Harry and Edna Coventon are shown with eight of their nine children around 1917. (Ernie Coventon)

Harry and Edna Coventon are shown with eight of their nine children around 1917. (Ernie Coventon)

BACK WHEN: People journey to Port Angeles for ‘utopia’

WASHINGTON HAS QUITE a radical history.

In 1936, Postmaster General James Farley is purported to have joked that “There are 47 states in the Union and the Soviet of Washington.”

That remark is full of exaggeration, but it did have some small measure of foundation within reality.

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.

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 on the East Coast.

The vast wilderness and resources of the Olympic Peninsula drew many people who desired 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 abject slavery or starvation.”

He established a central office in Seattle and upward of 30 branch offices throughout the nation.

The idea of communitarian living in the U.S. reached even to England.

One couple that sought this dream was Harry and Edna Coventon.

They started in England and took different paths. But their lives converged here in Port Angeles.

I would like to add a side note here that one of their daughters, Kathleen, wrote a delightful and thorough history of the PSCC in 1939.

It is available for reading at the North Olympic History Center’s Research Library.

I recently sat down with Harry and Edna Coventon’s grandson, Ernie Coventon.

He remembered his grandmother as a wonderful lady. Harry and Edna were pro-labor and held to socialist ideals.

They liked to talk about this philosophy. They thought that people were essentially good, so they would want to work together.

Harry Coventon was born in Lystone, Devonshire County, England, in 1859. He entered the British Navy as a signalman aboard the H.M.S. Triumph.

In 1884, the ship stopped at Esquimalt Harbor near Victoria.

He jumped ship, rowed across the Strait of Juan de Fuca and landed at Morse Creek.

He looked for employment in Dungeness and later Discovery Bay.

He spent a short time in California before returning to Port Angeles.

He then became an early member of the Puget Sound Cooperative Colony.

Edna Burns was born in Birmingham, England, in 1872. Her parents, Mr. and Mrs. James Burns, had read about the colony and had considerable correspondence about it.

They were interested in ideas of social progress.

They bought shares in the colony before leaving England.

It took three weeks to sail around Cape Horn and arrive at Victoria.

On Feb. 14, 1890, the steamboat Garland took them to Morse’s Wharf in Port Angeles. It was very appealing to get away from the soot and grime of Birmingham.

The Burns lunched with Judge Norman R. Smith on that first day in town.

They walked along the beach to the colony at Ennis Creek and were assigned a three-room apartment in the building which had the assembly hall and newspaper printing press.

Within months, the Burns family moved to a house.

They enjoyed the life in the colony. Many members had literary, musical and theatrical talent. Social life was pleasant. A library and opera house were started as were a nursery and kindergarten.

Harry and Edna met at a colony dance. They were married in 1892.

By 1894, the couple was homesteading.

They first tried homesteading in the Little River area south of Port Angeles for a few years but it didn’t work. Prior to 1900 they purchased a homestead on Herrick Road west of Port Angeles near the Elwha River.

Harry built the first covered bridge across the Elwha River and helped build the road to Lake Sutherland.

Ernie told me that his grandparents moved to a home on Chase Street in Port Angeles in the 1920s.

Harry Coventon became the first operator of the Port Angeles steam electric plant.

Later he was the caretaker of the Clallam County Courthouse until his death at age 72 in 1932.

Edna Coventon became the first chairperson of the first Parent-Teacher Association. For her, “education was everything,” Ernie said.

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.

The colony attracted many professional and skilled people, such as the Coventons, 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 president of the North Olympic History Center Board of Directors. He can be reached at woodrow [email protected].

John’s Clallam history column appears the first Sunday of every month..

North Olympic History Center

North Olympic History Center

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