Friday, October 25, 2013

Fellowship Farm: a social experiment in the exurbia of Piscataway

Over the past couple of years, we've found a host of planned communities and colonies that were built around New Jersey. They're usually pretty well defined geographically, off on their own in places where land was once inexpensive, and clear signs of them are evident.

Then there are the two in Piscataway whose vestiges lay somewhat obscured. Concealed in suburban neighborhoods just a few blocks from Rutgers University's Busch Campus, evidence of the Fellowship Farm cooperative and the Ferrer colony and Modern School is limited to a plaque on a rock, a couple of small homes and an interestingly-named grade school (whose playground sports a rock that seems to have once had a plaque on it).

There might even have been a third community in the town that had once been mostly farmland and undeveloped acreage. About a year ago, Ivan and I found a curious historic marker just off Busch Campus. It memorialized the site of a poultry farm once run by a Jewish community that had settled there courtesy of Baron Moritz von Hirsch, a philanthropist who had set up a trust fund for Jewish immigrants in the U.S. Initial research revealed nothing, and it's been on my long-term "to research" list since then.

Instead of getting to the bottom of the Middlesex County poultry mystery, I've found bits and pieces of information on collective chicken farms that were organized in more southern and remote parts of the state, well worth a visit and future coverage in Hidden New Jersey. In the process I found information on the Ferrer Modern School, a social anarchist educational system that was once the center of a colony organized in Piscataway. Could this be related to the von Hirsch-sponsored chicken farms? I wasn't sure, but it was enough of a lead to warrant a search for the marker Ivan and I had found. The Ferrer group had settled in the North Stelton section, near Busch Campus. It had to be the same place, right?

Maybe, maybe not. The info I had on the Ferrer colony advised that members had built tiny houses in an area just off Stelton Road, and that a few still survived, along with a plaque marking the site of the Modern School. I found the houses, but as I was wandering around, I found something else that got my curiosity up. Very close to those little houses, but on the other side of Stelton Road, was the Fellowship Farm School. That name was just a bit too, well, communal-sounding not to have something to do with a collective of some sort.

It was, indeed. It seems that in 1912, German Socialists living in New York City had seized upon the ideals of Unitarian minister and emerging commune organizer George Littlefield, who had promoted the creation of several Fellowship Farms around the country. Advertisements for the New Jersey outpost encouraged city residents to "get back to the land," and a small group heeded the call. Together, they raised $8000 to buy a total of 162 acres in North Stelton, dividing it between a large communal plot and separate one-acre segments to be purchased by individual members. Plans called for each potential member to purchase a $10,000 subscription and pay a $50 per acre fee for their land, as well as a $5 monthly installment.

In theory, the plan sounds rather nice. Income would come from farming, as well as proceeds from raising poultry, hosting summer tourists and undetermined work that residents would do in their own homes. Members could also choose to take on part-time employment in businesses outside the community.

The reality seems to have been quite different. As is often the case in utopian communities, the founder's dream seems to have downplayed or ignored the fact that the romantic desire to 'work the soil' doesn't automatically convey the skill to raise crops. Rather than farming their land, many of the former city dwellers built small bungalows and continued to work at their jobs in New York, perhaps raising chickens on the side. Even the bus line and market that had been communally operated were transferred to private operators over time as colonists recognized that representative governance isn't the best way to run a business. The one community enterprise that seems to have worked well was a cooperative garment factory that prospered during the Great Depression.

Confusion over the relationship between the Fellowship Farm and Ferrer colonies is evident in much of the reference material I've read, but they were definitely two very distinct groups despite their proximity to each other. The largely German-speaking Fellowship Farm members were described as moralistic and staid, repelling freer-spirited socialists who sought entrance to the community. It seems that the Ferrer group settled nearby merely because the land was available.

I've found very little information on the demise of Fellowship Farm, but I'd venture to guess that life changed greatly in the area during and after World War II. Nearby Camp Kilmer was a major training and embarkation station from 1942 until the end of the war, spurring development in the surrounding area. Increased activity shattered the peace and calm so many community members valued.

In any case, all indications are that Fellowship Farm wasn't, as I'd hoped, the same community memorialized by the blue historic marker Ivan and I found last year. That one remains a mystery to be investigated. And what of the Ferrer Colony? We'll be telling that story in a future installment.



4 comments:

  1. Really interesting stuff. Well written too. Pictures?? Love to see some pictures. Love the idea and theme of the blog. Very much appreciate your time and effort in putting it all together. Love to see some pics.

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  2. Thanks for your comment, Michael! Unfortunately we didn't get any photos on this trip, but when we publish a future story on the Ferrer Colony, we hope to have a few to share.

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  3. My mother was raised in Stelton -her parents worked in N.Y.C (a tool and die maker and a dietician) and for a time she boarded with another family. My grandfather was a jewish wobblie (IWW) and she went to the Ferrer School. She told me that Margaret Sanger's daughter got very ill (and may have died -can't remember) which she felt was due to negligence on the part of the school.
    My mother remained a lifelong anarchist and was part of the founding of Women's Strike for Peace
    .I remember of rural lovely area and still have some of the photos from early childhood there.
    It's the 10th anniversary of my mom's death and have been hoping for more stories- she was 86 at her passing.

    jgraeven@gmail.com

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    1. Thank you so much for sharing your mother's story with us, and our condolences on her passing. When we do a follow-up story, we'll be sure to let you know.

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