Fruitlands: Utopian Failure

After eating some “New England-style Texas brisket” at a local apple festival, my wife and I headed to Fruitlands, the site of another unfortunate experiment. In 1843, Bronson Alcott and his family moved to a small, but beautiful spot in the Massachusetts countryside, where they with several other unfortunate souls formed an ill-fated utopian society.

After some missed turns due to small faded signs tacked to posts, my wife and I finally made it to Fruitlands. The parking lot was surprisingly packed, so we pulled onto the lawn and climbed out of the car. The view here is expansive. Perched on top of a ridge, we could see the New Hampshire mountains, a sweep of changing fall leaves, and down the steep slope, Fruitlands.

Fruitlands is owned by The Trustees, a Massachusetts based conservation organization that also owns the Old Manse. There is a contest to walk 125 miles in Trustees reservations to celebrate their 125th year. I walked a grand 1.1 miles at Old Manse, and wanted to add to that total. There are a few miles of dog-friendly walking trails at Fruitlands, so my wife and I decided to take turns walking our boy and visiting the Museums.

Fruitlands!
Fruitlands!

Since my wife usually waits with the dog while I spend an hours in some old house, I took our boy on a walk while my wife visited the buildings first. We happened to visit on some kind of festival day. There were vendors serving gluten-free, allergen free cinnamon rolls and hot cider, demonstrations of spear-throwing, a bluegrass band playing Grateful Dead covers, and alpacas and goats on leashes. My old boss and her girlfriend were there too. While I chatted with them, our boy waited patiently for his chance to talk with the goats and alpacas.

After staying an appropriate distance from the alpaca, goats and bluegrass band, the dog and I hit the trails. Or rather, we walked five feet, sniffed the ferns and then walked another five feet. The trails run through the old meadows and forests that at one point made up Fruitlands. There were some wet muddy parts of the trail that had some particularly wonderful smells. The small stream made our boy quiver with joy. There are old stone walls winding their way through the pine lands and old maples. It was a nice walk, even though I didn’t add huge numbers to my 125 mile goal.

I thought the best spot on the hike was crossing the small stream where the sound of the water mingled with the calls of chickadees above us. Our boy thought the best spot on the hike was the flooded culvert at the end of the parking lot where he lay down in the puddle, and rolled around for a good five minutes.

Our boy enjoying the best the Fruitlands trails have to offer
Our boy enjoying the best the Fruitlands trails have to offer

After our boy’s swim, we met up with my wife. I walked down the hill to visit the house where the utopian society was based.

In 1843, Bronson Alcott moved to this land with his family, co-founder Charles Lane and several others to establish an experiment in Transcendentalist communal living. Lane put up most of the money for the land. The always broke Alcott agreed to come up with the last $300 later on. They named the farm Fruitlands, after the small apple orchard. They planned to live off the “fruits of the land.”

The group held some strident beliefs. They did not wear cotton, refusing to benefit from slave labor. They refused to drink coffee or tea, and drank only water. They were strict vegans. They didn’t use animal labor to work the fields, nor did they believe in wearing wool which had been unfairly taken from the sheep. They apparently kicked out Anna Page for sharing a fish tail with a neighbor. (Pretty sad if you risk getting kicked out of your home, but still decide to eat that fish tail). The community hoped to pluck their food from the land, living as if in the Garden of Eden.

Fruitlands Orchard
Apple trees, from which to pluck fruit

The community also had a huge library, but couldn’t read at night since they didn’t use candles or lamp oil since are both animal products. I guess they could huddle around the fire Abraham Lincoln style, but instead decided that they wouldn’t use artificial light to extend the day as it would borrow from the brightness of the morning. These folks were committed to their values.

Alcott and Lane were often away from the community, trying to find more recruits. The group they recruited to join them included a nudist, several middle class business owners, a man formerly committed to an insane asylum, and only one other adult woman besides Abigail Alcott – the fish eater who Louisa Mae Alcott wrote of despising in her journal. The group included one experienced farmer, but overall the group lacked the technical knowledge to produce enough for a self-sustaining lifestyle. Despite Alcott and Lane’s recruitment efforts, they couldn’t add many to this eclectic bunch.

Since Alcott and Lane were often gone, much of the work fell to Abagail Alcott and the children. While the docent emphasized that the recruitment efforts were vital, Lane and Alcott didn’t really time their trips well. They left after cutting the barley, but didn’t help harvest it, leaving the children and Abigail to bring in the harvest in the face of an approaching storm.

Add in the in-fighting between Lane, Abagail and Bronson, the community was doomed. Lane actively encouraged Alcott to leave his wife and children, creating a conflict that Louisa Mae Alcott recorded in her journal. They didn’t make it through the first winter. Lane moved in with the nearby Shakers. Abagail Alcott fled the the community with the children. Bronson Alcott eventually left the farm and rejoined his family. Joseph Palmer, the only farmer in the group, purchased the land and ran the farm successfully. He renamed it Freelands, and offered free room and board for the homeless and destitute in exchange for labor.

Bronson Alcott Fruitlands Founder
Bronson Alcott, unconventional and committed Transcendentalist

Stepping into the house, it is thin walled and sparse, with a jumble of rooms leading into more small rooms. The place could be comfortable, but given the constraints upon their lives, I don’t get the impression that comfort was really going to be possible at Fruitlands. The stairs going up to the attic bedroom where the Alcott girls slept at first looked inviting. I imaged a scene out of Little Women with the girls all tucked into their cozy room. Then I climbed the stairs and found that the room is more of a crawl space. Maybe I am bringing my 21st century values to the place, but it just seemed so bleak and dark. 
Looks cozy from here

However, Alcott is a compelling figure. It takes a lot of moral fortitude to so closely adhere to one’s values. I laugh when I think about the family plowing the fields by hand, but respect them when they refuse to wear cotton so as not to support the enslavement of millions of people. Of course, refusing to plant crops that grew downwards (like some nice sustaining potatoes and carrots) and only growing those that were upright in the air seems a little nuts no matter how I think about it.

Louisa Mae Alcott summed up the experience in her book Transcendental Wild Oats. “The band of brothers began by spading garden and field; but a few days of it lessened their ardor amazingly.”

The property also has a Native American Museum (which was closed by the time I got around to it), a building from a nearby Shaker community which I missed somehow, and a great art museum featuring works by the Hudson River School. As we dragged our boy back into the car and ate allergen-free cinnamon buns, my wife and I compared notes about the docents and our impressions of the Alcott’s utopian dream. Fruitlands is well worth a visit and left me wanting to learn more.

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