When she was 10 years old, Louisa May Alcott in 1843 was taken to live at a commune called Fruitlands by her high-minded but improvident father.
Fruitlands was a utopian experiment, a model of love and unselfishness for the rest of society. Members lived by the Transcendental philosophy that people were inherently good but corrupted by society and its institutions.
They didn’t believe in eating meat, owning property or using animal labor. They dressed only in linen and wore canvas shoes because cotton resulted from slave labor, wool belonged to the sheep and leather to the cow. Cold water was their only beverage – and what they bathed in.
Louisa May Alcott kept a diary during her time at Fruitlands. She started in September by exclaiming how she loved cold water. She ended in December describing her family in tears.
In May 1843, Charles Lane, an English admirer of Bronston Alcott, bought the 90-acre Wyman Farm in Harvard, Mass., for $1,800. He paid $1,500. Alcott was in debt and agreed to pay the remaining $300 later.
On June 1, the two men moved their families to Fruitlands, named after the 10 apple trees on the property. Lane brought his son, Alcott his wife Abby May and daughters Anna, Louisa, Elizabeth and May. There was only one other woman, Anna Page (“I hate her,” wrote Louisa). She was said to be kicked out of Fruitlands for eating fish.
Bronson Alcott managed to recruit only a handful of communards: a baker who eventually became a Catholic priest, a nudist, a cooper who had been committed to an insane asylum and a man who swore constantly because he believed foul language uplifted his listeners. Wood Abram had changed his name from Abraham Wood to free himself from social control.
Joseph Palmer was the only farmer in the oddball group. He had gone to jail for refusing to cut his beard.
Ralph Waldo Emerson visited Fruitlands in July, conceded things were going well, but questioned whether they’d last until December.
"The band of brothers began by spading garden and field; but a few days of it lessened their ardor amazingly,” Louisa May Alcott wrote in her book about Fruitlands, Transcendental Wild Oats.
Husking, Then Plutarch
On Sept. 1, 1843, Louisa May Alcott wrote she rose at five and had her bath. “I love cold water," she wrote, and noted she ran on the hill, did chores, had singing lessons, discussed God's noblest work with her father, ate bread and fruit for dinner and played.
Things began to go awry. They had to relent and use farm animals. The crops didn’t do well.
The nudist, Samuel Bowers could only experiment with the benefits of wearing no clothes at night. He was told to wear a white sheet when he wandered out in the open. Soon a posse went out from the town to investigate the white ghost.
The Alcotts’ friend Franklin Sanborn later commented on who was doing much of the work – Mrs. Alcott and her daughters.
On Oct. 12, Louisa wrote how she ironed after lessons, husked corn until 8 p.m. and then read Plutarch.
Her father and Charles Lane traveled to Providence, New York and New Haven, looking for new recruits and philosophizing along the way. They left the barley crop cut but unharvested. The granary was almost empty and no men were around. A storm approached, so Mrs. Alcott and her daughters gathered the barley, dumped it in the granary then ran back for more.
On November 2, Louisa wrote "Anna and I did the work. In the evening Mr. Lane asked us, "What is man?" They talked for a long time and went to bed ‘very tired.’ Four decades later, Louisa commented on that entry: “No wonder, after doing the work and worrying their little wits with such lessons.”
Winter was coming. They had little food, hardly any firewood and wore thin linen clothes. Charles Lane gave up the experiment and took his son to the Shaker community nearby. On Dec. 10, her final entry, Louisa wrote they were glad he was gone. Then:
In the eve father and mother and Anna and I had a long talk. I was very unhappy, and we all cried. Anna and I cried in bed, and I prayed God to keep us all together.
In January, Mrs. Alcott borrowed money from her brother, rented a farmhouse in a nearby village and took her four daughters with her. Bronson Alcott refused to leave. He took to his bed, deeply depressed. Finally his wife persuade him to join her and the children. With the help of Emerson, the family then moved to Concord.
"The world was not ready for Utopia yet, and those who attempted to found it only got laughed at for their pains," Louisa concluded years later.
Fruitlands is now a museum at 102 Prospect Hill Road in Harvard, Mass., open from April to November.