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Writer explores the life and death of Key Peninsula’s ‘anarchist utopia’

Home is a small bucolic community on the shores of Key Peninsula. One hundred years ago, it also was an anarchists’ enclave and a hotbed of controversy.

Formed with the best intentions of its founders, Home — the experiment — eventually failed. But from 1896 to 1921 it was a thriving community of, at first, like-minded families that rolled with the punches of an outside world that often held them in contempt.

The town’s story is the subject of a new book, “Trying Home — The Rise and Fall of an Anarchist Utopia on Puget Sound” by University of Washington Tacoma librarian Justin Wadland. He will discuss Home on Thursday in a talk on campus.

Q: How did you get interested in Home?

A: I was a graduate student at the University of Washington Information School in the summer of 2002-2003. My job was to catalog these ethnic and special audience newspapers, essentially small community newspapers from all over the Pacific Northwest — Native American, African-American, Jewish. All these communities had their own newspaper (from the 1800s to present). My job was to read some issues of the newspaper, gather some information. While I was working on that I came across The Agitator, which was published in Home. I learned some interesting things about the newspaper and the community.

Q: Who ran The Agitator?

A: Jay Fox. (In 1911) he wrote an article called “The Nude and The Prudes.” It was about a controversy happening in Home about nude bathing. Essentially, a certain group of people bathed on a regular basis sans clothing in the local bay. There were some people who didn’t like that, so they started calling on the local sheriff to arrest their neighbors for indecent exposure. Jay Fox essentially tried to get the community to boycott the conservative, prudish members. He was arrested for that article and was involved in a free-speech case that went to the U.S. Supreme Court.

Q: What effect did it have on Home?

A: It polarized the community into nudes and prudes. It got ugly. Somebody blew up a shack. It got physical at times. It was a symptom of a much larger problem. That episode, in my view, marks the decline of the experiment. It started to unravel after that. It lost its cohesion.

Q: Why did they call it Home?

A: It was said that they chose this name because they were weary of moving and wanted this place to be their home for good.

Q: How would you describe the idea of Home?

A: It was an anarchist experiment. The book title is “Anarchist Utopia,” but they didn’t call it that. Only when it started to fall apart did the newspapers start calling it a utopia. I see them as a group of progressive people in the late 19th century that were really influenced by political and social philosophies.

Q: What were they trying to accomplish?

A: One approach (in that time) was to go out and agitate in urban centers. Really prominent people like (anarchist and social reformer) Emma Goldman would speak to large groups and be involved in protests and labor strikes. They were trying to reform American society at large. Another impulse was to apply these ideas to yourself on a smaller scale in a place. There were all these other utopian experiments in Washington state. Home was the only anarchist one. The founders had participated in a socialist experiment near Tacoma.

Q: A socialist town?

A: It was called Glennis. It didn’t turn out very well. They felt like there were too many rules. Some people did all the work and some people didn’t do any work but they all shared equally. So they decided they were going to do the opposite of Glennis. So they formed a community that has the bare minimum of rules. Any work that is done will be voluntary.

Q: How was Home set up?

A: There was an association that held the land in common. A member would join the association and get 2 acres of land and they would be responsible for taking care of that land, and any improvements they made to that land they would own. So, when they sold the land, they would keep the money for their improvements. They didn’t have rules, but there were unstated expectations. One was being tolerant of anyone’s views.

Q: How did they arrive at the 2-acre-per-family figure?

A: The early colonists believed that 2 acres would provide enough land for a household to subsist. They claimed they arrived at this number by dividing the total number of acres dedicated to agriculture and divided it by the total U.S. population, but later historians have been unable to verify where they got these statistics.

Q: Was there any one type of person that Home attracted?

A: Some were anarchists. Some were socialists. Some were oddball people. It was a spectrum of people.

Q: Today, when we think of anarchists we think of people dressed in black smashing windows in downtown Seattle. These folks in Home seem like agrarian anarchists.

A: In the 19th century, there was the popular view of anarchists and there was the way anarchists saw themselves. Essentially, they believed that human organizations should be self-organizing. It’s not that there are no laws or no rules. If we’re going to come together for some kind of function, transportation — even defense — it should be mutually beneficial and agreed upon. As opposed to having a hierarchical structure with people imposing those rules upon you from the outside. A recent example would be the Occupy movement.

Q: What did the community’s newspapers — New Era, Discontent and Agitator — cover?

A: The newspapers published the writings of the colonists, as well as radicals and anarchists throughout the country. They wrote about the issues they considered important: economic injustice, free speech, women’s rights, the practical application of anarchist principles, just to name a few. But they also included poetry and fiction, as well as news about Home.

Q: At its height what was the population of Home?

A: A little over 200 people, around 1910. And a lot of those were kids.

Q: Didn’t an anarchist assassinate President McKinley in 1901?

A: He identified himself as an anarchist, but he was really just an oddball who attended some talks by Emma Goldman. There was a strain of anarchism that developed this idea called propaganda by the deed. Basically, an act of violence, an assassination of a political figure would cause a revolution among the proletariat. They were not successful, and it usually resulted in more repression for anarchists.

Q: Were the anarchists in Home violent?

A: No. What they liked to say about themselves was that when they wanted to dynamite the stumps in Home they had to ask somebody how to use dynamite. But if there hadn’t been water between Tacoma and Home it would have gotten ugly after the McKinley assassination. The Tacoma papers were saying, “We should exterminate these anarchists. We should wipe them out.” The churches were saying the same thing. That said, there was one Presbyterian minister who visited Home and investigated it and said, “They’re really decent people. We shouldn’t become anarchists ourselves in the attempt to stamp out anarchism.”

Q: Several Home residents were arrested after the McKinley assassination. Why?

A: A lot of these people saw getting arrested as par for the course. When they got arrested, then the courtroom could become a stage and they got media attention. They were arrested for writing about free love.

Q: Can you define that?

A: Most people, when they hear free love, think of hippies, the ’60s. In that era (early 1900s) what it meant was that a couple would be able to choose who they associated with because of love instead of social conventions or your parents have chosen so and so.

Q: I read in your book that the residents had a variety of leisure pursuits and interests: Esperanto, Hatha-Yoga, vegetarianism, fasting, and German and Oriental philosophies. What else did they do for fun and education?

A: Every week they would gather in Liberty Hall or one of the other communal spaces for dancing, singing or a talk. Famous radicals passed through to give speeches. In the later years, they loved to play baseball and would compete against local towns and even travel over to Steilacoom for matches.

Q: Ultimately, what did Home in?

A: The question is not why did it fail, but why did it last so long? One definition of a successful utopia is that it lasts longer than a generation so that the founders are able to pass on the experiment to their children or others. Home lasted about 25 years on paper. But they had few commitment mechanisms. They’re anarchists. They didn’t have rules.

The problems for them really started in 1908, when they changed the land-holding scheme. Rather than holding the land in common, they decided each person would own their land individually. (Previously) that rule weeded out the people who you wouldn’t want to participate in an anarchist experiment. With that (1908 rule change) they could sell the property to anyone. Then they really lost control over who was living in Home, and that’s when more conservative people started to move to Home.

Q: What is Home like today?

A: Home, the association, ended, but all those people stayed in their homes. One of the legacies of Home is that it left a street grid on the hillside. They were planning for a city, but it’s just a small community now. A woman I spoke with knew a lot of the original settlers. She’s a descendant and in her 90s now.

There’s a blinking light, a post office, a restaurant. A lot of the parcels are still 2 acres. You can still see historical homes there. There’s a little historical marker in front of one of the homes.

All the people out there really love it. It’s a beautiful setting.

"Trying Home" book launch and talk

With: Author Justin Wadland.

When: 7-8 p.m. Thursday.

Where: Tioga Library Building, Third Floor Atrium, University of Washington Tacoma, 1900 Commerce St., Tacoma.

Trying Home: An Ice Cream Social in Home

When: 2-3:30 p.m. Aug. 23.

Where: Cape E Farm & Vineyard, 17215 Seventh Ave., Lakebay.

Craig Sailor: 253-597-8541