Monday, April 25, 2011

Masters of their domain: Union's Self Master Colony

Behind the Union Township Municipal Building is the last vestige of a collective of men working to pull themselves up by the bootstraps. Used by the township's Girl Scouts as a gathering spot for over 40 years, this green house with the yellow shutters was originally built as part of the Self-Master Colony, an early 20th century attempt to rehabilitate men who once had achieved a measure of success but had fallen on hard times. I learned a smidgen of the story as one of those Girl Scouts, but until recently, I didn't know much about why the colony was there or who started it. Here's what I've been able to glean:

The Union Twp. Girl Scout House ...
once a Self Master cottage.
Having endured a business scandal of his own in 1904, former Wall Street brokerage executive Andress Floyd conceived of the colony as a place where homeless, destitute men could learn a new trade and rebuild their self-respect before returning to the world at large. While he appreciated religious missions and the work they did, he claimed that before a man could honestly find God, he had to find his own self-worth. He was also selective in who he admitted to the community. Those who came with recommendations were turned away because Floyd was only looking to help those without friends. He also eschewed hoboes, he said, because they claimed "a thousand homes" and were unlikely to abandon the nomadic life for a steady job.

The colony opened in 1908, and the men lived with Floyd and his wife Lillian in the Hoyt Mansion, a large house donated to the cause by watch manufacturer Charles Ingersoll (the same Ingersoll, coincidentally, who constructed houses made from Edison Portland Cement, including nearly a dozen barely a mile away on Ingersoll Terrace). In return for room, board and a 50 cent per week salary, they were expected to work a seven hour day woodworking, weaving rugs or other crafts produced by the colony. Others helped run the household, cleaning, cooking, doing laundry and odd jobs around the mansion and the surrounding 50 or so acres. It's said that more than 100,000 men stayed at the colony over its 20-plus year history, with a fair number of them ultimately finding new jobs outside Self Master once they rebuilt their dignity.

Eventually, the colony's success got greater acclaim through articles in the New York Times and other prominent publications of the day. Floyd himself went out on the speaking circuit to relate his rehabilitation philosophy, even appearing at New York's Carnegie Hall.

When his past business transgressions came to light, he responded candidly to a Times reporter, saying, "The suffering that was caused through that financial failure determined me to try to live a constructive rather than a destructive life, and finally how difficult it was for myself to get on my feet, I thought how much more difficult it must be for a man without business experience or friends to gain a footing ... I decided to surround myself with a few of these men who need encouragement and direction and to show them that I not only understood them because of my own sufferings but that it is not impossible for a man to restore himself to the confidence of good people by clean and unselfish living and by honest industry." His financial backers were well aware of his past and supported his efforts with the colony nonetheless.

According to the Union Township Library website, the Self Master Colony met its demise after the stock market crash of 1929, meaning it went out of business just when it was likely needed most. The 1939 WPA Guide to New Jersey notes that as late as 10 years later, the property still held a dilapidated print shop, two frame buildings, and a loom that was used by the last remaining resident, 69 year-old Michael Moore. The township bought the property in 1938 and sited the municipal building and main library there, along with a small park named for a former town clerk.

The Hoyt mansion is lost to history, and that little Girl Scout house is the only structure left, but the names Self Master, Andress, Lillian and Floyd are all memorialized in street names not far from the location of the original colony.

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