- Historic Sites
The idealists who founded this Utopian colony were singularly well versed in mystical philosophy— and singularly ignorant about farming
February/March 1986 | Volume 37, Issue 2
In the fall of 1842 Alcott’s spirits were lifted by news that his ideas had found fertile ground in England, where a group of educators had named their school Alcott House. Soon he was aboard ship, his passage paid by Emerson. In London he had a mixed reception. Invited to dinner by Carlyle, he dismayed his host by eating nothing but vegetables and drinking only water. The next morning Carlyle, still hoping to please this rustic philosopher, procured fresh strawberries for breakfast; Alcott put them on the same plate with mashed potatoes “so that the juices could mingle.” He was not invited back.
Among the educators, however, Alcott found true soul mates. When he sailed back to the United States, he brought with him Charles Lane and Lane’s young son. By the time they landed, they had formed a plan for a New Eden in America. They spelled out their goals in a prospectus: “simplicity in diet, plain garments, pure bathing, unsullied dwellings, open conduct, gentle behavior, kindly sympathies, serene minds.”
For the time being, the English visitors moved into the little Concord cottage, forcing the Alcotts to double up. But that was not the worst of it. Lane imposed an iron discipline, banning all animal products, including milk (except, when Abby put her foot down, for the baby). No frivolous talk was allowed. In her diary Abby recorded that she “was always frowned down into stiff guilt.”
Alcott had hoped to find support for his colony among the philosophic elite of Concord. But some of them were already paying their intellectual dues to Brook Farm, the transcendental colony outside Boston. As for Henry David Thoreau, he took a loner’s view of all such communities: “I think I had rather keep bachelor’s hall in hell than go to board in heaven.”
In the end it was Lane who put up his life savings—two thousand dollars—to buy the farm at Harvard. Abby’s brother, Sam, added three hundred dollars and agreed to hold the property as trustee, paying the purchase price in installments. The Concord intellectuals gave only their blessing. The colonists who actually showed up at Fruitlands that summer were much farther out.
The only one waiting for the founders when they arrived from Concord was Joseph Palmer, a middle-aged farmer in white clothes and a long, bushy beard. In a clean-shaven period he had been under constant pressure from his neighbors to cut off his beard, and one day in Fitchburg three young toughs had ambushed him, wielding a pair of scissors. Palmer had pulled a knife, cutting them slightly. For that he was fined ten dollars and, when he refused to pay, was put in jail, where he stayed for a year, winning a small place in history as the “Martyr of the Beard.” Palmer was a godsend because, of all those who came to Fruitlands, he was the only one who knew about farming.
Alcott and Lane had brought almost a thousand books, mostly dealing with mystical philosophy, but not a single pamphlet on agriculture. They did have ideas on the subject, but many of those ideas were at war with practicalities. They abjured the use of horses or oxen- their fellow toilers—as draft animals. They would not rob the cow of its milk or the sheep of its wool. (Since cotton was grown by slave labor, that left only linen as acceptable fabric for clothing.) Some of the colonists wanted to grow only “aspiring” vegetables that reached toward heaven and none that grew downward, such as potatoes.
One of the first to join the community was Samuel Bower, a young Englishman who adhered to the principles of transcendentalism, uncooked food, and the rest, but who also had his own special crusade. He was an Adamite, firm in the belief that humans should shed their clothes and go about as God made them. Since Mrs. Alcott would have none of that, Bower was sometimes absent. “At midsummer,” Louisa May remembered, “he retired to the wilderness, to try his plan where the woodchucks were without prejudices and the huckleberry bushes were hospitably full.”
Among others who showed up during the summer were Samuel Larned, who was said to have lived for one year wholly on crackers and another wholly on apples, and Abram Wood, who had signalized his rebellion against society by changing his name to Wood Abram. In all sixteen men joined the community, but only one woman did so. That was Ann Page, a spinster from Providence, whose first question upon arrival elicited one of Abby Alcott’s rare complaints.
‘Are there any beasts of burden on the place?” asked Ann Page.
“Only one woman,” answered Abby.
Abby soon found that Ann Page was more interested in writing poetry than in cleaning house. They quarreled, and Ann left. It was just as well, for the everwatchful Lane had discovered that Ann kept cheese in her trunk. Worse, she had stopped by a neighbor’s at dinner time and eaten a morsel of fish. Louisa May described the confrontation:
“I only took a little bit of the tail,” sobbed the penitent poet.