I just finished "Co-Operative Dreams: A History of the Kaweah Colony" by Jay O'Connell. I had heard about Kaweah Colony many years ago, and had always been curious about it, as I am curious about all cooperative ventures and people who try to practice their ideals. This one was settled in an area near Visalia, Three Rivers, and Mineral King. This book not only satisfied by curiousity about the colony, but served as a good example of what a local history can be. Accurate, focused, and applicable beyond its subject.
The area that was settled by a group of people inspired by the labor movement, Karl Marx, and Edward Ballemy's "Looking Backward" is now contained in the Sequoia National Park. The story shows that the inclusion of the land claimed by Socialists into a national reserve, thus removing it from timber production and competition with the railroad monopoly, is not a co-incidence.
Stories about collectives are always about why they failed. Kaweah failed because its success depended on access to a forest that started just at the end of a road built by the colony. The forest was on public land claimed by members of the colony at its founding. Those claims were denied by local authorities because they seemed suspiciously like the fake timber claims that large corporations were successfully using to grab thousands of acres all over the state.
The colonists thought their timber claims would eventually be approved, so they went forward with their plans anyway. But when their road reached the forest, and the mill started to produce lumber, one of the leaders of the group spoke with Crocker of the Southern Pacific about extending a spur line to give the colonists access to markets.
And then something mysterious occured. In the last weeks of September 1890, an Act of Congress established two national parks in California: Yosemite and Sequoia. Less than a week later, another Act of Congress enlarged Sequoia Park by five "townships" and thus the claims of the Kaweah colony were forever protected from the lumber industry. The bill for this Act contained only surveyors' measurements, and one cannot tell from reading the bill what the extra land contains.
There's no doubt that the "Giant Forest" area of Sequoia Park needed to be protected, and that enlarging the park so early in our history was fortuitous. But in the 1964 historians found a map on Southern Pacific letterhead showing the new park, with its expanded boundary, the map, dated weeks before anyone in California knew the Park had been enlarged. There is no doubt that the self-interest of a powerful monopoly is the reason why we still have this treasure.
Had Kaweah succeeded, perhaps other colonies established in the late nineteenth-century would have as well. But in their zeal of small holdings and individuals pooling resources in small groups, perhaps Californian utopians would have been a victim of a tragedy of the commons. All of the large parks and open spaces still privately owned are available to us because it served rich and powerful people to keep it that way.
In the last chapter, O'Connell quotes Kevin Starr: "In a very real sense, the Californian dream was the American dream undergoing one of its most significant variations." O'Connell comments:
How apt this is to Kaweah where the Californian dream underwent significant variation. Where hope was raised by promotional writers. Where a special context was provided for the working-out of aspirations. Where intriguing, unanswered questions certainly remain. And isn't the story of California filled with individuals who failed to achieve their dream? ... Starr reminds us that a culture that fails to internalize some understanding of its past tragedies and past ideals has no focus upon the promise of the future nor the dangers of the present. In that way, he maintains, the elusiveness or failure of the California dream can prove a blessing.
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