Chapter 8: From the Pages of the Commonwealth

An issue of the Kaweah Commonwealth, published weekly from the Colony on the first steam-operated press in Tulare County. (Photo courtesy The [new] Kaweah Commonwealth)

Everybody happy. (The Kaweah Commonwealth, July 12, 1890)


Scanning the pages of the Kaweah Commonwealth, can one really get an accurate account of what life was like for the colonists? It has been argued that as a reliable historical source, the Colony-published newspaper is terribly lacking — even misleading. The paper was a blatant promotional tool by which the Colony organizers sold memberships to fund their utopian endeavor. In this respect, the Commonwealth was pure propaganda. Contemporaries labeled it a “booming sheet.”

While it is true that nearly all negative copy concerning life at Kaweah was filtered out, the resulting rose-tinted view presented by the Commonwealth does offer an interesting, albeit slanted, glimpse of Colony life. Any one of the 96 issues published at Kaweah contain a wealth of historical detail. And the Arcadian picture painted of the spring and summer of 1890 had at least some basis in truth. This is not to say that all the Commonwealth ever reported on were picnics, concerts, and ball games. The newspaper itself was part of an internal dispute that played out in the pages of the weekly journal.

DELIVERY OF ISSUE HALTED

Weekly publication of The Kaweah Commonwealth at Advance had been made possible by acquisition of what was billed as the first steam-operated press in all of Tulare County. Dr. M.A. Hunter had turned the press over to the Colony in exchange for membership, time checks, and cash when he joined. For the first few months, Hunter served as editor of the Colony-published journal, and the paper generally carried editorials — sermons might be the better term — of a high moral nature by Hunter.

In the March 8, 1890, issue, Hunter wrote one such editorial advocating “true democratic principles” in ruling the Colony and called for “preliminary steps calling for a general election of officers.” His primary complaint centered on the “indefinite continuance in office by incumbent [trustees], limited only by a demand for a removal.” It was not removal anyone sought, but simply a regular general election making such a choice available. This set off a controversy resulting in some political maneuvering by Martin and Haskell. A battle between the so-called Power Element (Haskell et al.) and the Democratic Element was reminiscent of the schism between the Haskell and Keller factions two years before.

Colony Secretary James Martin, with an office in Visalia, held up distribution and mailing of the issue containing Hunter’s bold editorial, and Burnette Haskell, based in San Francisco, took control of the situation. Haskell focused the ensuing debate on the manner in which the general membership could nominate and vote on officers; but as most members were non-residents of the Colony, the real issue was to whom and how information would be disseminated to these members. Haskell and Martin realized that whoever controlled the Commonwealth in effect controlled the Colony.

Before all was said and done, further controversy erupted over the publishing and releasing of members’ names and addresses, which Haskell warned should be kept secret. One account even claimed that “Mr. Haskell stated that someone had given the list of members to the San Francisco Star, and that he had one George Moore secure employment in the Star office and steal the list.”

Nonetheless, by summer the Colony had weathered the storm of internal schism one more time. By publishing weekly from the Colony itself, the local editorship of the Commonwealth represented a growing position of power and influence. Haskell recognized this and, by the sheer force of his bullying personality, took back complete control of the Commonwealth, Hunter having been “severely abused” at a meeting that he was said to have “left in tears and resigned” as editor. The Democratic Element continued to battle Haskell, producing their own propaganda and trying to appeal to the non-resident membership, but by the time elections were finally held in July, Haskell and Martin were returned as Trustees.

The Commonwealth, which the Democratic Element maintained was “not a truthful informer of events,” printed the following account of Hunter’s reaction to the election results:

Dr. M.A. Hunter, rising to his feet, commenced an address to the audience which had a most startling effect. He reviewed his long years of connection with the labor movement, and how in his old age he had come to Kaweah with his all, had laid it upon the Altar of Truth, had turned over to the Colony his valuable machinery, printing plant and other matter with the hope that he was standing upon the bed-rock of freedom; that he had come here for better or worse to pass his remaining years in peace and hoped to lie his bones to rest amid the sacred bonds of brotherhood and principles of co-operation; when he had reached the point of his impressive eloquence, the Doctor’s eyes were seen to fill and it was at once apparent that he was about to break down; Secretary Martin rushed forward and clasped him by the hand; this was a signal for the whole audience to rise like one man and leaping over benches, etc., hand after hand was extended and grasped in a shake of true confidence, love and manliness.

MAY DAY PICNIC

The Commonwealth, even while the dispute over its control simmered, took every opportunity to depict life at Kaweah as a picnic. In May 1890, the paper reported on May Day festivities in the neighboring village of Three Rivers, which were attended by several dozen Kaweah colonists. After reading the account, it is easy to imagine “everyone happy.” Music, baseball, and fellowship filled the day, and neighbors became friends. Reporter Laurence Frost painted an idyllic picture when he described how the group of members, including the Colony band “traveled together to the ford of the North Fork, then past Halstead’s till we reached the ford of the main river, where we were joined by Mr. Braddock.”

As the river was too high to cross [the report continued] we unhitched, and having provided for the comfort of our animals, commenced to cross the suspension bridge. Having eventually reached the other side, Captain Plaisted formed us into line, paired according to height, and Comrade Vest acting as Drum Major with a bat for a staff, followed by Dillon as Standard bearer of the immortal stripes, the band, then the ball team, after which the various camp followers…marked time as the band struck up “Welcome Quickstep” and played us into the corral of Mr. Chris Butman’s ranch.

The Kaweah people were introduced to the various notabilities of the district. Among the names we heard prominently mentioned were those of Messrs. Blossom, senior and junior, the oldest ranchers in these parts having settled here way back in the sixties.

Mrs. Blossom, a tall and graceful young lady, wore her fair hair in frizzy bangs. Miss H. Bahwell rode to the grounds in a habit of dark ladies cloth with a light Basque trimmed with white lace. Mrs. Trauger, from Mineral King road, wore a dress of dark alpaca.

It was 11:30 before the teams could get into action, the delay being caused by the non-arrival of Mr. Clark, the splendid first base man of the Lime Kiln Club. Our band, however, caused the time to while pleasantly away.

The report then went on to give an account of the game — Lime Kiln beat Kaweah 6 to 0, and the paper made a point of noting the “conspicuous and pleasant absence of all bickering or disputing over the decisions of the umpire.”

After the conclusion of the match [reporter Frost continued], Mr. Warren, on behalf of the residents of Lime Kiln, Three Rivers and adjacent country invited the Kaweah visitors to lunch, elaborate provision for which had been made. During the preparation of the luncheon, our band played by special request: Capriel, Tube Rose Waltz, and Overture Queen City. The Pogue’s band joined in with ours, much to the delight of the audience.

A RIVER RUNS THROUGH IT

Will Purdy, in his poem “Kaweah: The Saga of the Old Colony,” described how at the Colony “[t]he river ripples blithely over stones, or roils thru pools with soothing undertones.”

Not always so blithely rippling — Purdy also described the river as “that brawling stream down plunging e’er with zest” — in any event, it played a major role in the everyday lives of the Kaweah colonists.

First there was the problem of crossing the river. When the Colony was established there were no substantial bridges across either the Middle Fork or the North Fork of the Kaweah River. Small suspension bridges, on which a single person could cross, were prominent during the Colony days and before, built by the local ranchers, but horse teams with wagons or buckboards had to cross the river by fording. This was easily accomplished during much of the year, but considerably more difficult during winter storms and the heavy spring runoff.

Construction of a ferry by the Colony solved the problem. Before its existence, “during the rainy season, goods hauled from beyond had to be trans-shipped and carried by hand over a very primitive suspension bridge, so frail that…more than a single person is forbidden to be on the structure at one time.” Crossing on the ferry, which was a wooden barge attached to cables and which utilized the current to propel it across the river, was described in the Commonwealth as “exceedingly refreshing. The river runs very swift and breaks and surges against the punt, making it appear as though it were traveling at great speed.”

The first attempt at building the ferry, however, wasn’t successful. An account in the Commonwealth in May 1890 reported:

On Sunday morning Comrade Carpenter drove our light spring wagon to the ferry accompanied by Comrades Christie, Miles and Bloomfield. Two Comrades attempted the passage with the wagon, some harness and our mail as freight, and a horse swimming behind. From some cause the boat became a wreck, the wagon went to the bottom of the river, and the harness and mail bags had disappeared.

The rebuilt ferry was far more successful. It was reported that a “four horse leaded team can drive on and cross easily.”

In addition to providing a continuing obstacle, the river was also a vital resource and much used recreation site. As summer arrived in earnest, the Commonwealth noted that “bathing is a pleasure much indulged in at present, the water just getting warm enough to be enjoyable; during the early part of the season when the snow is melting, the water is too cold to be comfortable, but now it is delightful.”

The Colony newspaper also reported that “trout fishing is fashionable now. Nearly every day we see someone en route for the river with the usual outfit used on such occasions.” The promotional-minded journal admitted, however, that “the trout is a hard fish to capture and it takes an expert angler to supply the family basket.” Perhaps colonist Philip Winser provided a more accurate fishing report when he wrote in his memoirs that as a source of fish, the North Fork “was not much; trout lived in the cold higher reaches — suckers and steelhead constituted the fish stock [near Kaweah] and were not much sought after.”

MEASLES, BROKEN BATS, AND A POST OFFICE

One regular section of The Kaweah Commonwealth, called “Colony Notes,” featured newsy blurbs and social tidbits, some as brief as the “Everybody happy” declaration quoted at the beginning of this chapter. Subsequent notes in that same issue included such messages as “Several strangers are among us” and “Twenty-four horses were accommodated at Advance last week” and “There is a large number of visiting Comrades sojourning at Advance; the unanimity and harmony prevailing must be very inspiring.” Some blurbs provided a little more detail:

The unavoidable absence of Mrs. Goodwin was noticed by all of us during the 4th of July. She has charge of the culinary matters now at the mill site which is situated in a most attractive spot.

There was even one item that dared to report on something less than happy, inspiring, or attractive:

The measles are prevalent in camp, the following is a list of the afflicted: George Miles, Effie and George Dillon, Dora Tousley, Ida Boggs and Merritt Carpenter. The patients are doing well as the disease has assumed a mild form.

Under the headline “Fourth of July Base Ball” ran an account of “a little ball game worth mentioning.” It seems that nearly “all the comrades” were at Advance, down from road or mill work because of the holiday and a General Meeting scheduled the following day. At Comrade O’Farrell’s flat about a mile down canyon from Advance the big game was played. Teams were chosen with Howard Plaisted pitching for one team and Al Redstone for the other. The Commonwealth described some of the game’s highlights:

Pitcher Plaisted stopped a terrific liner and threw the player out at first. There was no pause in the game nor remark from the pitcher, but a swelling on his wrist the size of a hickory nut showed afterward what the play had cost…Visitor W.T. Hunter and Comrade Botsford had made a pretty double play, when Comrade Waldo Miles took up the bat and struck a high-flyer to centre-field, smashing the bat in the operation. Comrade Hambly saw that ball and went for it. The ball equally went for him and rolled him over handsomely but he came up smiling with the ball in his hands and the side was out. Likewise the game for want of a bat, so the score was announced 15 to 5 in favor of Redstone.

Then, as now, sports reporters could be trusted to provide colorful accounts of the action. 

One other item in that same issue of the Colony newspaper did offer a straight news event, announcing the establishment of a U.S. Post Office at Advance. Reporting that “a petition numerously signed asking for a post office” had been sent to Washington some three months prior, the paper noted that “as a result a post office was regularly opened on Monday, July 8th,” with H.S. Hubbard, who had been serving as local carrier, in charge. The article then went on to urge all colonists to “send their letters through the office as far as possible, both for safety of delivery and in order that the quarterly report may make as good a showing as possible.” The future of their mail facilities, the report maintained, depended on such cooperation. “This is Post Official!”

THE WOMEN OF KAWEAH

It is also possible, via the pages of the Commonwealth, to get some idea of how Colony society presented itself to the outside world versus how it really operated. Take, for example, their attitude toward women.

Women were, in theory, on a completely equal footing with men in the Kaweah Colony. They could become members, had an “equal voice and vote in the affairs” of the Colony, and were entitled to an equal wage for their labor. In practice, however, it appears women were subjected to many of the conventional discriminations of the time. On the Board of Trustees for the Colony, no women ever served. Of the 10 or so department superintendents, the name of a woman was a rarity. Among the few examples were Mrs. Christie’s service as Domestic Superintendent or Miss Kate Redstone and Miss Mate Hildebrandt as Bureau Chiefs in the Department of Education — kindergarten teacher and music instructor, respectively.

The Kaweah Colony was in reality a man’s world. The women were generally seen as wives or daughters who served as homemakers and, in their leisure time, purveyors of culture. It was at the many cultural events — musical entertainments, concerts and literary evenings — that the women made a name for themselves at Kaweah. The pages of the Commonwealth would often praise the musical talents of Mrs. Ting, Miss Hildebrandt, Mrs. Frost, or Jennie Evans. Social gatherings often featured dramatic recitations by such culturally active women as Kate Redstone and Mrs. Brann. And poetry written by Marie Sandberg, Jennie Sturtevant, or Jeannie Peet often graced the pages of the weekly journal.

What these women did accomplish was to bring culture — a sense of finer society — to what was basically a pioneer camp. The tent homes maintained by women such as Mrs. Redstone or Mrs. Ting belied the coarse, temporary nature of the canvas. They were carpeted with homemade rugs, walls lined with tapestry, and decorated with pictures, baskets, and “all those things which make up a home.” These women made sure the finer arts complemented the natural beauty of where they now lived.

Colony founder Burnette Haskell, in an otherwise bitter article he penned after the demise of the endeavor, wrote:

I have no words except of praise for the women of Kaweah; the men did most of the gossiping, kicking [complaining], and loafing; the women were uniformly kind, cheerful, hard-working, and patient. They cooked, washed, baked, sewed, canned fruit, and on one notable occasion… they fought a forest fire for twenty hours and by their heroic work, attested by burned and bleeding hands and faces, saved that glorious plateau [Giant Forest] for posterity.”

The episode of which Haskell made note was reported in the Commonwealth as well. Explaining that most of the men working the mill were down below at Advance for a General Meeting, the paper reported that only Mrs. Theophilus, Mrs. Bishop along with her daughter, and Comrade Saint-Dizier were up at the Mill camp. A fire started and “in this emergency all the afternoon and night of Saturday Mr. Saint-Dizier, Mrs. Theophilus and Mrs. Bishop, the latter with her baby most of the time on her arm, fought the flames with water in buckets and wet blankets until finally its course was turned down the gully and the mill was saved.”

The nature of the praise these women received, together with the fact that they were not in attendance at the General Meeting and thus apolitical citizens in the Colony, speaks volumes on their true place in Colony society. This was perhaps unfortunate, for Haskell believed, in the end, that the women possessed a greater sense of cooperative responsibility than many men, citing that he had “seen a woman getting in firewood with an ax and bucksaw in plain sight of thirteen men gathered for six solid hours around a stump excitedly discussing a rule of order improperly construed at the last meeting.”

SOURCES:  While numerous reports and articles from both The Commonwealth (the monthly journal published from San Francisco) and The Kaweah Commonwealth (the weekly newspaper published at Kaweah) are the principle sources for much of this chapter, other sources include the Visalia Weekly Delta; Phil Winser’s unpublished manuscript, “Memories;” Burnette Haskell’s Out West article, “How Kaweah Failed”; and a circular by Alfred Cridge entitled “Korrekt Kritique on the Kaweah Ko-Operative Kolony” issued to the non-resident members of the K.C.C. from the Democratic Element (Kaweah Collection, Visalia Public Library).

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