Fruitlands, Vegan Utopia?
We've all heard of or read Louisa May Alcott's famous book Little Women, but did you know her father created an experimental utopian vegan community? Yea, me either! That is, until I heard about Fruitlands while visiting Massachusetts recently. As soon as I learned about this, I began to research, and I knew I had to go and see it for myself.
Fruitlands is in a beautiful location. Set down in a valley, surrounded by expansive woods and meadows for miles in Harvard Massachusetts. It really is idyllic. It's not hard to understand why someone would attempt to build a utopian community there.
Louisa's father, Amos Bronson Alcott, created the concept of Fruitlands. He wanted to to establish a transcendentalist vegan commune, using no animal products, including no beeswax for candles, or whale oil for lamps, or the use of any animal labor. They used no animal products for clothing, no wool, or no cotton because of the use of slave labor. They were limited to linen clothing and canvas shoes. With a strong emphasis on education, Alcott hoped the innocence of children would somehow bolster the elder's spirits. The community members had come to be known as "consecrated cranks" because of their pure and strict living, they strongly believed in the ideas of simplicity, sincerity, and brotherly love. Around 1836, Alcott and other like mined people, the likes of Henry David Thoreau and Ralph Waldo Emerson, among others, participated in a club where they discussed their transcendental ideas and religious beliefs. But being penniless, Alcott set off to England to find support for his Fruitlands project. There he met Charles Lane, and he and his family came back with him, and bought the 90 acre property in Harvard, Massachusetts. They were optimistic when they named the project Fruitlands, as there were only a handful of old apple trees on the property. On June 1st of 1843, Louisa's family and the Lane family moved to Fruitlands when she was 10 years old. It is also known that Emerson spent time at the commune, but even though it is thought that Thoreau did as well, it is not proven.
They were a month late in the season for sewing their seeds, but succeeded in planting 8 acres of the property with melons and other produce. So, because of their bad timing, they were doomed from the start. Seasonally late with their planting, and without animal labor it was impossible to harvest enough food to make it through the harsh New England winter. Louisa had written that they moved out in December of 1843, and moved in with a neighboring farmer. The project only lasted 7 months. Her father, crushed by the defeat of it, wouldn't eat for several days after.
Now Fruitlands consists of a gift shop, a cafe, a shaker house that was the office of Clara Endicott Sears, who owned the property in the early 20th century. She had moved to the Fruitlands from a nearby defunct Shaker village. Sears went on to establish several museums on the property and recreated the original home of the Alcott's and Lanes. It is well maintained, and a fun trip to the past. But I have to tell you, I was pretty surprised not to find a vegan options on the menu at the cafe! After all, it was once a so called 'vegan utopia'! It was easy to work around the menu tough, asking for no cheese, and a change of dressing for the salad.
Could a vegan utopian community like this work? Back then, they were fighting against the brutal Massachusetts winters, and the lack of food they could grow with no animals to help cultivate the soil, or to harvest crops. Besides having a lack of food, they still had no real warm clothes for those long winter months. I'd really like to think if they had started earlier and were better prepared they would have had a chance for success. The reality is, they were way ahead of their times in many ways, but in other ways they were doomed to failure. I haven't found any information on how long they stayed true to their vegan diets after they left Fruitlands. I do know the project miserably failed, and Louisa May Alcott spent the rest of her life taking on sewing, household work, and writing to help support her family.