Wednesday, November 27, 2013

Piscataway's brush with anarchy: the Stelton Modern School and Ferrer Colony

A few weeks ago we explored the Stelton area of Piscataway to tease out the history of early 20th century settlement there. You might recall we were trying to figure out the differences between Friendship Farm, the Ferrer Colony and an unnamed (at least to us) community of chicken farmers.

Distinguishing one from the other proved to be a little bit of a challenge, as many sources refer to Friendship Farm and the Ferrer Colony in the same breath. In truth, they were quite different. While Friendship Farm was largely the province of formerly-urban and taciturn German transplants, the Ferrer Colony took a decidedly anarchist turn, fostered by adherents of Spanish educator Francisco Ferrer.

Well-known for his political beliefs, Ferrer had founded the Escuela Moderna in Barcelona in 1901 as a means of promoting the tenets of anarchism. After he was executed for his alleged participation in an insurrection, free-thinkers around the world, including some in New York, sought to perpetuate his teachings through additional Modern Schools.

Relief sculpture on the side of the Goldman house
in the former Ferrer/Modern School Colony.
The prompt for the Modern School's move to Stelton came through two sources: a vision and a bomb. Troubled by the "evil influences" of the city, founders of the New York Ferrer movement theorized that they'd be far better able to effect social change if the school was physically cocooned within a supportive community of like-minded individuals. Meanwhile, students from the school's adult classes were linked to a 1914 explosion that was said to be a bomb intended for the Rockefeller family. Overall, Manhattan was turning out not to be such a great place to be an anarchist.

Not long after the blast, one of the Ferrer group leaders was visiting friends who lived at Friendship Farm when an a solution materialized. Dissatisfied with the Farm's conservative environment, one friend suggested that the New York group could purchase the adjoining land and start their own settlement in New Jersey.

One of the Ferrer Colony's remaining tiny houses.
Compared to a cramped existence in Manhattan, the Stelton farmland must have appeared as nirvana. The Ferrer group bought 143 acres of land and subdivided it into one- to two-acre plots to be sold at a profit to individual members. Sale proceeds would be used to construct roads and other shared facilities. Like their Friendship Farm neighbors, the Ferrerists built their own homes; many were, by today's standards, ridiculously small (as in, they make the classic Edison concrete houses look like McMansions). The land itself was reportedly treeless, dusty and devoid of a water source. Roads were meant to be built as a communal effort, which didn't work quite as cooperatively as the founders had envisioned. Common facilities, like a dormitory for students coming in from New York, were only completed after severe financial difficulties.

Through it all, the ever-important Modern School attracted the support and attention of parents who wanted their children to benefit from a progressive, if not revolutionary education. The school had no curriculum or study requirements, supporting the community's belief that allowing students to make their own choices would result in responsible adults. After a brief morning gathering, kids could experiment with several options, including outdoor games, woodworking and art. Traditional academics were available but not forced; oral histories note that some children didn't learn to read until they were nine or ten years old.

The school and community persisted through the lean years of the Great Depression, losing many students whose parents couldn't afford tuition or had become communists. World War II seems to have struck the death knell; the construction and operation of nearby Camp Kilmer reportedly brought crime and hostility to what had been peaceful farmland. Nonetheless, the Modern School managed to stay open until 1953, most of its few students reportedly around kindergarten age.

Today, the only overt sign of the Modern School is a plaque erected on the site where it once stood, 79 School Street. Though many of the common buildings have been torn down and replaced by retail establishments, some of the small houses still stand in the general area, including the Russian, or Goldman house, notable for the bas relief artwork on its outside walls.


  1. This article is a good description of the colony. My parents lived in the Ferrer Colony when I was a child, altho unfortunately I was too young to remember anything. Your readers might be interested to know that on the last Saturday of the month the Goldman House hosts a fund-raiser at the house, located at 143 School Street, Piscataway, 08854. - (location is steps away from the edge of the Livingston Campus of Rutgers.)

    The purpose is to raise funds for the renovation of the house, which is now a Historical Landmark of Piscataway Township.
    Sat, Aug 30, 4 pm - 11pm. Live music, snacks, short films, crafts. (Children's activities at 4)


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