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June 3, 2007 9:37 PM   Subscribe

Went To Kansas: Being A Thrilling Account Of An Ill-Fated Expedition To That Fairy Land, And Its Sad Results. A personal account by Mrs. Miriam Davis Colt (based on her daily diaries) about her family's move from New York to Kansas in the 1850s, and the tragic story of the Vegetarian Settlement Company, which sold cheap land to settlers (if they signed an oath swearing they would never consume alcohol, tobacco or animal flesh) along with the promise of a prairie utopia.
posted by amyms (25 comments total) 38 users marked this as a favorite

Lane invested his entire savings in a tract near the village of Harvard, Mass., and in June, 1844, the party moved to this location.[5] Their organization was based on strictly vegetarian principles-no flesh, fish, fowl, eggs, milk, cheese or butter. The experiment was so radical that even the labor of horses was dispensed with, and only the "aspiring" vegetables (those growing above ground) were eaten. Unfortunately the crops were carelessly planted, and at harvest time the men left to attend reform meetings. Mrs. Alcott and daughters salvaged what was possible, but by winter the Lanes and Alcotts were the sole remaining members of the community and were on the verge of starvation.

Oh my God this is a magnificent post. I love 19th century Utopian communities. I live not too far from where this occurred, and our regional history is full of these short-lived experiments.
posted by LarryC at 9:56 PM on June 3, 2007

Really incredible, amyms. I lived for many years in Kansas and have read much about its history but I completely missed this chapter. Thanks so much for this post.
posted by melissa may at 10:09 PM on June 3, 2007

b1tr0t said: I couldn't find the chapter on feline circumcision and claw removal.

lol... I must be psychic. I was just telling a friend that I was worried my post might get derailed by the "LOLVEGETARIANS" crowd, and I mentioned examples of other contentious Mefi issues, like circumcision (human, though) and cat declawing... Then I saw your post and I got goosebumps... Yikes!
posted by amyms at 10:34 PM on June 3, 2007

Wow. I was a veg for a decade or two, but never looked into the history of the movement (aside from the obvious Hindu origins).

I will read more of this fascinating account tomorrow, especially that of:

"The twelfth of 17 children, Miriam Davis Colt "

Seventeen children. Those were the days.
posted by kozad at 10:46 PM on June 3, 2007

Very cool link. I made an effort to find the Octagon City site location, and the best I can tell is it's close to the center here, give or take a couple of miles. There seems to be no trace of it on USGS maps.
posted by rolypolyman at 12:32 AM on June 4, 2007

Cool, thanks, rolypolyman... I don't think there are any tangible traces left of Octagon City (at least none that I've been able to find online) but the creek that runs through the middle of the map you posted is still known as Vegetarian Creek.
posted by amyms at 12:59 AM on June 4, 2007

The horses they dispensed with, they weren't dressage horses, were they?

Just adding to the list of contentious Mefi issues being addressed. Carry on.
posted by miss lynnster at 3:05 AM on June 4, 2007

I guess I know what the subject matter for at least two songs on Melora Creager's next Rasputina release will be.
posted by adipocere at 4:10 AM on June 4, 2007

I was going to make a comment about how much this story resembled Louisa May Alcott's father Bronson Alcott's Fruitlands experiment, and then I realized it was the Fruitlands experiment. Louisa would later write about the experience in semi-satirical style and dub it "Apple Slump". After the failure of Fruitlands Bronson Alcott wanted to desert his family and join the Shakers (community of celibate adults), but his wife Abba put her foot down on that one.
posted by orange swan at 5:19 AM on June 4, 2007

A couple of other tidbits that are rattling around in my brain are that the members of the community didn't believe in wearing wool or leather and so tried to brave a Kansas winter in linen shifts, with the exception of one man, who was a nudist. I seem to remember Alcott commenting that he wasn't dowered with "much personal beauty" and that he was much plagued by insects.

Also when Louisa wote her Little Women series, she would name the unconventional boys' school idealistic Jo March Bhaer and her husband ran "Plumfield", as though it was a less visionary and more domesticated and successful version of Fruitlands.
posted by orange swan at 5:32 AM on June 4, 2007

The Kansas Historical Quarterly article describes the location: "The site selected was on the western bank of the Neosho river, west of Fort Scott, and six miles south of the present site of Humboldt."

I would bet if you began asking local farmers someone could lead you right to it.
posted by LarryC at 6:51 AM on June 4, 2007

Seventeen children. Those were the days.

In Kathleen Norris' foreword to the edition of Willa Cather's My √Āntonia I just read, there's a story where Norris and her husband met a 90-year-old South Dakota woman who'd been one of the first white homesteaders in the area. When asked how many children she'd had, the woman replied, "Oh dear, I don't remember. Some died so young. Sixteen, maybe...fourteen. Eleven lived."

Those were the days, indeed. Thanks for this post, amyms; it's fascinating.
posted by mediareport at 7:59 AM on June 4, 2007

I would bet if you began asking local farmers someone could lead you right to it.

That's a great excuse for a day trip... I live about 200 miles from the Humboldt area, but a day trip could definitely be planned in the near future.
posted by amyms at 9:04 AM on June 4, 2007

That location is very, very close to where my husband (who is even better versed in Kansas history than I am) grew up, and he never heard of this, either. Truly amazing.

Here's a couple of photos we took last summer of the banks of the Neosho, just for reference (though how changed it is from those days, I couldn't say). So, at least those poor settlers had something pretty to look at as they sweated and starved to death.

(amyms, if it's not too much trouble, if you do take that day trip give us a holler if you find the place or post a metatalk update. We'd love to know what you find out!)
posted by melissa may at 9:13 AM on June 4, 2007 [1 favorite]

(amyms, if it's not too much trouble, if you do take that day trip give us a holler if you find the place or post a metatalk update. We'd love to know what you find out!)

Oh, I definitely will, melissa may... It'll be a least a month before I can plan anything, though, but when I do, I'll report back :)...

In the meantime, I found a mention of a book called "Ghost Towns of Kansas: A Traveler's Guide" that supposedly contains a site map and pictures of the remains of Octagon City. I tried the "search inside" feature at Amazon, but it tells me I'm not eligible to view the book using that method... If someone else wants to give it a try, let us know what you find.
posted by amyms at 9:30 AM on June 4, 2007

Oops, here's the link to the book.
posted by amyms at 9:31 AM on June 4, 2007

Oh wait (sorry for the multiple posts), there might not be anything to see in the book... I just scrolled down through the rest of the description and it says:

Today the only remainder of Octagon City is a stream named Vegetarian Creek [which is shown in the map/picture rolypolyman posted above]
posted by amyms at 9:36 AM on June 4, 2007

I own a copy of said book. Not very helpful. Practically none of the ghost towns profiled have any visitable remnants. Not really what I consider ghost towns...
posted by daveleck at 10:10 AM on June 4, 2007

(alcohol + tobacco + animal flesh) > prairie utopia
posted by Meatbomb at 10:30 AM on June 4, 2007

amyms, I'm melissa may's husband and grew up in that area of SE KS, even spending a year in high school in Humboldt, and, although I knew about some of the Utopian communities in the state, I had never heard of the vegetarian connection. Even worse, I had bookmarked the Miriam Davis Colt diary a few months ago and never found the time to read it, so thanks for the wonderful post. That area of the state was known for some really progressive politics that has since been swept under the rug by the less "kooky" citizens (kooky being how my polite grandmother would classify such things), so my not hearing about this until now isn't all that surprising. Also, many settlers of the state in the 1850s turned around and went back because of the harsh winters, bad planning, etc., so that's not too surprising either. One of the few folk songs about the state, "Starving to Death on a Government Claim," also known as "The Lane County Bachelor," is about people getting tired of the state and leaving.

If you're serious about tracking down the site of the community, I've found that starting with the town's historical society is a great place to start. Here's the Chanute Historical Society's modest webpage and here's Humboldt's oldish webpage. If the site of the community was six miles south of Humboldt, it's actually pretty close to Chanute, so either place can possibly be helpful. Also, an old professor and my thesis director is a well known cowboy folklorist who knows more about Kansas than I could ever forget, so let me know if you want to ask him a few questions and I can get you in touch with him. He can at least maybe fill in a few blanks or get you in touch with someone who would know, but I'm guessing that it's just a bunch of farm land now (on preview: what you said).

As for the book about Ghost Towns (as it seems you found out by your reading and from daveleck) isn't all that helpful. I remember reading it in high school and finding out that a town called St. Paul, which at the time of the book's writing was as thriving a place as any in the SE corner, was listed as a ghost town, much to the chagrin of all those in St. Paul.

Lastly, if anyone should want to recreate the vegetarian Utopia (albeit in another part of the state), they're still giving away free land in Kansas.

Thanks again for the wonderful post.
posted by sleepy pete at 12:38 PM on June 4, 2007 [1 favorite]

Thanks for this fascinating post. I just spent my entire day reading the diary. I found it very interesting and I wonder what happened to her and her little house. I also wonder if she continued to receive letters from the dead!
posted by bristolcat at 1:25 PM on June 4, 2007

Wow, thanks for all the information, sleepy pete!... I've lived in central Kansas all my life (except for a seven-year stint in Colorado) but, strangely, I've never ventured to the southeast corner of the state... But, I really am intrigued enough to plan a road trip, and I'll post an update if and when I go. :)
posted by amyms at 2:51 PM on June 4, 2007

Interestingly, this reminds me of Vedic City, particularly in the octagon design.

It does seem like the settlement never had enough serious construction to survive. But surely there are land records.
posted by dhartung at 3:49 PM on June 4, 2007

Thanks for this! There should be a guide to road trips to all the utopian society sites across the U.S. like there are pilgrimages to Civil War Battlefields. A Utopian Travel Guide. I started thinking about this while back at New Harmony, Indiana.
Looking forward to any updates.
posted by readery at 6:11 AM on June 5, 2007

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