominates the horizon. Most of the land is contained in the Mount Blanchard State Forest, managed by the Washington State Department of Natural Resources.
The previous month the state supreme court ruled that DNR must manage state forests for public benefit but that did not require maximizing revenue through logging as had long been practiced. Public benefits should be broadly construed and “in harmony” with other interests.
Perhaps the cooperative spirit of Equality has not passed away entirely from this landscape.
Sources I used:
For background, I relied on Charles P. Le Warne, “Equality Colony: The Plan to Socialize Washington,” The Pacific Northwest Quarterly 59, no. 3 (1968): 137–46. A contemporary account that attempts a first draft of history of Equality has been transcribed here. A set of photographs archived at the University of Washington are worth examining and can be found here. Best of all, though, are the issues of Industrial Freedom that have been digitized and are available here.
I have no new publications to share this week, and I've never written on Equality Colony before. However, I did write a column on socialism once before, albeit of a different era. You can find here:
Critics of the Green New Deal rail against socialism. We’ve seen this before. (Socialism? We’ve been here before.) — High Country News – Know the West — www.hcn.org In the 1930s, nationalizing forests was labeled ‘socialist.’
Taking Bearings Next Week
Next week is the return of The Library. In that issue, I explore an award-winning classic I'd never read before by a historic figure I've long admired. Stay tuned to find out the book and author.
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