Published on October 13th, 2014 | by Rachel Ervin1
Radical Roots: talking Home with Justin Wadland
Over breakfast one morning, my husband and I were talking about the town of Home, Washington, an area on the Key Peninsula that was founded as an experimental anarchist colony in 1896. Having just come home from a trip to the South – through southeastern Texas into Louisiana down to New Orleans – our discussions have focused almost entirely on why we love living in the Northwest and Tacoma in particular. A recent reading of Justin Wadland’s Trying Home: The Rise and Fall of an Anarchist Utopia on Puget Sound has helped to bring a bit of historical and political context to our “calling” as PNWers.
I was able to talk with Justin, a Tacoma author and University of Washington Tacoma librarian to hear more of his thoughts on Home, its connection to Tacoma, and his upcoming talk and PBS special inspired by his research.
As a native Californian, living in Tacoma has been unlike anywhere I have ever lived. It’s a mixture of the environment – the beauty and greenery, being able to go five miles outside of the city and feel like you’re in the wilderness – and the sense of community. I talk to my neighbors. We share meals and politics. Maybe it’s the size of the city and pace, but maybe it’s more. I wanted to discover the roots of this region’s radical culture, and Trying Home seemed like a good place to start.
It’s no secret to the rest of the country that our state (at least this side of it) is full of progressives. As this scholarly article astutely points out, we were one of the first to legalize both marijuana and gay marriage in one fell election cycle swoop. But has it always been that way? Is there something in the water – or maybe between the bodies of water – that inspires our Northwest communities to fight for social change?
At the turn of the last century, Washington became a hotbed of utopian experimentation, fueled by the notion that real progress was possible and that these “city upon a hill” communities could act as models for future generations. These towns varied in their political stances; some were centered on socialist principles, others, like Home, were based on anarchy, and as the book states, “Anarchism, as presented here, is an optimistic philosophy with faith in the inherent moral strength of humankind.” (14)
Citizenship of Home was, in its early years, defined as being a common shareholder of the land where only the improvements to the property could be owned by its builders. As time went on and Home became more attractive, people from various backgrounds congregated to the town, and the initial agreement lost popularity. Once the landholding scheme changed and Home citizens were allowed to sell their individual properties, the only thing that identified Home as an anarchist colony was its shared ideology: that people should mind their own business and that each person govern themselves.
The experiment began to unravel when some newcomers took offense to Home members exercising their self-governance by bathing in Joe’s Bay in the nude. Wadland’s talk at the Washington State History Museum this Thursday, a Scholarly Selections titled “Nudes vs. Prudes: The free speech fight that ruined Home,” will focus on this particular scandal of the experiment, which proved to be the beginning of the end for Home.
“It’s an interesting episode because there are a number of things going on. One is that the anarchist Jay Fox who moved to Home as an established agitator, became involved in this nude bathing controversy. Over the summer of 1911, certain individuals began calling on the Deputy Sheriff to arrest the bathers. Jay Fox felt this was in violation of the principals of the colony so he wrote this article called ‘The Nude and the Prudes,’” Wadland tells me.
What started as a seemingly innocuous issue over nude bathing quickly escalated to a fight over freedom of speech.
Fox’s article ‘The Nude and the Prudes’ in The Agitator– Home’s nationally recognized anarchist newspaper – landed him in jail. Tacoma’s Deputy Prosecutor “had been pushing for the arrest of Fox under the Washington State law that made it a misdemeanor to publish, distribute, or circulate any printed matter ‘which shall tend to encourage or advocate disrespect of the law or for any court or courts of justice.’” (88) The case was appealed all the way to the Supreme Court, where the famous Judge Oliver Wendall Holmes presided over it, who would then go on to radically change the way free speech law was interpreted.
Wadland says that he will “look at some of the language that Jay Fox uses in his argument about free speech and compare it to Oliver Wendell Holmes’ statement on the issue.” He hastens to add that “it’s not going to be a close scholarly analysis — I’m not a scholar nor an historian, I’m a storyteller. I’m going to try and make it entertaining as well.”
Following the free speech case, Home entered a period of steady decline that involved spies, the famous anarchist Emma Goldman, infamous partiers and painters, and a second generation of rebellious and/or apathetic children of Home who eventually brought its era to a close.
Interspersed with his discovery of and contemporary take on Home, Wadland includes his thoughts on new parenthood and finding his own sense of ‘home’ in Tacoma, making Trying Home a refreshing take on our corner of history.
In reading Trying Home, I’ve been able to see the dotted line of our history as progressives as it has reached back over the last century and a half, and weaves in and out of the territories of freedom of speech and personal responsibility. Even today, we deal with issues similar to Nude v. Prudes, such as when a Pierce County councilmember attempts to legislate what can and cannot be viewed in public.
Wadland’s talk on October 16 will focus on the uncompromising Jay Fox, whose political activism, as Wadland tells me, “was shaped by an urban environment. He grew up in Chicago, lived through the Haymarket affair, and saw political conflict in a particular way.”
In November, KBTC’s show Northwest Now will feature an episode on Home using much of Wadland’s research as reference.
The Northwest has always been a hub for activists and idealism. Even with what some may deem an unsuccessful experiment, the discontented ripples from Home can still be felt today. Strides are being made in Washington – from gay marriage to marijuana to a $15 an hour living wage – to fight against the status quo.
It’s true, Washington rules.
You can see Justin Wadland, this Thursday, October 16, at the Washington State History Museum. The Scholarly Selections begin at 6:30pm. The talks are free and open to the public.