Old-Time Libertarian Community: The Ferrer Colony of Stelton, New Jersey

On a rainy day in May of 1915, the first settlers of the Ferrer Colony of Stelton got off their train from New York and walked about a mile to their new homes. The crowd on its way to the old farmstead included 32 children who would be enrolled in the radical school that anchored the community.

While there was no political test to participate, committed anarchists and reformers with libertarian leanings were the driving force behind the school and made up a large number of Stelton residents. They were leaving the city behind to build a community where the Modern School model of Francisco Ferrer could be tested away from the struggles and investigations that the school in New York could not avoid. The community they founded was not without its problems, but it would grow and thrive for years, creating a pocket of freedom that nurtured many students and gave all residents a chance to participate in cooperative living that respected their individual liberty. Even after the community lost its identity and the school closed in 1953, many former residents recall their time at Stelton as a good time that shaped them into the people they are today.

The Martyred Educator

Francisco Ferrer was born on a farm near Barcelona in 1859. He fled to France in 1885 after a failed republican uprising against the Spanish monarchy. While in France, Ferrer was heavily influenced by anarchist thought and inspired by a libertarian school he saw. A wealthy French woman whom Ferrer had tutored in Spanish left him half of her estate when she died. He returned to Barcelona in 1901 and used his new money to found the Modern School.

Ferrer schools were intended to help students – children and adults – pursue self-realization by providing them with opportunities to develop their knowledge and skills. They avoided drilled instruction, planned lessons, and strict schedules. Modern School education emphasized the individuality of each student, the concept of education as a continuous, lifetime process, and the need to learn through experience and the integration of physical and intellectual activity. The schools were to improve individual lives as well as society by making services available to everyone. Tuition was kept low to attract working class families, and boys and girls learned together.

Ferrer was arrested after the Spanish military suppressed an uprising against conscription in Barcelona during the summer of 1909, an event known as the Tragic Week. It was a convenient excuse for church and state to get rid of a man who created schools that undermined their rule. Ferrer was executed on October 13, 1909 to international outrage.

In June 1910 the Francisco Ferrer Association was formed in New York City. While the Ferrer Association was not a strictly anarchist project, from the beginning anarchists took leading roles in the organization. Emma Goldman and Alexander Berkman were prominent Ferrer Association figures, Voltairine de Cleyre had a number of important roles, and a significant number of those who lived in Stelton were anarchists or people with libertarian sympathies.

Harry Kelly, an anarchist who served as the first professional organizer of the Ferrer Association wrote in 1913 that a “libertarian impulse” was at the base of the Association’s work.

The predominating spirit is anarchistic; yet it cannot be too strongly insisted on that the association as such is not committed to any special economic theory or political ideal… The interpretation of freedom and justice and how to attain them differ, but free expression of opinion and interchange of ideas is the working method.

The Ferrer Center of New York became an important anchor for educational experiments and adult programs, with Jack London, Will Durant, Margaret Sanger, Lincoln Steffens, Clarence Darrow, and Elizabeth Gurley Flynn all passing through its doors. Men and women of all economic classes came to the Ferrer Center to learn and socialize. Ferrer Association leaders debated whether a setting away from urban life would be better for the development of the school. The decision was tipped in favor of moving in the summer of 1914, when a bomb intended to avenge violence against workers and protesters exploded in a New York apartment, killing four people who had attended lectures at the Ferrer Center.

The Pioneers

It was felt to be unfair to the children and harmful to their development as free spirits to grow up in an atmosphere of violent partisanship and fierce revolutionary ardor inevitable with men and women engaged in a daily struggle with the powers of darkness. – Harry Kelly

The Ferrer Colony of Stelton began with the purchase of 140 acres of farmland about a mile from the train station in Stelton, New Jersey, near the city of New Brunswick. Lots of 1-2 acres were sold to families for $150 an acre, allowing for a small profit to build infrastructure and maintain the school. The arrangement became so popular that two additional tracts of land were added later. On May 16, 1915, 32 students moved in as over a hundred adults and well-wishers accompanied them.

The Ferrer Colony had little formal organization beyond that required for external legal purposes. It had a rough start as the settlers, who were mostly uprooted city residents, needed to build almost all of the housing and infrastructure from scratch. Funding for materials was difficult to acquire, the old farmstead had little wood that could be used, and the soil was not very fertile. Community members and supporters volunteered their labor for construction. It was tough to hold on through the first winter, but by 1920 the Colony was home to 150 year-round residents.

Individual Liberty, Strong Community

Individualist and community spirit were the complimentary strands that tied Stelton together. While the school grounds and dormitory belonged to the organization, the rest of the land was owned by individuals or families. There were no building codes. Some people lived in shacks or tents as they constructed their permanent homes. A few of the old Stelton cottages still stand today, usually with large additions. Roads were established and maintained by volunteers, though the low volume of traffic did not lend urgency to this project.

Many residents recalled a sense of community and belonging, and of close relations with neighbors. They typically did not lock their doors and children often felt welcome in any home. A few cooperative ventures, including a general store and a garment factory sprung up.

Free Children

We never told a child to behave himself with an implied ‘or else I will make you behave’. The quiet admonition was always ‘control yourself’ … In other words, by saying “You control yourself’ we threw the responsibility to where it belonged, on the individual, himself. – Jo Ann Wheeler Burbank, teacher and parent at Stelton.

Childhood at Stelton lacked much of the formal structure found at traditional schools. Children at the school typically set and pursued their own learning goals. Education could involve playing games, starting – and even finishing – projects in the woodshop or garden, or reading a book of the student’s choice and asking the teacher for help. A desire to be able to do what other kids were doing could motivate a course of study. Children learned to read at different ages, and some learned algebra at an early age.

Not surprisingly, many Modern School graduates recall their youth fondly. A number of them gather every year for the Friends of the Modern School reunion at Rutgers University – now 60 years since the school closed. One of the active alumni, Bob Vinik, took us on a tour of the old Ferrer Colony grounds for a video in the Head First history adventure series.

“There was no specific time we had to be there, and we could stay until we decided to leave,” Bob said. If a child got interested in something, he or she would ask one of the teachers about it and they would explain, often causing other children to gather and listen. Bob underscores that the school taught him how to learn, something that has been useful throughout his life.

Do-It-Yourself

We did everything ourselves – we were gardeners, we were typesetters, we were cooks – we did everything with our own two hands. Instead of merely reading A Midsummer Night’s Dream, we put on the play, and put it on outdoors. The grownups got involved too. I never avoided taking part in anything, whereas in high school everything seemed like a chore, even though I always got good marks … Stelton was not only a school but a community; it wasn’t just education – it was living. – Ray Miller

Education at Stelton was designed to cultivate responsibility in the children. The school had a weekly meeting where children could make suggestions on school policy and make decisions on matters of discipline. Though they did not always make the best decisions, when an innocent person had to weed the garden as a punishment for stealing a radish this too was part of the learning process. Kids were taught to read only when they wanted to be taught, but they produced their own newsletter using woodcuts and a printing press.

Many students excelled academically after entering conventional schools, many going to high school in New Brunswick. Graduates include professors, doctors, and at least one professional dancer. Joan Scott acted on her initiative to form a successful theatrical talent agency. Edgar Tafel worked closely as an apprentice with the famous architect Frank Lloyd Wright.

Historian Paul Avrich wrote that regardless of their vocation or political beliefs, the majority of Modern School graduates he encountered “have carried away a strong cooperative and libertarian ethic, a spirit of mutual aid and individual sovereignty, which has remained with them throughout their adult years.” They retained “a certain freshness of outlook, a measure of self-confidence, a degree of versatility,” which distinguished them as a group from graduates of traditional schools.

The Radical Suburb

Stelton was not intended to be a self-sufficient community, though its gardens and chicken coops, and sometimes cooperatives, helped its residents sustain themselves. Many residents were first-time homeowners who commuted on the railroad to jobs in New York City garment trades. The community at Stelton gave them something worth moving for.

At Stelton people from established American families of Anglo-Saxon origin interacted daily with immigrants and children of recent immigrants, many of them of Eastern European Jewish background. The radical ideas of immigrants and American social reformers were discussed at length: anarchism, communism, individualism, Georgism. They all shared a strong sense of the value of education and desired an alternative to schools that taught conformity and allegiance.

The method of land acquisition – buying a large area, dividing it into cheap plots, and using profits for community development – enabled many immigrants to become American homeowners. This anchor may have helped them weather repression better than their comrades in urban tenements. During the First Red Scare in the years after World War I, federal agents visited the colony and a report by a district attorney urged that every inhabitant of the colony be deported. Joseph Cohen, the Stelton resident and school organizer who had confronted vigilantes and federal agents, believed that the government simply “did not have the nerve” to uproot an entire community of property owners.

The school was not the only social space at the Ferrer Colony. The Kropotkin Library was not only fully-stocked with books, but also served as a meeting place, especially for anarchists. The building included an apartment for Hippolyte Havel, who edited Emma Goldman’s Mother Earth publication, at least “when he was sober.” Goldman herself came to speak at the Ferrer Colony in the summer of 1916. While the library room has been torn down, Havel’s residence has been renovated and had an addition added. The historic marker at 79 School Street stands in front of it.

The Ferrer Colony required hard work to organize, build, and maintain the school, but it also provided opportunities to relax. Swimming in Ambrose Brook was a common activity. Events in the warmer months offered some nice picnic time to urban radicals.

Modern School Drawbacks

Not surprisingly for such a radical and far-reaching experiment in education, the Modern School had its drawbacks. It required the right teachers: people who knew where to draw the line, how to encourage certain lessons and accommodate different learning styles, offered guidance without authoritarian instruction, and set boundaries without impinging on freedom. And it was not easy to find them, or to find money to pay them. There is also the question of whether children who do not learn to read until they are ten years old have less autonomy than they would if they were encouraged to start younger.

Leonard Rico has mixed feelings about the Modern School. He felt that some elements of his education and exposure to the outside world were limited, and this made his later education more challenging. Yet the professor of economics and labor relations did think that the school and colony had a unique and immense positive impact on the development of his personal qualities.

Conflicts between teachers and parents with different expectations arose, and there were passionate disagreements on how the school should be run. The Modern School also rarely had a stable source of adequate funding.

But it isn’t fair to compare the Modern School to a hypothetical perfect model. In many ways it compares favorably to existing models of education, especially that of today’s government schools where politicians bully their rules down the hierarchy and high-paid administrators cut funding for anything that doesn’t prioritize standardized test training. The freedom that children enjoyed at the Modern School showed how much free people in a supportive environment seek knowledge, and how much they will hold onto their values when they move to a new environment.

Because the Modern School model did not catch on widely there was little competition in Modern School education. Teachers did sometimes move or establish their own schools elsewhere in the region, however. Fewer options means fewer choices, but the Modern School did offer an excellent choice with opportunities to make decisions and direct one’s own learning.

Problems and Dissolution

The Ferrer Colony itself had issues, and eventually was unable to maintain its identity in the face of assimilating and apathetic outside influences.

The strong convictions of its settlers and the stake they felt in the community led to arguments, though by all accounts there was almost no violence in the community besides childhood fights. People got along or they moved out. The community was relatively poor and isolated, but residents were usually not deprived, at least after the rude awakening of the first winter. Speakers and events at the school improved the cultural life of the community, but it continued to drift away from prominence and influence in radical circles.

At times the community had a litter problem, which, combined with the rudimentary construction of early buildings, made unsympathetic outsiders look at the Ferrer Colony as a rural slum. But this was probably a sign of people adapting to a new environment, and residents often show an appreciation for Stelton’s natural surroundings in their love of trees and the brook, and in the numerous hikes they took. Another problem was the eccentrics and diet fads that came and went as the community held its doors open to peaceable people and new ideas.

Anarchist historian George Woodcock marked the year 1939, with the fascist defeat of anarchist Catalonia and the lack of a major resurgence in the wider movement, as the end of the classical anarchist movement. The Ferrer Colony outlasted this decline by over a decade. Yet by the early 1950s it could no longer command the fierce dedication that it once did.

A major factor in the downfall of the community was the construction of Camp Kilmer on neighboring farmland during World War II. The fence of the base was directly against properties in the Ferrer Colony, and ignorant soldiers sometimes came to the “free love colony” they had heard about looking for a good time. Military Police tore through the neighborhood. Residents who had previously left their doors unlocked now had to deal with petty crime and worry about the safety of the children. By the 1950s, the area around the Ferrer Colony was undergoing development, and the Ferrer Colony was no longer an isolated settlement. People moving to the area during the 1950s did not really know or care much about the school and it became lost as a community anchor.

Yet the Ferrer Colony was no failure for the people who loved it, and it will continue to be a worthwhile experiment so long as its results are known to history. A common culture of radicalism and education held people together as a community, and the health of the school directly related to the Ferrer Colony’s status as a unique place. Residents adopted shared community norms until there were no longer enough interested people to keep it going. It remains unknown exactly where the tipping point for a population to accept a set of values lies, but there are surely lessons in the libertarian village that now lies hidden in the suburbs.

A Lasting Impact

The Ferrer Colony did not grow into a wider anarchist society, but it was a real libertarian space that was experienced by hundreds of people. What the Ferrer Colony did accomplish was provide opportunities for people to improve their lives and their children’s lives by acquiring property around a great school that respected students’ individuality and provided opportunities to succeed in their chosen fields to a much greater degree than a typical school. Children were not indoctrinated into any particular belief system but were instilled with generally libertarian and cooperative ethics. Stelton residents brought their experiences with them, some to teach at other radical and conventional schools. The Ferrer Colony was a practical project, motivated by libertarian beliefs, that had a real positive impact on many people’s lives.

Further Reading

Avrich, Paul. The Modern School Movement: Anarchism and Education in the United States. AK Press, 2006. Quote from Miller, 253; graduates he has met, 385.

Head First Video: The Modern School of Stelton. Head First, January 31, 2013. http://headfirstadventures.com/2013/01/31/head-first-video-the-modern-school-of-stelton/

Sacharoff, Victor, Jon Thoreau Scott, et al., Recollections From the Modern School Ferrer Colony. The Friends of the Modern School, 2007. Burbank quote, xxvi; Leonard Rico account, 100; student meeting 61; Hippolyte Havel 62.

Veysey, Laurence R. The Communal Experience: Anarchist and Mystical Communities in Twentieth-century America. University of Chicago Press, 1978. Harry Kelly quotes, 82, 107; Cohen on Red Scare 131.

Woodcock, George. Anarchism: A History of Libertarian Ideas and Movements. Broadview Press, 2004.

Worden, Darian. The Modern School Movement: An Educational Experiment in America, 1910-1958. Digital History Project. http://themodernschools.wordpress.com

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