Ferrer Colony, Stelton
Ferrer Colony, Stelton
The Ferrer Colony at Stelton, New Jersey existed from 1915 until the late 1940s / early 50s. It was founded in connection with the transfer of the Ferrer School from New York city to Stelton. The school had been founded in 1910 by the Francisco Ferrer Association, named after the spanish founder of anti-clerical free schools throughout Spain who had been executed in October 1909.
The Ferrer Movement and Emma Goldman:
The Ferrer Movement in the USA created first a cultural centre, then an evening school and then an experimental day school. The original moving force behind the movement was Emma Goldman, who kept it going with great impetus in its earliest months. Most of the leading figures of the Ferrer movement during the early period were her friends or acquaintances, e.g. Alexander Berkman, Voltairine de Cleyre.
Once the movement was stable and established, she took little direct part in its affairs, and she was hardly involved with the Ferrer School itself. She did go to the colony at Stelton once, in July 1916, to speak at the colony. She was expelled from the USA in 1919. A further important figure in the movement was Leonard D. Abbott.
The move to Stelton and the site:
The prime force behind the move in 1915 from New York city to Stelton, two miles north of New Brunswick, was Harry Kelly. Joseph J. Cohen was also active in the move towards relocation, believing that it would be good to have a libertarian school in the country and wanting to lead a group of people back to a natural, mutually self-sufficient relationship with one another. The site at Stelton was found by Harry Kelly through his friend, Mary Krimont, who lived in the mainly German speaking socialist colony of Fellowship Farm, which had been founded a couple of years earlier. Cohen urged him on in the negotiations and purchase of the site. Later, Cohen stated that, ” We selected a homesite without knowing anything about the requirements of soil, drainage, shade, bathing facilities and all the other things that make life in the country attractive and pleasant.” (Quoted by Laurence Veysey, “The Communal Experience”).
The soil was poor and the land was flat. It was generally bleak, but it had an all year brook which was shaded by trees in places. On the other hand, the colony at Stelton was only a mile and a half from the Pennsylvania Railroad mainline, which enabled many of the colonists to commute to work daily to the garment district: Manhattan was a 70 minute train journey.
Foundation of the Ferrer Colony:
The Ferrer Association was able to buy 143 acres of land at 100 dollars per acre. This first tract of land was sold on to the individual colonists at 150 dollars per acre. The profit was used to set aside 9 acres for the school plus common land for roadways etc. Some of the profit was invested in a water supply system for the first tract purchased. The mortgage was paid off by late 1918.
The colony was organised only for external legal purposes. No statement of core principles was imposed on the new arrivals, and anyone could come and visit.
On May 16th. 1915, 32 young students transfered from the Ferrer School in New York to the new Ferrer Colony School. The dormitory building was still uncompleted, but there was a small old farmhouse. 17 shacks or tents were put up by the colonists and vegetable gardens were planted. The dormitory was then brought to near completion by voluntary work by the colonists.
The size of the colony increased twice during the first year. A further tract of land was soon purchased and more one or two acre plots were sold. Over 200 applications for places at the school were received. Then a third tract was bought, thus doubling the size of the colony. The three distinct tracts had differing characters. There was more cooperation by colonists living on the first tract due to tha fact that they shared a common water supply system. The colonist on the new tracts had individual wells. Turnover of individual plots was great. In 1925, only one family had been there continuously since 1915.
The first winter:
The winter of 1915/1916 brought hardships and low spirits. Most buildings, shacks and tents were unheated, although by the end of November 1915, minimal heating had been installed in the kitchen and dormitory of the school and there was some warm water for washing. Mary Krimont suggested weekly communal dinners on Saturday evenings for the five families and the school staff who had remained there. This idea was put into action, and after the dinners the people danced until early morning. The situation slowly improved with the end of winter, and the first anniversary in May 1916 was celebrated energically with a festival. This Foundation Weekend became a regular event in the following years.
From 1916 until mid 1920, both the school and the colony grew almost continuously. In September 1918, there were 51 dwellings and 20 families lived there throughout the whole year. The summer population was estimated as being about 200 people. The farmhouse had been renovated and had running water. The barn housed a library, a stage, classrooms and a joinery workshop. The dormitory had been completed, a second wing built and plumbing and bathing facilities had been installed. A short time later, the construction of a completely new building to house school classes was started. The work was done by volunteers, both colonists and supporters of the school from New York city. It was completed in 1920, and contained 4 classrooms and a large auditorium, all heated.
The winter of 1919/1920, saw an increase in the number of year round residents. There were three contributing factors: the winter was a mild one, there was a housing shortage in NYC, and there had been an increase in repression against anarchists in the city, with police raids instigated by the Attorney-General, A. Mitchell Palmer.
By 1922, there were 80 or 90 houses in the colony. This was probably its peak. About three quarters of the people were of Russian-Jewish background, plus English, Spanish and Italians. There were a few native born Americans. The school had also continued to grow in these first years of the twenties.
Life in the colony:
The people at Stelton saw it as an anarchist colony, but not a colony of anarchists. (This became clear when many colonists became communists.) There was a rich and varied life in the colony. By summer 1918, there were regular lectures every Saturday evening, often combined with violin or piano recitals. On Sunday evenings, there was music and dancing. Small discussion groups met nearly every evening. There were regular adult classes in addition to the school, and plays were performed in the school auditorium. During the Russian Civil War which followed the Revolution, the colonists organised fund raising dinners for Children’s Relief.
Almost following the ideas of Marx and others, the colonists worked or studied in the mornings, went swimming in the afternoons, and attended lectures or dances in the evenings. They were willing to work hard, but were also able to enjoy their leisure. After a while there was a rise in “fadism”, especially fads which dealt with diets and with health. The experiments with special diets and cures seem not to have done any great harm, and, indeed, the flu epidemic of 1918 bypassed Stelton almost completely.
Many of the couples who lived there were unmarried, but there was little change in the roles of men and women or in the division of labour.
There was a good communal atmosphere in the early years, with lots of mutual aid, possibly due to the hardships and poverty of this pioneer period. The situation can be compared to that of the English working class of the period, house doors remaining unlocked, children looked after by all etc. It was an atmosphere of tolerant individualism. On the other hand, Stelton remained a shanty town, a colony of shacks and home-made cottages. Roads were unpaved, and there was a litter problem. Some beauty was provided by the trees along the brook and by the peach and apple orchards.
Work and finances:
Many of the Stelton residents worked in the New York city garment industry, commuting to the city daily. At certain periods, many were able to earn cash through chicken farming. Others could earn cash by taking boarders – children attending the Ferrer School. Almost all colonists grew vegetables on their one or two acre plots, enabling a subsistence lifestyle which meant that they survived the depression years rather better than people in the urban areas. A local cooperative store lasted for 15 years.
At the start, the colony supported the school financially, with the profit gained from the sale of the land. Later, the support for the Ferrer School was minimal and indirect.
The colony and the outside world:
The Ferrer Colony at Stelton had few problems with its neighbours. There was a sort of friendly rivalry with Fellowship Farm. Some colonists established local businesses or were involved in local institutions such as the school board, and so had good contact with other local people. Sometimes they were seen as “that free-love colony” or “that nudist colony” (A New Brunswick resident quoted by Veysey). In 1919, however, there were some problems caused by the repression of militants instigated by Attorney-General, A. Mitchell Palmer. The threats of deportation made against the colonists were not carried out, probably because it was a rural group causing few problems, and because the colonists were now property owners rather than urban proletarians. Many other New York anarchists were deported in this period, including Emma Goldman.
Conflicts in the colony:
The creation of the colony can be seen partly as a result of conflicts about violence and non-violence within the anarchist movement and the Ferrer Movement in the period before the first World War. Later, there were conflicts within the Ferrer School about differing pedagogical ideas and how to run the school.
In the 1920s, the main conflicts were between the colonists who had remained anarchists and those who, enthusiastically influenced by the revolution in Russia and the creation of the USSR, had become communists. (This conflict within the working class and the radical movement was widespread in many countries and in other intentional communities , e.g. Barkenhoff in Germany.) By the late 1920s, a large number of the colonists had become communists, and the conflict went on for a good twenty years. For various reasons, Harry Kelly left the colony for NYC, and later bought land at Lake Mohegan, 30 miles north of New York city. A new anarchist colony was started here.
For the Stelton colony, the 30s were harder economically than the 20s. With the rise of Nazism in Germany, many residents discovered their Jewishness, but, unlike at Mohegan, no Zionist faction emerged to make the anarchist/communist conflict a three corner fight. There was a rise in support for war against fascism, e.g. in Spain, with the few pacifist colonists feeling very isolated.
With the start of WW2, the US government bought up neighbouring land, and in late 1941 the Ferrer Colony had Camp Kilmer as its neighbour, with 75,000 young men housed in the barracks there. This lead to a rise in theft, vandalism and rape. These problems lead many colonists to move away, renting out or selling their properties to (mostly black) soldiers and their families. By the end of the war, the colony had been decimated and few colonists remained.
The population of the colony was aging anyway, and major figures such as Kelly, Cohen and Abbott all died in the early 1950s.
“The Communal Experience“, Laurence Veysey, University of Chicago Press, 1978 edition with new Preface.
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