IT IS NOT hard remembering the varieties of alternative lifestyles that started developing in the 1960s. Much of the western world was experimenting with hallucinogenic drugs and alternative communities. Communes popped up around the world. But remember, there is nothing new under the sun — even that.
Utopian colonies began to show up in Washington during the mid-1800s. Among them were the Equality Colony in Skagit County, Freeland Colony on Whidbey Island, Burley Colony in Mason County, Home Colony near Purdy and Glennis Colony near Eatonville. The Keil Colony, a Christian communist colony, was established on Willapa Bay in 1855 but later moved to the Willamette Valley. Our own Puget Sound Cooperative Colony (PSCC) was the first modern communitarian experiment in Washington.
The desire was to create a cooperative society with cooperative homes, hotels and industry. It was believed that a cooperative system would not only meet economic needs but also provide luxury and comfort. It was socialism.
The founders and subscribers understood this. It was believed that the individual would reap the benefits of the collective effort. Laboring people would produce and distribute goods on a cooperative basis and divide profits among themselves. There would be no owners or managers to siphon off the profits. A guiding principle was, “He that will not work, neither shall he eat.”
The seeds of labor strife helped form the ideas for utopian societies. During this time, an anti-Chinese movement had developed. The influx of inexpensive Chinese labor was seen as a threat to jobs. This sounds all too familiar when considering the current concerns expressed regarding our southern border.
Under the expressed utopian ideals, it seems a bit incongruous that the PSCC sought members from the East Coast and Midwest regions of the United States but ignored the indigenous and ethnic minorities.
It is easy for us to get wrapped around the axle concerning the backdrop of strife and bigotry. But strife and bigotry were not the reasons people came to this colony.
Many people who were tired of difficult lives saw images of a “New Eden” and moved here in search of a better life. The idea of communitarian living was spread over fertile soil. Many people dreamed of a place where they would be able to live virtuous and prosperous lives. Something they lacked in the Midwest and East Coast.
The vast wilderness and resources of the Olympic Peninsula drew many people who desired the opportunity to create a perfect society. Colonist Luella Land believed it would be a place where she could rear her children in the true principles of Christianity as she saw them to be.
George Venable Smith embarked on a lengthy tour to publicize the colony plans and to solicit members. He spent two weeks in San Francisco. After that, he went on a speaking tour in the eastern United States. He aroused interest in the project and spread circulars. In an 1886 letter, he wrote, “In every place I find a certain number of persons well informed in co-operation, and readily embrace our colony plan, very many are earnest students in the case, and the great majority are looking with great anxiety for some way out of what looks like to them almost like subject slavery or starvation.” He established a central office in Seattle and upwards of 30 branch offices throughout the nation.
Skeptics viewed the colony as a haven for agnostics, atheists and freethinkers.
Even though high ideals were expressed, it is apparent that the PSCC was doomed to failure. Colony documents stated, “To join the colony one must be guided by principles above a love of sordid gain, and must furnish by personal or written recommendation evidences of good character.”
Instead, the PSCC evolved into an entrepreneurial colony rather than a collective. The PSCC began to engage in land speculation and major construction businesses.
The PSCC required “payments from the surplus over the reasonable expenses of living.” This was based upon “humanitarian principles” to help the colony provide free schools, free libraries, free light and free water.
It claimed the colonists would be exempt from taxes and rent. But the whole concept was taxes cloaked in principles, and people eventually caught on to it.
All private enterprise was abolished in the colony.
“No man or woman will employ or be employed by any other man or woman.”
Reality was different.
People needed more money and simply went outside the colony boundaries for jobs.
The colony didn’t establish religion but did have a willingness to provide worship and religious opportunity in a nonsectarian environment. In other words, all beliefs were accepted without hindrance, but no colony building could be used exclusively by any denomination. And there was to be no salaried clergy. In response, eight PSCC colonists organized Port Angeles’ first church outside the boundaries of the colony.
The land was laid out in sections for specific purposes. Sections were designated for general farming, vegetable farming, fruit farming, dairying and livestock.
Sounds a lot like zoning.
The colonists had some of the same aversions to zoning we have today.
Ship building was to be the leading industry. All fine and good, in principle.
Reality was different.
Colonists Fred and Rex Thompson founded the steamship company that was the forerunner of the present Black Ball Ferry line.
Future visitors did not see the desired utopian society. Instead, they saw a dysfunctional community.
A visitor from Kansas, M. L. Noftsger, did not have a reassuring experience. Financially, things were very low. PSCC was unable to pay the members for their labor. Colonists had an “inadequate supply of the plainest necessities of life.” It seems that the resident colonists depended upon contributions from non-resident colonists. Non-resident colonists were those throughout the United States who had signed up for membership in the PSCC but had not traveled here. No homes were available for them, yet.
Ultimately, its commercial ventures failed. Factional disputes rose. Liabilities outpaced assets, which led to lawsuits. The PSCC had some good achievements. But seven years after incorporation, PSCC was in receivership and was officially dissolved in 1904.
The Puget Sound Cooperative Colony never saw its utopian dream come to fruition. We cannot ignore that the colony made significant contributions to our local community. It attracted many professional and skilled people who had imagination and ambition.
Though the colony eventually died, it helped us grow into a strong community.
John McNutt is a descendant of Clallam County pioneers and treasurer of the North Olympic History Center Board of Directors. He can be reached at [email protected].