Tag Archives: agricultural colony

New Odessa, Oregon, an experiment in living

The first groups emigrating to America from Russia to set up Jewish agricultural colonies were part of the Am Olam (Eternal people or People of the world), an organisation of young people that developed in Odessa after the 1881 pogroms and then spread across Ukraine to other cities. Before the assassination of the Tzar in 1881, there had been a relaxation of the laws limiting Jewish participation in society, and many Jews felt they might gradually integrate and become equal to Russian citizens, but after the assassination, the rules became stricter and Jews began to look to emigration to Palestine or America as the only way to find freedom. The Zionists favoured Palestine as the Jewish homeland but others looked to the Americas as a place where they might be accepted more easily as equals. This desire for freedom and equality made a socialist or communist approach to living appealing. The idea of agricultural colonies was also popular in Russia as a way of being useful to society and getting back to the essence of life as preached by Tolstoy. Young people in Odessa had been brought up in a more cosmopolitan and secular way than Jews in other parts of Russia, and they gravitated towards nonreligious, socialist colonies.

The first Am Olam group to emigrate, led by Herman Rosenthal,  predominantly from Elizavetgrad, went to Sicily Island, Louisiana in late 1881 and then on to South Dakota when the Sicily Island colony failed after spring floods and malaria. One of the problems with the land in Louisiana was its isolation – a lack of nearby farms or farmers from whom the Russians could learn local farming practice or towns where produce could be sold. My great uncle Joseph Petrikovsky, from Kiev, was probably in the group that went to Sicily Island, and certainly went to South Dakota.

The first group from Odessa, led by my great uncle Simon Krimont and others like Paul Kaplan and Selig Rosenbluth, left Russia in 1882 for New York, and reached Portland, Oregon in early 1883. They had the support of some influential Jews in New York such as Michael Heilprin, Julius Goldman and Felix Adler, founder of the New York Ethical Culture School.  Simon Krimont went out west looking for sites for the colony with a charismatic older Russian, William Frey, who had been involved in earlier colonies. They were influenced to settle in Oregon through one of their sponsors in New York, Henry Villard, who owned the Oregon and California Railway. He was building an extension to the railway in southern Oregon, near Glendale, where he encouraged the group to buy a mostly wooded piece of land at Cow Creek, Glendale, and he gave them a contract to cut wood for ties for the railroad to keep them going until they were growing crops.

Cow Creek near Glendale Oregon 1902

Sether Ranch 1910 (previously New Odessa)

The group, mostly young students, first settled in Portland and took various manual jobs to ready themselves for tackling the building and farm work of the colony. Some of the group went their own way at this point. In the spring of 1883, a few men with building knowledge went to the colony to help restore the old buildings, one farmhouse and several barns, and add an extension to the farmhouse for a communal kitchen, meeting room and communal sleeping quarters. By the summer, there were 36 men (4 married), seven women and five children. Most were in their 20s.

In Helen Blumenthal’s 1975 thesis on New Odessa: New Odessa, 1882-1887: United we stand, divided we fall (http://pdxscholar.library.pdx.edu/open_access_etds/2288/ ) there is a handwritten list of the colonists’ names from local archives:

New Odessa colonists 1885

My guess is that Simon Krimont is the fourth from the left in the centre row of the photograph, and his sister Sophie may be the woman in the light dress.

The philosophy of the colony was that everyone should work to the best of their abilities and were considered equal, both men and women. Their leisure time was spent with reading, talks, learning English, lectures by Frey on philosophy and science, singing Russian and American traditional songs and dancing. They had also brought a large library of Russian books which was an important part of their life when they were not working on the land.

Frey, who had settled in New Odessa with his wife and children, became the leader of the mostly younger men and women, and gradually imposed his strong ideology, both helping and hindering its development. For instance, although the land they bought was mostly forest filled with game and a river filled with fish, Frey was a strict vegetarian and did not allow any meat or fish to appear at their meals. And although he was a humanist, he gradually made a religion of his humanism and insisted on having services and singing hymns, which was not to the liking of many of the Am Olam group.

According to Theodore H. Friedgut in Stepmother Russia, Foster Mother America: Identity Transitions in the New Odessa Jewish Commune, Odessa, Oregon, New York, 1881–1891 (2014), one of the best sources of contemporary information about the early period in New Odessa was a series of letters about the colony, probably written by Simon Krimont, in the Russian novel Joseph Petrikovsky wrote about his experiences in South Dakota, To America: Notes from the Journal of an Emigrant Student. Kiev 1884 (Петриковский И. М. В Америку! Из записной книжки студента-эмигранта. Киев, 1884. 249 с). I had not realised that Simon and Joseph may have been friends from Russia or their first days in New York and therefore it was probably Joseph, who married my great aunt Anna when he returned to Russia to publish his novel in 1884, who introduced Simon to his wife’s sister, my great aunt Galia in New York in the late 1880s.

Cow Creek Sether Ranch

Cow Creek, Glendale, Oregon

By late 1884, only a year and a half after the colony began, the colony split and Frey left with 15 members. Besides the ideological problems, there may have been some economic ones, as the contract of cutting wood for railroad ties was not renewed by the group and selling crops in the area was not as easy as expected. Also many found the farming work more difficult than they expected, possibly because the land was quite steep. However, the colony carried on for at least another year as shown in a long 1885 magazine article about a colony wedding written by a journalist who knew no Russian and stayed at the colony for a few days to observe and take part in their lives. As names were not used in the article, there has been some question about who the bride and groom were, and no one has thought that it might have been Simon Krimont’s sister Sophie and another colonist, Alex Kislik, but all the facts in the article, especially a sister called Anuta and the mother and other sisters being present. It is an interesting American journalist’s fly on the wall view of these Russian Jewish young people trying to create a new society.

A wedding among the communistic Jews in Oregon Overland Monthly and Out West Magazine Dec 1885 Vol. VI-39, p606-11

(http://quod.lib.umich.edu/m/moajrnl/ahj1472.2-06.036/612:10?rgn=full+text;view=image)

Yesterday was Sunday, and there was a marriage in the community. Nearly all the members eat and sleep and stagnate – for I can hardly speak of it as living – in a large hall of their own construction: a wretched edifice built of rough boards and un-planed planks, and containing only two apartments, the lower story being the dining room and kitchen both in one, and the upper story a large sleeping room without partitions. In the sleeping room the Community, with the exception of two or three families who live in small shanties, not only sleeps, but lounges – and lounges, too, a good deal of the time – reads, debates, and dances. The bedsteads, which are home-made structures of boards, nailed together in the most flimsy manner, are placed under the eaves in a long row on each side of the room, and the centre is furnished with a rough table for writing. As for reading, the Russians of every type I’ve ever met always read stretched prone upon his bed. On Sunday we had been lounging on our beds most of the morning, taking a late breakfast at 10 o’clock, and going back upstairs to lounge again, or to read the philosophers of evolution, of progress, and social emancipation. About two in the afternoon I descended to the kitchen to enquire for dinner. To my surprise, I found several of the women very busy making dried apple pies and custards – great novelties, the usual dinner at New Odessa being bean soup and hard baked biscuits of unbolted flour called after the name of that wretched dyspeptic Graham….

And to my great surprise, I was told that something even more important was to be celebrated – there was to be a wedding. It was a very sudden affair, a surprise to everyone as well as myself: a young man and woman had made up their minds to enter into matrimony, and it was to be done at once. There was an immediate bustle and hurry in every man in the community trying to find the suit of clothes in which he left Russia. Two or three young girls went into the woods for flowers, and the rafters of the hall, upstairs and down, were soon hung with the flowering branches of the tulip tree. On this great occasion, white cloths instead of oilcloths were spread upon the dining table. The pies were baked with a rush, each pie being inscribed in paste with the initials of the bridegroom and bride.

 The brothers and sisters had been gathered a few moments on the benches in the dining room, when the bridegroom and bride entered. Both parties were young, perhaps 22; the young man well educated, well read in philosophic and romantic literature, and rather good-looking. The bride is noted for her cunning disposition, or what might be called her womanliness; but having her hair cut short, her aspect was that of a strong-minded female. She was very nicely dressed, wore a wreath of white flowers, and looked charming enough to make any man happy. On the arrival of the bridal party, which included the mother and sisters of the bride, a little ceremony took place, in which the young man and woman were understood to unite themselves in the conjugal relation.

Descending on the colony without any knowledge of its philosophy, the American journalist was horrified by the rough furniture and large bare rooms, but this was exactly the aim of the colonists who wanted a completely communal life and the opposite of the fussy Victorian furnishings of the time. He also did not understand the importance to these Russian colonists of reading, studying and debating, and it was a Sunday.

Simon and Sophie’s mother and seven younger siblings had not intended to join New Odessa but events had worked out that way and they were there to attend the wedding. Their father had come to visit the colony in 1883 and had suddenly become ill and died. A year later the rest of the family came from Odessa to Oregon as they no longer had any livelihood in Russia.

The collapse of the colony around 1886 was precipitated by a fire which destroyed part of the house and the entire library, which had been the soul of the community. After that, the Krimont family returned to New York, and a couple of years later, after Simon married my great aunt, he went to Romania to work for an uncle’s shipping company to support his family. Several of his seven sisters in America became pacifist anarchists and helped set up colonies in both England and America which lasted until the 1950s. The colony in England, Whiteway, near Stroud, Gloucestershire, which still exists as bungalows with a meeting house on common land, helped conscientious objectors in both world wars. The colony in New Jersey, Stelton, near New Brunswick, had an innovative school, The Modern School, which influenced later creative and alternative types of education. Although New Odessa was short lived, the ideas of living communally, pacifism and equality for everyone carried on.

The Modern School magazine, 1922

Dormitory and Living House, Stelton, 1915

Bungalow, Whiteway, Gloucestershire

 

 

1 Comment

Filed under emigration, history, places