Life on the Land
In 1911, the Jewish Agricultural and Colonial Association of Philadelphia purchased 6,085 acres of land and water rights from the Utah State Land board for the agricultural experiment that they would name Clarion. Members of the association tasked with selecting a site for the future colony reported to their friends and neighbors in Philadelphia, Baltimore, and New York city that the soil was fertile, that a new source of irrigation, the state-built Piute Canal, would soon be completed, and that in all respects this site would meet the needs and aspirations of the would-be farmers.
Clarion was to be settled in phases, beginning with the arrival of twelve men who would work collectively to prepare the land for planting and irrigation. Thereafter, the land would be divided into family farmsteads with equipment shared by the settlers. Families would arrive 50 at a time, from year to year, until all of the Association members had been relocated from the East.
Unfortunately, the Clarion settlers found that life in arid Utah was quite different from the promises made by their back –to the-soil leaders and Utah state officials. The soil proved to be very poor and only productive with extensive irrigation. While the success of the colony depended on a reliable supply of water for both irrigation and domestic needs, construction of the Piute
Canal, intended to be completed before the arrival of the colonists in 1911, was not even finished until 1918, two years after the demise of Clarion. The limited water that was available was insufficient to meet the needs of the colony and the requirements of the land itself to become fully productive.
The Colonists of Clarion
For the Jewish settlers who came to Utah, Clarion was not just a theoretical experiment; it was a real opportunity to escape the poverty and stress of life in the ghettos of the eastern cities, for themselves as well as their families. As the colony’s name reveals, they also looked beyond themselves. These colonists had sounded a Clarion call to all Jews to return to the land for spiritual and physical revival. In Utah, they believed that they had found a haven from the violence of the European pogroms and the poverty of America.
Benjamin Brown recommended the Utah site for colonization to the other members of the Association and was the leader of the settlers in Clarion. The colonists raised wheat, alfalfa, and oats and kept chickens and cows on their forty-acre farms. The Association subsidized families with a weekly stipend to ease the transition from city to farm. At its high point, more than two hundred men, women and children lived in the colony and over 2,800 acres were under cultivation. Relations with local Mormon farmers were valuable for they helped the Jewish colonists gain experience in working the land and raising animals. But, tragedy marked the life of the Jewish colony. The Piute Canal failed to deliver promised water. Early and late frosts and heavy rainfall that flooded fields brought crop failures. A lack of experience aggravated natural calamities, and dissension rooted in ideology, missed expectations, and personality conflicts weakened morale. The deaths of two farmers and the loss of two babies further weakened the will to stay on the land. In 1915, the colony could not make payment on the land and the State of Utah foreclosed. Most colonists returned to their former homes in the eastern cities. Un willing to give up on their dream, half a dozen Jewish families took up land near the Clarion tract and successfully farmed into the late 1920’s.
The hurdles to success on the land proved too high and the Jewish farmers could not sustain their experiment. Nor would they lead a movement of Jews back to the soil. Yet, their story is one of hope and determinations to better themselves and a people. That they failed is their history. That they dreamed and struggled against insurmountable odds is their legacy.
David Bernstein family just prior to their departure from New York for Utah.
Benjamin Brown and Isaac Herbst (on the right, respectively) reviewing the colony’s books.
Ida and Samuel Barak in Philadelphia
“Back to the Soil”
From the beginning of the Common Era and into the nineteenth century, European Jews were prohibited from owning land. By necessity, Jews abandoned an agrarian existence and turned to a more urban way of life, becoming instead shopkeepers, peddlers, and artisans. But, by the middle of the 19th Century, Jewish reformers and Zionist nationalists advocated a return to a “purer life” and occupations based on manual labor. Key to this was agriculture. As early as the 1840s Jewish communal societies were proposed in both Europe and in America where it was hoped Jews could achieve these ideals by returning to the soil.
The pogroms (violent and usually deadly anti-Jewish riots) of the 19th Century saw the emigration of hundreds of thousands of Jews, mostly from Eastern Europe, who came to America with hopes of religious and economic freedom. The great majority of the Jews settled in the eastern cities. Others participated in an international movement that saw farm colonies planted in the United States, Canada, Argentina, Brazil and Israel. Forty agricultural colonies were organized in the United States at places such as Sicily Island, Louisiana, Crimea and Painted Woods in South Dakota; new Odessa, Oregon; and Cotopaxi in Colorado. Clarion, Utah was the largest in population and land areas and was in existence the longest of any settlement west of the Appalachian Mountains. Many communities suffered catastrophic natural disasters, while others succumbed to mismanagement, poor soils, and settler’s unfamiliarity with farm practices. All but a couple failed and were abandoned with a few years of their founding. Today, virtually all have disappeared.
In the early 20th Century, renewed pogroms and emigration from Eastern Europe added to the already overcrowded conditions in the cities of the eastern United States. Even president Theodore Roosevelt endorsed for all Americans a “Back to the Farm” movement and established the country Life Commission in 1908 to seek means to keep farmers on the land and to encourage new agricultural enterprises. These ideas would have been familiar to Jewish immigrants who had head similar schemes in their homelands even before their popularity in America.
Cotopaxi, Colorado. Circa 1882
A typical New York city tenement. circa 1900