By Peaceray / January 13, 2022
The second of the late 19th century intentional communities in Western Washington
Books sometime inspire the founders of intentional communities. B.F. Skinner’s Walden Two sparked the founding of Twin Oaks Community in 1967.i In the mid-19th century, Étienne Cabet’s Voyage en Icarie [The Voyage to Icaria] motivated scores of Frenchmen to emigrate to the US to start four communities in the Midwest and California, collectively known as Icarians, a movement that lasted 49 years.ii This was also the case for Equality Colony in Skagit County, Washington, founded in 1897.
Edward Belamy’s Looking Backward, was likely the second bestselling novel of the 19th century, after Uncle Tom’s Cabin.iii The book advocated many major tenets important to American socialists in that age. Equality was the sequel, and Bellamy used it to expand his thoughts on societal reform.
The precedent to the colony was the Brotherhood of the Cooperative Commonwealth (BCC), a socialist entity inspired by Bellamy’s works and initially organized primarily by Norman Wallace Lermond and Ed Pelton, both from Maine.iv The major aim of the BCC was to establish a number of socialist colonies in a single state, convert that state to socialism, then expand across the nation. After winnowing through regions and states, the BCC decided that Washington, a young state (1889) had the proper political climate for this endeavor. By the summer of 1897, BCC claimed a membership of 2,200 from 130 unions. The dues established the capital needed to purchase the initial site. On September 1, Pelton left for Washington to search for suitable land, and on October 15 he made an initial payment on a purchase of 280 acres near Blanchard, WA. Eventually this expanded to 640 acres, some non-contiguous. Most of the site was on a wooded hillside, with a creek that emptied into the tide-flats of Samish Bay. Here, boats had access, but only at high tide. A couple with an adjacent homestead joined with the colony and their house became the initial headquarters.v
On November 1, 1897, fifteen settlers arrive and named the colony after Bellamy’s Equality. The colony prepared that winter for a projected influx. Workers accustomed to other trades adapted themselves to lumbering and agriculture. By February 1898, they built the first structure from logs, “Fort Bellamy”. A pioneer arrived with a portable sawmill, and they turned out enough lumber to build a three story residence, a barn, and smaller structures.v
In March, the national board of the BCC, including Lermond, arrived in the area, most staying in nearby Edison, WA. To maintain a national focus, BCC began a newspaper, the Industrial Freedom.v George Boomeriv and the young Herry Ault,vi who later published the Young Socialist from Equality, and were among its editors. Quickly, however, differences arose. The settlers were scratching out a crude existence at the colony site with unfinished buildings, while BCC administrators were spending the collective money primarily to maintain the efforts in Edison. Pelton denounced the Edison endeavor as premature and made a personal attack on Lermond. In April, the group held two votes. First they voted down a proposed second colony in Edison. Next they voted for the colony’s independence in internal affairs from BCC. With a total of over 460 votes, most of whom resided in the colony rather than Edison, it should have come to no surprise when about 62% of the vote was for autonomy.v
Equality Colony thus moved from a national effort to a local focus, although the community assumed operations of BCC and Industrial Freedom. By August, Lermond had resigned from the BCC board and returned to Maine. By the beginning of 1899, the election of a colonist-leaning BCC board and the movement of BCC offices to the colony completed its transition to a local entity. As a result, new membership and funding from outside largely ceased, and the circulation of the newspaper fell.v
The colony thus had to succeed solely on the merits of its members and residents. For the first couple of years, Pelton proved to be a de facto leader. But while there was no shortage of general labor, there was a shortage of skilled laborers. Many became assigned to work roles they they never expected. The colony population peaked at 300vii during 1898.v To the detriment of the colony, Pelton was killed by a falling tree in early 1901, leaving it bereft of strong leadership.viii
Despite this and the rigors of pioneer life, the colony flourished, earning money from agriculture, lumber, and fishing. There were manufactured products such as clothing, shoes, leather harnesses, furniture. There was also coopering and blacksmithing.v Additions during this time included “two large apartments, a barn, a dining room and kitchen, a school house, a public hall, a store room, a printing office, a saw mill, a root house, a blacksmith and copper shop, an apiary, a bakery, a cereal and coffee house, and a milk house.”ix There were a large proportion of children, for which the colony established a school that employed three teachers. To help its distribution of Industrial Freedom, Equality even obtained a 4th class post office for a few years.v
It was not all work at Equality. Evenings, Saturdays afternoons, and Sundays were meant to be free time, although some did work extended days. Group leisure activities included dancing, dramatics, choral singing, discussion groups, and music. Other such activities were clam digging boating, walking, hiking, picnicking, fishing, and hiking.v
After the first four successful years, though, the community began a slow decline. The spartan accommodations, food, and clothing took their toll. Some individuals who chaffed under the socialist approach but who still desired community left for the Free Land Association on Whidbey Island. Others simply abandoned community altogether. In 1902, after a decline in circulation, Equality ceased publication of Industrial Freedom and sold off its press. In 1904, the colony lost its sawmill and its equipment to fire.v There were ideological splits between anarchism and subordination to socialist ideals. There was also a number of indolent folks who drained community resources.vi The numbers of residents declined.
In 1904, Alexander Horr arrived at Equality. In his words, he was “… an Anarchist … though I pretended to be a Libertarian Socialist.”x He was a devotee of a novel called Freiland [Freeland] by Theodor Hertzka, the Hungarian-Austrian economist and journalist that drew on Georgist ideas. Many of Horr’s followers arrived. Under their influence, the colony constitution was changed and the name was changed to Freeland after Hertzka’s novel. While this may have been done by majority vote, many of the long-time residents objected, and this grew into deep and bitter divisions.v
The old colonists had developed a life that was settled, relatively calm and comfortable; they considered themselves to have prior rights to colony properties. Now their accomplishments seemed threatened by latecomers with different backgrounds and ideals. When Horr’s opponents mustered force and strength to challenge him, factionalism became an emotional personal struggle.xi
Against colony policy, soon colonists began mortgaging portions of the property. Sometimes different individuals applied for mortgages on the same parcel with different mortgage companies. This quickly led to legal battles between colonists. By February 1, 1906, a party entered a motion to place the colony into receivership. Then on February 6, someone burnt the barn down. This destroyed all the hay, all produce and roots, a couple horses, twenty milk cows, nearly half a dozen calves, and necessary tools and equipment. This loss was devastating, and it was not long before the colony resolved to dissolve itself before further violence occurred. What was left of the community was finally sold off on June 1, 1907.v
What caused this once-successful community to fail? Certainly leadership differences at the outset, between those like Lermond who envisioned an national outreach and Pelton who wanted concrete action that benefited the original settlement. So too, was the concentration of leadership primarily in a sole individual, namely Pelton, who was only mortal. Perhaps the open door policy was a greater problem, since it made no distinction between those industrious believers in the Socialist cause and the itinerant looking for an easy time getting fed, housed, and outfitted. Clearly the governance, albeit by majority, that allowed drastic shifts in vision and ideology that did not respect those who had raised the money for the venture nor the hard work done by long-time residents.
It seems clear that the community grew too quickly and in a way that it was not able to maintain its vision.
iiHinds, William (2004),  “The Icarians”, in American Communities and Co-operative Colonies, Honolulu: University Press of the Pacific, 978-1-4102-1152-1, pp 361–396
iiiMorgan, Arthur E. (1944), Edward Bellamy. New York: Columbia University Press, pp. 148, 252.
vLeWarne, Charles (1995), Utopias on Puget Sound, 1885-1915, Seattle: University of Washington Press, pp. 55–113, 978-0-295-97444-6
viEaston, Charles, L, “A Backward Look At a Utopian Plan: Equality Colony near Bow, 1896-1906”, The Seattle Times, November 25, 1962. Reprinted on the web at Equality Colony, by Charles Easton, 1962, Skagit River Journal.
viiJordan, Ray (2016) , Yarns of the Skagit country: Ray’s writin’s, La Conner, WA: Skagit County Historical Society, 978-0-914989-08-0. Excerpt reprinted on the web at Equality Colony, 1897-1906, Skagit River Journal.
xHorr, Alexander (1911), “Preface”, Fabian Anarchism: A Fragmentary Exposition of Mutualism, Communism and Freeland, San Francisco: Freeland Ptg. & Pub. Co. https://babel.hathitrust.org/cgi/pt?id=uc1.31175035182222&view=1up&seq=5&skin=2021
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