The Utopian community at Fairhope, Baldwin County, Alabama, was established in November, 1894 as a single tax colony by the “Fairhope Industrial Association”: a group of 28 followers of economist Henry George. The group, lead by Ernest Berry Gaston, and numbering 19 adults and nine children, arrived at the site of the new colony at Stapleton’s Pasture on November 15, 1894. By 1900 the colony included homes and stores, and the population had increased to 100. The colony’s name was changed in 1904 to the Fairhope Single Tax Corporation. As they were unable to attract enough new members to live and work on the lands that they had, they were forced to open their settlement to people who were not interested in being members, and some of whom actually opposed the founding principles. This, among other things, led to the incorporation of the Town of Fairhope in 1908. The new town encompassed both colony and deeded land along with two different forms of government and revenue collection.
The Single Tax
George argued that land should be property which was held in common by the communiy. It should be made freely available for use rather than for speculative profit. In order to make this reality, he and his followers proposed to raise all government revenue from a single tax on land values, similar to a rental charge for the use of commonly owned land. Fairhope thus became known as the Single Tax Colony. Its most important founding principle was that the value of land was created by the community, not by the individual; the rent which was charged for the use of the land thus constituted a group investment in the value of the community. The members of the Single Tax association chose the name Fairhope when one of them remarked that they had a “fair hope” of succeeding.
It was a model community based on what one founder, the colony secretary, Ernest Berry Gaston, called “cooperative individualism”. In order to strike a balance between the two extremes of what he saw as unregulated individualism and state socialism, he proposed public ownership and operation of so-called “natural monopolies” such as transport, utility services, and communication while favouring free enterprise in the areas of production and distribution. He dreamed of a society that would simultaneously encourage individual initiative and promote cooperative ventures and attitudes.
The purpose and early history of the colony
The group’s corporate constitution explained their purpose in founding a new colony:
“to establish and conduct a model community or colony, free from all forms of private monopoly, and to secure to its members therein equality of opportunity, the full reward of individual efforts, and the benefits of co-operation in matters of general concern.”
In order to start their demonstration project, they pooled their funds to buy land at “Stapleton’s pasture” on the eastern shore of Mobile Bay and then split it up into a number of long-term leaseholds. The colony issued 99-year leases, free of charge, to its members (and later to non-members as well). In return for the annual payment of a charge on the land value of the lease, the colony administration paid all local, county, and state property taxes thus simulating a single-tax. The purpose of the single-tax colony was to eliminate disincentives for productive use of land and thereby retain the value of land for the community. However, the colonists were unable to raise sufficient funds from national single taxers or other reformers and could not buy enough neighbouring plots of land for their model community. They were also unable to attract enough new members to work and live on the lands they had, and were forced to open their colony to non-members, many of whom opposed the founding principles.
The School for Organic Education
In 1907, educator Marietta Johnson, a Minnesota school teacher drawn to Fairhope by its reformist philosophy, founded the School for Organic Education in the colony. The school was open, free of charge to the local children. Johnson argued that children brought up under the competitive ethic of the US school system could not become the cooperative, reform-minded, justice-oriented citizens that the colonists wished to produce. With enthusiastic colony support, her school worked hard to provide an education that gave the children the basics of these qualities. John Dewey came to visit in 1913 and liked what he saw: a model of “how the ideal of equality of opportunity for all is to be transmuted into reality.” The school was praised in John Dewey’s’s influential 1915 book “Schools of Tomorrow”, and what Johnson called the “Fairhope Idea in Education” became a modest national force. The addition of the school brought a new dynamism to the mission of the community. Together with Dewey, Johnson became one of the founding members of the Progressive Education Association.
Marietta Johnson was aware that the system of racial segregation in the South at that time was against her educational principles, and E. B. Gaston wrote that it violated his commitment to equal access to land for everyone regardless of colour. However, they both also knew that their experiments in equality would be repressed by the surrounding white-supremacist culture if they were to open their town and school to people of colour. They both believed that the success of their demonstrations would, in time, help to break down racial prejudice. In Fairhope’s case, sadly, that never happened.
Life in the community
When Johan Hansson, the swedish land reformer and follower of Henry George, visited Fairhope in autumn 1910, he found it to be a pleasant settlement of between 600 and 700 people. It was a harmonious mixture of town and land, a little like the settlements proposed by Ebenezer Howard and the English Garden City movement, or like Eden in Germany. According to Hansson,people of all social classes lived side by side in the colony: small-holders, artisans, owners of small businesses, doctors and teachers. The freedom of the individual was clearly laid down in the colony’s statutes. As well as the school, the settlement had a well organised library and a public bath house, both free of cost to the colony’s members. In addition to unifying town and country, the colony had a vibrant cultural life and was a model of democracy.
Despite the problems of the early period, and the integration into the town of Fairhope , the idealism, imagination, and tenacity of the colony’s members gave the community remarkable staying power and a certain ammount of fame. The colony’s policy of offering free land attracted hardworking men and women of modest means who formed the backbone of the town. The public improvements and community-owned services enhanced the quality of life for the residents of the town as did the communal parkland on the bay-front, which was designated as public property right from the start. Such amenities and idealistic values brought writers, actors, artists, and craftspeople to the community, and Fairhope became a popular wintering spot for artists and intellectuals. Sherwood Anderson, Wharton Esherick, Carl Zigrosser, and Upton Sinclair were among the famous visitors who enriched the intellectual and cultural life of the community and fostered a cosmopolitan atmosphere.
Fairhope’s reputation as a model reform-minded community continued to grow, reaching its peak in the 1920s. However, the Depression brought diminished funds, shrinking outside interest in both the colony and the school.
E. B. Gaston died in 1937, Marietta Johnson in 1938. A new generation of leaders kept the school and the colony going, but neither of them was ever again a dominant influence in the town.
- Fairhope in Wikipedia
- Fairhope in the Encyclopedia of Alabama
- Fairhope Single Tax Corporation History
- “Auf freiem Grund mit freien Volke” (On free land with free people) A. Nothnagle + C. Holmberg Eds. Verlag Dr. Köster, Berlin 1999. ISBN 3-89574-361-5.
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