Birthing worldwide communism with Karl Marx must have been hard work for Frederich Engels, but in 1844 he drew hope and encouragement from Skaneateles. In an essay entitled, “Description of Recently Founded Communist Colonies Still In Existence,” he detailed communist successes in the United States and directed his readers’ attention to a “settlement in the State of New York at Skaneateles which was founded by J. A. Collins, an English Socialist, in the spring of 1843 with thirty members.”
Engels continued, saying, “The Americans are tired of continuing as the slaves of the few rich men who feed on the labour of the people; and it is obvious that with the great energy and endurance of this nation, community of goods will soon be introduced over a significant part of their country.”
The colony that gladdened the heart of Engels was “The Skaneateles Community” or “Community Place,” founded by John Anderson Collins, a New Englander who had discovered Skaneateles while on tour to advocate the abolition of slavery. In 1843, Collins shifted his focus from Abolition to more sweeping reforms. Encouraged by the existence of more than 40 other Utopian communities in the United States, Collins sought to create his own commune on a farm just two miles north of the Village of Skaneateles.
With $5,000 of his own money and a $10,000 mortgage, Collins purchased 300 acres and recruited members for the Community at “grove meetings.” Not wanting to appear autocratic, he allowed one more name on the deed, that of a Syracuse lawyer named Quincy Johnson.
For every person who admires an idealist, there is another who sees him as a chump. Johnson, described by one of his contemporaries as a “long headed, tonguey lawyer,” gathered his partisans and debated every question, whether it was the dinner menu, the site of a sawmill or the existence of God. When Collins published his “Articles of Belief and Disbelief” — which included disbelief in religion, civil government and marriage — Johnson portrayed himself as shocked at the Community’s godlessness and immorality. Not that he had any plans to leave.
Because Collins maintained that anyone was welcome at the Community and that no outside law would be resorted to, he was stuck with Johnson. And Johnson, in a community of shared possessions, somehow managed to lay claim to more than half of the community’s wealth in less than two year’s time. Finally, there was his name on the deed. In the end, after two years of decrying the horrors of the Community, he left in consideration of “quite a round sum of money.”
Torn from within, the Community also endured barbs from without. A letter writer to the Skaneateles Columbian referred to the Community as “a Babel springing up in the neighborhood of the beautiful Skaneateles to pollute its pure air and to mar its fair prospects.” Remember that the Community existed for less than three years, and then consider this headline from The Skaneateles Press a full ninety years later: “Natives Scandalized By 1843 Community Of Atheism, Anarchy.” Say “free love” once, and you capture the public imagination forever.
So what was daily life like in this hotbed? Accounts of contemporary observers suggest that it was less than the neighbors imagined. A few marriages were entered into without benefit of clergy, but there was no “adultery or fornication or promiscuous sexual behavior.” There was no alcohol, and while tobacco was permitted, it was “out of favor” with most members. People worked all day and attended lectures in the evening. A meal might be a slice of bread soaked in milk, or a boiled wheat, rice and Graham mush, or a cup of tea with bread and butter. Butter, salt and milk were kept under lock and key. Those who appeared at table with meat were chided for bringing in something from a graveyard.
Less than three years after founding the Skaneateles Community, Collins had had enough of Utopia. Weary and disillusioned, he left in May of 1846, giving his share of the assets to the few people who remained. Skaneateles historian Edmund Leslie noted that the colony expired due to debt, but this only adds luster to Leslie’s reputation as the man who always got it wrong. In fact, by all other accounts, the property had doubled in value in less than three years of communism, and those remaining members who sold it made a modest profit.
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An outbuilding today, at the site of The Community Place, on the grounds of today’s Frog Pond Bed & Breakfast.
Community Place is presently the Frog Pond Bed & Breakfast, in the commune’s original main building, with a reception hall in the original barn which has been renovated for weddings and other festive gatherings.
Sources: “Description of Recently Founded Communist Colonies Still In Existence!” by Frederich Engels, Deutsches Bargerbuch far 1845; History of American Socialisms (1870) by John Humphrey Noyes; Skaneateles: History of its Earliest Settlement and Reminiscences of Later Times (1902) by Edmund Norman Leslie; “Natives Scandalized” by Elizabeth Pyke, The Skaneateles Press, November 18, 1934; The Skaneateles Experiment: 1843-1846 by Lester Grosvenor Wells, Onondaga Historical Society, 1953.