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Clarion call: Failed settlement lives on in Jewish hearts

SHARE Clarion call: Failed settlement lives on in Jewish hearts

CLARION, UTAH — For Robert Alan Goldberg, the full significance of Jewish colonization efforts in Clarion, Utah, 100 years ago finally became clear to him as he sat a few years ago in a comfortable home in contemporary Los Angeles.

"I was just expecting to do a little one-on-one interview with a descendant of one of the Clarion families," said Goldberg, a history professor who had been drawn to the Clarion story after he and his brother chanced upon the town's ghostly remains in central Utah in 1980.

When he arrived at the descendant's home, however, he found the house filled with family members: children, grandchildren, cousins, friends.

"These people already knew the story," Goldberg said, "but they wanted to hear Grandpa tell it one more time."

They listened with rapt attention as Goldberg asked his questions, and Grandpa responded. Even the little children were calm and attentive. And when Grandpa brought out the carefully wrapped and preserved artifacts that had been found in the hard, crusty soil during his pilgrimage to Clarion, the entire house was filled with a powerful feeling of respectful reverence and awe.

"I think that's when it really hit me what the Clarion experience meant to these people," Goldberg said, his elbows propped on his office desk at the University of Utah. "It isn't just a story about a failed attempt at colonization. It's a story of idealism, vision, purpose and sacrifice, and of people trying to do something good for their people.

"That they failed is their history," Goldberg continued. "That they dreamed and struggled and were greater than themselves is their legacy."

The story of the Clarion colony is decidedly different from other colonization efforts during Utah's pioneering past. For one thing, it happened later than what is generally considered to be Utah's pioneering era, which ended with the arrival of the transcontinental railroad in 1869. For another, it had nothing whatsoever to do with Brigham Young's aggressive colonization outreach, or those of any other Mormons, for that matter.

The seeds of Clarion colonization were planted in the sweatshops and slums of the eastern United States, as the hopes and ideals of an international Jewish "back to the soil" movement took root in the hearts of urbanized Jews.

"For centuries, Jews had been deprived of land ownership," said Goldberg, author of "Back to the Soil: The Jewish Farmers of Clarion, Utah, and Their World." "Jews were peddlers, they worked in factories, they owned businesses, but they didn't own land."

And that, according to Jewish intellectual and philosophical leaders of the time, was unacceptable.

"It was felt that in order to be a complete people, Jews had to have their own land," Goldberg said. "Agrarian values were missing from their culture. It was felt that those who live close to the land also live closer to God. They are also healthier and stronger. They even have better complexions."

Land ownership was also a way for Jewish immigrants to assimilate into their new country. "If you own property, you are investing in the future of the country," Goldberg said. "You show allegiance. You show you belong. You show you want to stay."

It would also go a long way toward dispelling anti-Semitic stereotypes and facilitating the acceptance of Jews by Christians.

And so Jews throughout the world participated in the "back to the soil" movement, establishing more than 40 colonies in the United States as well as similar colonizing efforts in Argentina, Canada and the Holy Land.

"This had more to do with philosophy than faith," Goldberg said. "They weren't doing this because they were believers. Many of Jews who were involved were only Jews by birth and heritage. But they were idealists. Some were Socialists. They believed in the principles of the 'back to the soil' movement. They thought it was the right thing to do. And so they did it."

Some 200 Jewish families in Philadelphia and New York paid $300 each to be part of the Clarion experiment. Representing those families, Ben Brown took a trip West to investigate land possibilities in Colorado and New Mexico. While he was traveling he was contacted by the Utah Land Board, which offered to him 6,000 acres of what they called "the best land in the state," near Gunnison in Piute County. The land had numerous advantages, not the least of which was the promised Piute Canal, which Brown was told would furnish all of the water they would need to flourish in the area. Other advantages included the property's proximity to Gunnison and to railroad connections and an extra good financial deal from the state of Utah.

"The LDS Church even threw in $500 to help with the purchase," Goldberg said. "Brown advised the others in the group to take the Utah deal. He felt it was the perfect place to colonize. And he liked the fact that it was so far away from the East Coast. He knew what they were about to do was going to be hard, and he wanted to make it as difficult as possible for people to pack up and go home."

The first group of Jewish men arrived at the Clarion site on Sept. 10, 1911. They immediately began to clear the land and plant 1,500 acres of wheat, alfalfa and oats. But the land was dry and rocky, and the promised canal was not yet finished. They tried to haul water in from Gunnison, both for watering and for drinking, but they couldn't keep up with the need. "The first year's crop was a disaster," Goldberg said.

During the second year more men, as well as many women and children, arrived in Clarion.

"The women and children brought new energy and vitality to the young community," Goldberg said. "Colony lands were divided into individual farms, although machinery and other resources were shared cooperatively, like in an Israeli 'moshav.' "

At its peak the town of Clarion swelled to 156 residents farming 2,400 acres of land. Life was hard, but the community seemed to be on its way to success when a series of incidents and disasters hit. Soon after the canal was finished, heavy rains broke the canal's banks and flooded the fields, washing out the land and the crops. Successive years with early frosts and summer drought proved catastrophic. The canal, upon which so much of their hopes for success was based, was always unreliable and often just plain dry.

"These people had come directly from Eastern cities," Goldberg said. "They were not prepared for the hardships and requirements of this kind of life. Their knowledge of farming and their funding were both inadequate to sustain them. As each new disaster presented itself, it became harder to accept the difficulties, harder to say 'wait until next spring, harder to deal with dissension and division.' "

By 1916, most of the community had disbanded. Thanks to the kindness of members of the Salt Lake City Jewish community, they were able to buy train tickets home to Philadelphia and New York. A few went on to California ("They had been told by friends and family in the East that this was a bad idea, and they didn't want to have to go back and tell them they were right," Goldberg said). Brown and a few others stayed and farmed in the area until the 1920s. By this time their children were old enough that they felt they needed to return to the East for educational and cultural purposes.

Today Clarion is essentially a ghost town. Here and there you can find a few deteriorating cabin foundations, the remains of the irrigation system, a collapsed cistern, a ditch or two and occasionally a belt buckle or a child's shoe. In the area you can now see evidence of agricultural success accomplished in later years, thanks to modern farming technology. But mostly you can see the parched earth and crusty soil.

Still for many, like the family of that Clarion descendant in California, Clarion is a symbol.

"It represents a dream, something for which a group of people was willing to risk everything," Goldberg said. "While it's true that they failed, it's equally true that they tried. The name of the community itself expresses what they were about: They were sounding a call, making a declaration to the world and to themselves. That heritage of idealism has endured through the years, and holds a special place in the hearts and souls of those who know and remember the stories of Clarion."

A special celebration of the 100th anniversary of the settlement of Clarion will be held in Gunnison on Sept. 9 and 10. Events will include speeches, historical presentations, an original musical, a field trip to the Clarion site and dinner. For specific information please contact Clive Romney at clive@upharts.org.

EMAIL: jwalker@desnews.com