Looking for the Morning
Reviewed by Marcia Klenbort
Vol. 16, No. 1, 1994, pp. 23-25
Man and Mission, E.B. Gaston and the origins of the Fairhope Single Tax Colony, by Paul Mershon Gaston (Black Belt Press, 1993, 161 pages).
The occasion for this splendid little book is the centennial anniversary of the Fairhope Single Tax Colony, which was founded as a utopian experiment on the shores of Mobile Bay in Baldwin County, Alabama, in November 1894, and which has continued there in one form or another until now. Paul Gaston, the author and a scholar in the field of American social history, is the grandson of E.B. Gaston, founder and secretary of the colony every year except two until 1936; and the son of C.A. Gaston, who served as the Colony’s secretary for the next thirty-six years. Gaston has written about the Fairhope Colony before, and is working on what he calls “the big book” which will be the chronicle of the life and times of the Fairhope colony. So why this little volume now?
Gaston, mindful that he rejected a legacy by not leading the colony, fulfills his family obligation by writing about it. “I wanted to get something out before the centennial started,” Gaston reports. Man and Mission comes to remind people of the ideals on which the colony was founded, which are no longer embodied by the present wealthy community. For in 1994 the colony, far from being an alternative to a society driven by capitalism and greed, is a retirement haven for captains of industry. Indeed, Money magazine ranked it “second in the nation” among retirement communities in March 1994, for its low crime rate, good climate, and other factors popular with retirees. Fairhope Realtors © report that the prices of homes have doubled in the last two or three years, and young families cannot afford to buy homes there. So, since the Colony itself will hardly celebrate the hundredth anniversary as a place where “scarce community resources should never be privately owned or developed for private gain,” Paul Gaston celebrates the founding as the founders might have.
For those interested in American utopian communities, this little volume is a chance to explore one man’s intellectual journey as he rejected an inegalitarian society; surveyed the existing social experiments; corresponded fiercely with practitioners in other colonies as well as fellow idealists; decided on a plan of action; failed to find subscribers; and then, after reflection, conversations, and a number of compromises, mounted his effort again. Inclusion of original source material makes this book a natural for college courses.
The 1880s in America were a time of growing industrialization, when capital became concentrated in the hands of a few and laborers in industries had no chance of achieving lives beyond subsistence levels. Industrialization, ugly cities, and unbridled capitalism evoked a national reaction. Utopian communities sprang up, back-to-the-land movements which spurned new technologies and yearned for foundations which would result in more equal living conditions far from factories. Edward Bellamy’s Looking Backward, published in 1888, was a part of the same broad movement of E.B. Gaston and his followers. Like Bellamy, E.B. Gaston—a successful real estate developer in Des Moines, Iowa at age 28—proclaimed of the capitalist system, “I want no more of it.” In 1889, he founded the “Des Moines Investigating Club” to investigate the social and economic conditions of the United States.
Gaston’s club was not a part of the network of the six thousand Looking Backward Clubs, but in 1890 Gaston invited Bellamy to speak to the Des Moines Investigating Club members. Bellamy wrote to decline, noting he was “sorry to disappoint any who are, with me, looking for the morning.”
Gaston’s club members read Henry George’s Progress and Poverty, and were impressed by his conclusion: to apply a single tax on land, with no tax on the improvements to the land. The idea was that this method of one annual tax would do away with land speculation and inequality of citizens owning land.
At a time when some experimental communities were foundering because of excessive demands on indi-
vidual privacy, work choices, and individuality of their members, E.B. Gaston developed “cooperative individualism.” Land would be owned in common, as would the best parts of land, like the beautiful bayfront park in Fairhope. Public utilities, insurance, schools, and libraries would also be held in common. Competition would be encouraged in production, but not in distribution, where Gaston envisioned cooperative merchandising.
Although the colony adopted Henry George’s principle of the single tax, George did not approve of the founding of the Fairhope Single Tax Colony; he thought the model too small to work.
Hamlin Garland did support the colony’s founding, and in 1894 provided words for Gaston to use in promotion: “I hope single-tax men will support Brother Gaston to the full extent of their means, and build a practicable working model of the social group we hope to see the whole nation become.”
Before plans to found a colony took shape, Gaston had explored political change. He supported the Populist Party in 1892, and was disappointed that the Populists drew only five percent of the vote for president in Iowa. After the Populist effort failed, Gaston and his colleagues turned to create a world where his ideals could rule, “A community, in short, where intelligent men and women [are] drawn together by a common purpose.” And they wanted to work the land.
Southerners will not be surprised that they selected a warm climate for their experiment, but why Baldwin County, Alabama? The selection committee traveled to many places. They rejected the “stumps and stones” of the Arkansas mountains, were warned against too-swampy Louisiana, and found that Texas (where they were attracted to rice-growing), lacked hospitable property laws. When they reached the eastern shore of Mobile Bay in Baldwin County, they were captivated.
“The view from the shore is magnificent…. high banks and a sandy beach with every here and there a spring gushing”. In actuality, the land they chose was a wild thicket on poor soil, which had failed to become a habitable place for the two towns which had died there earlier: Clifton and Alabama City. Their plans to establish an agricultural colony were built more on faith than on sound soil.
E.B. Gaston was “distant” from the author, who knew his grandfather only from a child’s view. He is a good subject for a biography, a man of tremendous energy, rebelliousness and ambition, and highly skilled in the capitalist accomplishments he rejected. By the time he led the little band of nineteen adults and nine children to Fairhope in November 1894, he had been an accomplished real estate developer (we see his persuasive salesmanship in the endless “Come to Fairhope” recruiting flyers); managing editor of a newspaper (his launching and editing of the Fairhope Courier alone might merit a biography); and a leader of Iowa populists who actively supported the 1892 presidential bid of Populist Party candidate James B. Weaver, editor of the Farmer’s Tribune which Gaston worked for in Des Moines. (Gaston would need all the management expertise he could muster to lead the early years of the colony).
What relevance does the book hold for present-day thinkers who would bring democracy and opportunity to all communities of the South and beyond? It is very American, Paul Gaston tells us, “for a single American to make a difference in the historical process.” The colony E.B. Gaston envisioned and mobilized was ahead of its time in accepting the intelligence of women as a rock in its foundation. Racial justice, however, was not part of the Fairhope mission. “Racial justice was almost never among the causes championed by communitarian reformers,” the author tells us. One of the colony’s thinkers, James Belangee, reasoned that “the institution of the single tax would necessarily reduce racism through improved circumstances,” an argument which reminds this reviewer of multiple arguments for tiptoeing around race issues sometimes heard in 1990s discussions.
When Fairhopers arrived in 1894, Paul Gaston tell us, about 2,400 people lived on the 112 square miles from
Mobile Bay to the Fish River. About fifty-five percent were white. Blacks were immigrants from other parts of the South, including “a prominent group of mulattoes, descended from free people of color.” Readers will be left wanting to hear more about life in the Fairhope colony, and will look forward to the “big book” Paul Gaston promises us. Until then, we can be pleased that Gaston has postponed telling the colony’s story until another volume. (Man and Mission ends in 1895.) The present volume has an unhurried feeling. We can linger in the preamble, and give the founding of the Fairhope Colony its due.
Marcia Klenbort sought out her own Fairhope roots in 1972. Her grandfather, a “raving idealist” who grew up on Chicago’s north side, settled in Fairhope in 1904, but did not find his dreams there. Klenbort is director of education programs at the Southern Regional Council.