Notes from Windward: #69


Days of My Youth

by Corinna Ackley Noyes


     Want to build a better world?


     Now, before you start tearing down one social order to create room for another, it's always a good idea to take time to RTFM, a computer term which loosely translates as "Read The Fine Manual."

     In humanity's case, perhaps the best operator's manual available comes in the form of the history of the intentional communities that have been created on the North American continent over the last thousand years--everything from the Iroquois Confederation to the Norse settlements in New Foundland, from the theocratic society founded at Plymouth Rock to the merchantile society founded at New Amsterdam.

      Each of the above teaches important lessons about the joys and pitfalls that can be encountered when creating society out of whole cloth. While we try to keep our goals and objectives in sight, it's also fair to say that Windward's structure and customs are the product of our efforts to not repeat mistakes made by those who've gone before. Breaking new ground is what we're striving to do, something which won't happen if we waste our resources repeating things that have already been shown to be unworkable.

     Almost any style of alternative lifestyle someone can dream up can be found in the historical record. So, anyone who wants to tweak culture in hopes of creating a better way of life needs to pay close attention to the record left by those who've already undertaken this quixotic journey.

     Both the Shakers and Oneida easily rank in the top ten list of America's successful intentional communities, so their history represents a huge resource for would-be communitarians. Our interest in Oneida is especially keen because much of Windward's founding vision came from the writings of Robert Heinlein, who in turn based a lot of his concepts on the secular writings of Oneida's founder John Noyes.

      By way of example, Heinlein's opus is entitled Time Enough For Love in which Heinlein writes, "The more you love, the more you can love--and the more intensely you love. Nor is there any limit on how many you can love. If a person had time enough, he could love all of that majority who are decent and just."

      This sentiment is almost a direct quote from John Noyes who wrote that, "All experience testifies . . . that sexual love is not naturally restricted to pairs . . . the secret history of the human heart will bear out the assertion that it is capable of loving any number of times and any number of persons, and that the more it loves the more it can love."

     Oneida was, and remains to this day, financially successful. That's no small achievement in a world that has changed beyond recognition in the past 160 years. You can visit and stay in the 97,000 square foot home they built and called "The Mansion House."

The Oneida Mansion House

     If you're interested in seeing how the Mansion looks today, here's a link to a charming article written recently by someone who grew up a block away.

     I believe that a strong case can be made that Oneida's accomplishments, financial and otherwise, flowed from its committment that women were equals rather than property owned by either father or husband. As a result, the women of Oneida enjoyed an equality of rights and opportunities which mainstream American women didn't enjoy for another century, advantages which the majority of the world's women do not enjoy to this day.

      My study of Oneida convinces me that their financial success flowed directly from their commitment to ensure that its women members were able to develop and engage their talents in ways that went far beyond what was possible within the contemporary institutions of marriage and family.

     It's hard for us to fully appreciate how difficult life was back in 1850, a time of industrial peonage when working people faced ten hour days, six day work weeks, and child labor was common. The average American home didn't have indoor plumbing until after the turn of the twentieth century, but not only did Oneidans enjoy indoor plumbing, but a Turkish Bath as well.

     Oneida's central laundry and kitchen freed Oneidans from the endless drudgery that some seventy years later was life in the Texas Hill Country as described in detail by Robert Caro, and reprinted in these Notes with his kind permission under the title of Sad Irons Through a Green Lens

     Oneida placed a high value on literacy. Most Oneidans kept detailed journals in which they described community life including detailed accounts of their sexual relationships. After the founding members died, their children decided to burn those journals. Fortunately a few journals did survive the fire, but many of those offer hostile views of Oneidan life since they were written by people who elected to leave the community and take their journals with them.

     Currently there's a groundswell of interest in intentional communities, an interest which peaks every few decades as the social pendulum swings back and forth between focusing on the power of groups to create security in an uncertain world, and the desire of individuals to cut loose and explore their personal potential on their own. During the 1990s, for example, there was little general interest in joining intentional communities of any stripe as people looked towards their careers as the path to the Good Life. Now that the pendulum is swinging the other way, many people are coming to see that the independence which looked like the perfect freedom was actually a trap.

      At times it seems as if arranging to have no committment of any kind to anyone would be a special freedom. But in fact the whole idea works in reverse. The most deadly commitment of all is to be committed only to one's self. Some come to realize this only after they are in the nursing home.
          John McDonald -- The Lonely Silver Rain

     Oneida's first phase lasted a little more than thirty years. With Noyes aging and nearly deaf, and no clear successor to turn too, the Oneida Community reinvented itself as a limited stock corporation. Instead of holding all property in common, the members were given shares of stock which they could sell or retain and live off the dividends. They could rent space in the Mansion, or build a house on Oneidan land. Early on, the Oneida's future as a business looked bleak until a group of young people who had been born into the community took over running the company business under the leadership of Pierrepont Noyes.

     Pierrepont was one of fifty-some children born into the Oneida Community. In a time when the life expectancy of women was lower than that of men because of the mortality of labor, the Oneidan women enjoyed a remarkable freedom from unwanted pregnancies. Over a span of thirty years, some one hundred women experienced only six unplanned pregancies. The children conceived by accident were treated no differently, and they all grew up together as a large extended family.

     Pierrepont married Corrina Ackley, another of the 56 children born into the community. Born in 1872, Corrina lived in the Mansion House for eight years prior to "the Breakup." At the age of 87, Corrina wrote down her memories of what life in the Mansion had been like as seen through the eyes of an eight year old girl. That manuscript is available from University of Syracuse and contains some fascinating hints as to the social forces at play in the years leading up to the end of the first phase of the Oneidan story.

     What follows is an excerpt which describes the life that Corrina's grandmother Julia led prior to joining Oneida where she later wrote that she "found emancipation from household drudgergy and social slavery." That may sound dramatic, but how else would one describe a ten year old having to milk, feed, and water livestock twice a day from a well sixty feet deep?

Corinna writes:

     Julia Carrier, her maiden name, was the youngest of eleven children born to Clarissa and Ebeneezer Carrier, living at the time on a small farm near the hamlet of Liberty, N. Y. in the foothills of the Catskills. It was a wild, unsettled country of dense forests interspersed with clearings from which the trees had been cut but the land had yet to have the stumps removed and to be made usable for crops. Ebeneezer had wrested a small farm from the forest, built himself a house and barn, married and was evidently bent on showing the world that he could raise and support a family of champion size in spite of unfavorable circumstances when his wife died, leaving Julia, a child of three, to the special care of Maria, her oldest daughter.

     Maria, a girl of nineteen, took over also the supervision of the whole household for the next three years, then she married a peddler of good prospects and left home taking Julia with her. For the next two years Julia flourished. Maria was devoted to the child and taught her to read, write, sew and sing as Maria had a fine singing voice. Grandma, in speaking of her, always especially mentioned her beauty. Apparently she was the flower of the flock.

     Had these conditions continued Julia would probably have had opportunities for a good education but after two years of Maria's loving care Maria died and Julia was taken back to her father. Here she found scant welcome as, during her absence, he had married a widow with eight partially grown children of her own. Julia was now eight years old and deemed able to care for young children and do light housework so that the hard-pressed Ebeneezer, her father, decided she should be "farmed out." For her services she was to be given bed, board, needed clothing and a chance to go to school when she could be spared, which was seldom.

     Her first home was with her stepmother's son where she lived two years, during which time she was taught to milk the cows and was expected to do so from then on. When she was ten she was loaned to a brother-in-law's brother. There were no children in the household but the gay young wife went visiting often and Julia had to do practically all the housework besides milking, feeding and watering the livestock twice a day. All the water used on the farm had to be drawn from a well sixty feet deep which today would be considered a day's work in itself.

     After this period of doing the work of a seasoned adult she went to live with a newly married sister. Here she might have looked forward to some loving care but the sister bore four children in the next six years and never had Julia had to work so hard. Besides the usual housework and baby tending she had to prepare the home-grown flax and learn to weave it into linen cloth for sheets and pillow cases, card and spin the wool for yarn for the home-knit stockings, and, to use to the full every spare minute, she had to learn to weave rag carpets from material brought in by neighbors for which her sister was paid.

      The one bright spot in her life was the day she could take the family washing down to the spring and spend the whole day there. The water, of course, was cold and it must have been back-breaking work but the spring was thirty-five rods from the house on the edge of the forest and there she could be alone, too far away to be interrupted by any household needs and there she could find herself and dream of a happier future. That this place must have seemed a harbor of refuge is shown, I think, by the fact that her long day's washing at the spring was the only story she ever told me of her youth and the spring was the only place she wanted to see when she visited relatives in Liberty many years later.

     Julia stayed with her sister until she was eighteen when, after ten years of hardship, fortune suddenly smiled on her. An uncle living in East Hamilton asked her to come and make her home with him and his wife. Here Julia received the love and care she had not known since the death of her sister Maria. She was given good clothes and taken to church where she experienced a sincere conversion and later met my Grandfather with whom there was such a strong mutual attraction that soon they decided to marry.

     Grandmother's story as told to one of the editors of the American Socialist was published as one of a series entitled "Stories of Poverty."

     In finishing her account Julia wrote: "Joseph not only proved a good, kind husband but through his influence I was brought to the Oneida Community where I found emancipation from household drudgery and social slavery."

Notes From Windward - Index - Vol. 69