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3 New Jersey: “Every Beginning Is Difficult”

The pattern of constant failure in colonization efforts was broken in two notable instances: the experiments at Alliance and Woodbine, both in New Jersey.1 The names Alliance, Woodbine, Carmel, and Rosenhayn denote communities still in existence, though today they differ radically from their original conception since Jewish farming in South Jersey has become the private enterprise of individual farmers. It was in Alliance and Woodbine that Jewish farmers functioning as groups or as settlements evincing some dimension of collective enterprise attained an unprecedented measure of success.

Alliance

The name chosen for the Alliance enterprise reflected the willingness of the Alliance Israélite Universelle to support Jewish colonization efforts.2 The colony was founded in Salem County’s Pittsgrove Township by the HEAS on May 10, 1882, almost simultaneously with the launching of Cotopaxi in Colorado; it is said to have been the first Jewish colony in South Jersey to aid victims of persecution.3 The intention in both efforts was similar: to give assistance to Jewish farmers and to enable them to engage in individual enterprise. The land for Alliance, in Salem County, thirty-five miles from Philadelphia and five miles from Vineland, was purchased by the HEAS. One hundred fifty acres were denoted common land. The remainder was divided into sixty-six fifteen-acre farms deeded to the occupant families, who were each charged $300, to be repaid in thirty-three years without interest.4 Twenty-five families, mostly small traders and store-keepers from southern Russia, moved out to New Jersey. All their transportation expenses to Alliance were paid. In some cases, pioneers went straight from the steamer to South Jersey. Temporary shelters were erected to house them. For the first six months, the HEAS furnished all provisions and also sent an instructor to teach farming to the newcomers, who set to work immediately, clearing the land of its dense scrub oak and pine. In the first month, they had cleared one tract of thirty acres on which they planted corn. For this labor the HEAS provided a weekly wage and thus made it possible for the colonists to build up a reserve fund to meet future expenses. To supplement this income, several of the colonists also worked part-time for neighboring Christian farmers, who are said to have been impressed enough with their diligence and patience to prefer the Jewish workers over the non-Jews.

In 1883, cooperating with London’s Mansion House Relief Committee, the HEAS purchased eighty additional acres of land and carved out six more farms. These farms were then distributed to the colonists in accordance with lots they had drawn the previous fall. Contracts similar to those made the previous year were drawn up with the HEAS; again, each farmer was to pay $350 for his holding within ten years. After 1884, with a grant of $10,000 by the Mansion House Fund, new contracts were drawn up whereby the farmers were to hold one-half of the farm free of charge provided the other half was paid for in equal installments over a period of thirty-five years. (In subsequent years the Baron de Hirsch Fund assumed direction of the affairs of these colonies, and new contracts were then drawn.) With the farm each family received a stove, furniture, and household goods. From time to time, the HEAS came to their aid. In the spring each family received “tools, furniture, cooking utensils, plants and farm utensils to the value of $100.”5

Kol haskholeh koshoh (“every beginning is difficult”) wrote Herman Rosenthal, one of the Am Olam founders, in reviewing the experience of the Alliance settlers.6 In order to save the expense of horses and farm tools, the colonists agreed to work four farms together, each farmer doing the work he could do best. Although the theory was reasonable enough, the practice did not work out due to the inexperience of the farmers. Each family then worked its own farm independently, planting trees, grapevines, berries, and some vegetables for its own use. During the summer and early fall of 1883, these neophyte farmers again worked for their neighbors, picking berries, digging potatoes, husking corn.

In the fall of that year, the HEAS took an unusual step. It encouraged the setting up of a factory in the community which had been intended exclusively for agricultural activity. The immediate reason was that the HEAS had to provide for the unceasing flow of immigrants which persecution was driving to these shores from Eastern Europe. Alliance seemed a good place to send them, largely, perhaps, because it was comparatively close to New York City. At first, a cigar factory was opened by a private entrepreneur on land owned by the HEAS; later, part of the building was devoted to the needlework trade to which some Jewish immigrants were well adapted. A number of the colonists found employment in these establishments during slack periods for farming. The two enterprises were shortlived, however, because of a fire which destroyed the building.

The idealism which lay behind the South Jersey ventures is worth bearing in mind. Years later Shneur (Sidney) Bailey, one of the Alliance colonists, recalled what had motivated Am Olamites like himself to settle in the South Jersey colonies. In the Ukrainian seaport of Odessa during the late spring of 1881, Bailey had been among those

who formulated . . . the Am Olam idea that our brethren should go to America to become tillers of the soil and thus shake off the accusation that we [Jews] were mere petty mercenaries, living upon the toil of others. Our thought was to live in the open instead of being “shut-ins” who lived an artificial city life. We desired to be dependent for our living upon the elements of Father Sun and Mother Earth instead of depending upon the whims of others. We desired to lead a real healthy and honorable mode of life. We were not to be, at our farm vocation, jealous and envious one of another, but to live upon our own resources with the help only of nature.

Bailey and his confrères wanted “to own a home and land as a means of earning a livelihood, and to be true citizens of [their] adopted country.” Nothing seemed to them so important as the opportunity

to live our own lives and bring up our children to be healthy, honorable and useful citizens; brought up according to our own ideas instead of being influenced by the street children or by their next door neighbors; in short, to get the blessings of a natural life from heaven and earth. For these ideals we decided to leave Russia, to become farmers in “the land of the brave and the home of the free.” We came here instead of going to Palestine which was then under a Turkish [Ottoman] regime. Thus, the exodus of 1882 began rolling en masse to America, and Alliance was established in May, 1882. Though I did not come over with the first settlers, as did Israel Opachinsky and Joseph Zager, who are still in Alliance, I arrived only a few years after and missed [out on] living in barracks, sleeping on straw, digging out the stumps, laying out roads and even missed [out on] working at the cigar factory which lasted for a couple of years.7

The first meager fruits of the colonists’ agricultural efforts were evident in the spring of 1884. Considerable replanting was necessary, both because of the inexperience of the farmers and the ineptness of the managers who had chosen neither the right types of crops nor the proper time for planting during 1882 and 1883.

Before 1885, the scene at Alliance resembled all the previous colonization experiments described: primitive facilities, optimism, frustration, confusion. In the winter of 1884–1885, some of the colonists left for Philadelphia or New York City and returned with tailoring work for their own and other Jewish families. One New York philanthropist, Leonard Lewisohn, even gave each family a sewing machine to help supplement its income. At the same time the families worked their farms. Despite these adjuncts to farming, the struggle was as relentless as ever. In that winter of 1884–85, Philadelphia’s Association of Jewish Immigrants, a charitable organization, came to the colony’s aid, and a wealthy patron in New York gave $1,000 to reestablish the cigar factory.8

Signs of discontent became evident. Complaints poured into the Alliance Land Trust (ALT), which had succeeded the HEAS on the latter’s dissolution in 1883. One of the colonists recorded his concern about the lack of solidarity at Alliance:

[Its] inhabitants . . . possess many different outlooks, for in it are found Russian Jews and Polish Jews, Orthodox, Chassidim and ignorant persons, some without any belief and some who do have a belief. Each group lives unto itself. Many attempts have been made . . . to unite these groups and to set up an executive committee . . . before [which] all differences of opinion would be aired . . . [and which could] represent all the people of the colony before the leaders of the New York Committee. But even this sensible recommendation was not accepted for they could not come to an agreement and the committee was disbanded.

Early in 1885, the colonists, suffering from inexperience and a troubling paucity of supplies, described themselves as “very sadly disappointed and . . . much distressed,” though as yet they were not ready to admit defeat.9 In response, a committee made up of the ALT president and two other members was sent to investigate. The result was another direct contribution, another grant of relief. But the picture as it looked to the immigrants themselves has been preserved by the Alliance Am Olamite Bailey:

Our wanderers, from various parts of Russia, came . . . to settle on land. Our people being Talmudists, merchants and tradesmen, knew nothing of the significance of farm life. When they came to New York and arrived at Castle Garden and talked very naively with our German-American brethren who came to meet us and help us, they (the immigrants) were warned against, and advised to give up the idea of becoming farmers, but were advised to continue at their trades or to become peddlers. . . . However, a few remained true to their [agricultural] ideals and their ambition was to be realized.10

Fortunately, in the spring of 1885, for the first time since the inception of their colony, the Alliance farmers began to realize a profit from their agricultural labors of the previous three years. The result was an increased enthusiasm for farming, though the farmers continued to supplement their income partly by working other farms and partly by tailoring. The nascent prosperity of 1885 blossomed the following year, with the sale of crops in the spring and summer of 1886 yielding as much as $200 to $400 for some farmers, income derived solely from agriculture. Those who had two sources of income were able to earn as much as $700.

The year 1887–88 marked the beginning of a veritable boom. Crops were plentiful and readily sold, which suggested that the agricultural experiment was successful. Newcomers from the cities and new immigrants were attracted by the achievement of the “old” settlers. “At this time,” Bailey recalls,

a group of intelligentsia came to Alliance, among whom were Messrs. Bakal, Konefsky, Peisochovitz, Spivack, Schwartz, Seldes, Gartman, Friedman, D. Steinberg and ourselves, and farming started in earnest. A team of horses were procured by Coltun and Luberoff to plow the virgin soil for the settlers. Some of the American neighbors were also hired to help break up the soil and help plant amidst the stumps. We planted all kinds of berries, grapes and fruit trees.11

The newcomers supported themselves as tailors during the winter and as berrypickers during the summer, but throughout the year they themselves served as a ready market for the agricultural produce. The year 1887 and the summer of 1888 marked the peak of prosperity. In July 1888 the Alliance settlers dedicated the Eben Ha-Ezer (“Rock of Salvation”) Synagogue; two years later, another synagogue, Tiphereth Israel (“Splendor of Israel”), was founded. Alliance, it is clear, was not to be a New Jersey version of Oregon’s New Odessa, even though its colonists included Am Olam sympathizers. In 1888, Adolphus S. Solomons, a well-known Washington, D.C., Jewish communal worker, described Alliance in the pages of the B’nai B’rith monthly Menorah. Alliance, he wrote, was “the first successful Jewish colony in America,” and he applauded “the hard work which has made a garden out of a desert, and untold numbers of wretched human beings comparatively prosperous and happy.”

The Alliance settlers, Herman Rosenthal wrote enthusiastically in 1891, could “be proud of their hard work, patience, and perseverance and of the sweet fruits of their indefatigable labor.” Rosenthal hailed them as “truly pioneers contributing to the glory of all Israel.” As late as March 1894, Cincinnati’s American Israelite, basing its report on an investigation undertaken the year before by the New York Sun, could assure its readers that “the Hebrew colonies in New Jersey . . . are in so flourishing a condition that arrangements will at once be made for bringing over in the spring a large number of new recruits.” Readers of the Israelite, and of the Sun, too, presumably, were given to believe that hard times had little or no effect upon the colonies.12 But all this satisfaction proved premature, and after the late 1880s the fortunes of the Alliance farmers waned, resulting in a reduction in farm income and an increase in farm indebtedness.

Responsible in part for the increased debt was the colony’s brief success, which had spurred the farmers to spend more for farm tools, for the improvement of the buildings, for the purchase of feed, and for other purposes. They borrowed heavily in one instance from a Salem, New Jersey, building and loan association, mortgaging their farms as security. Still, the principal source of the reduction in farm income was beyond Alliance’s control; it was the general stagnation of American business and the low prices farm products fetched during the 1890s. As one historian has put it, even the “roaring ‘80’s” had “not brought equal cheer to all,” and they gave way to the “heartbreaking ‘90’s.” The panic of 1893 was what threatened to undo Alliance, along with the rest of the country:

In February, 1893, the Philadelphia and Reading Railroad Company failed; a break in the stock market followed, and an oldfashioned panic seized the country in its grasp. A period of hitherto unparalleled speculative frenzy came thus to an end, and sober years followed in which the American people had ample opportunity to contemplate the evils arising from their economic debauch. Prices of agricultural products continued their downward trend. Wheat touched bottom in 1894 with an average price of 49¢; corn, two years later, reached 21¢. All the other grains were likewise affected . . . it was literally cheaper to burn [the corn] than to sell it . . . and this . . . is what hundreds of despairing farmers did.13

Besides seeing the low prices for his produce further depressed by the rapacity of the railroads and the other intermediaries between the producer and the consumer, the farmer had to pay a high interest rate on his mortgage. Even more serious than the problem of mortgages, however, was the problem of taxes. The United States government at the turn of the century was far more protective of the interests of industrialists and big businessmen than it was of the interests of farmers. Federal revenues were raised exclusively through indirect taxes on consumer goods and commodities, which meant that an excessive share of the tax burden fell on farmers, shopkeepers, and wage earners. Henry George’s observation was accurate enough: the farmer “bears more than his fair share of the burdens of society, and gets less than his fair share of its benefits.”14

Throughout the four or five years that followed the panic of 1893, the Alliance colonists managed to hang on, although many lost their meager stock and savings and, worst of all, suffered some erosion of their spirit of perseverance. The Alliance colony also was confronted with a lack of understanding or sympathy in some quarters. Cincinnati’s American Israelite, for example, blamed the colony’s difficulties not on general economic conditions but on a presumed greediness, a shortsightedness, on the part of the colonists: “Up to two years ago,” said the Cincinnati journal in June 1897, Alliance had “prospered. The colonists raised good crops of berries and fruits and received good pay for them.” Some colonists, it was averred, unwisely increased the size of their farms, “and against the advice of the Alliance Land Trust, built expensive houses.” The consequent second mortgages “are what are now adding to the trouble at the colony.” The Israelite seemed unable to recognize that the problem was considerably more complex.15

In the winter of 1897–98, the Salem Building and Loan Association threatened to foreclose. It was then that the Baron de Hirsch Fund stepped in. After considerable negotiation, the fund arranged to buy up the mortgages of the farmers and also arranged a plan for the partial and gradual discharge of their debts. The fund’s administrators sought to substitute for relief grants as much as possible sound business methods and the creation of institutions of a permanent character which would encourage the recipient of aid to become self-reliant.16 Thus, Reis records that in 1905 the fund was encouraging the tailoring industry in Alliance.17 A few years earlier the brothers Maurice and Joseph Fels, Philadelphia industrialists, had sought to foster the aim of self-help by establishing a large canning factory near Alliance. Before the intervention of the Fels brothers, the farmers had been dependent on commission houses in the large cities for the sale of their products. Local markets were always limited, and when the market in the cities was glutted, the farmers lost heavily. Now with the establishment of a local canning factory, farmers became independent of the commission houses for they could store their produce until they found a favorable market.

Somehow the Alliance colony managed to survive the vicissitudes of the 1890s. Speaking in an official capacity, William Stainsby, a leading authority on the South Jersey colonies, had the following to say of Alliance in 1901:

The colony at Alliance has had a hard struggle, but has passed the experimental stage and is now fairly on the road to success. It has recently passed from the control of the Alliance Land Trust (incorporated by the Trustees of the H.E.A.S.) to the Board of Trustees of the Baron de Hirsch Fund. This, the first colony established in South Jersey, has not had the success which has crowned the colony at Woodbine, but it must be remembered that Alliance has not had hitherto, the benefit of large appropriations from the Baron de Hirsch Fund as have been given to the people of Woodbine.18

In 1905, an unofficial census revealed that, out of Pittsgrove Township’s total population of 2,154, some 900 persons or 165 families were Jewish.19 Just how many of these were farmers exclusively, or how many combined farming with another industrial occupation, tailoring, for instance, is not disclosed.

Subsequently, due mainly to the efforts of the Baron de Hirsch Fund, the character of Alliance underwent a vital change. As Reis tells us, the Jews of Alliance were seldom engaged only in farming. The first limited efforts the HEAS had undertaken in 1882 to introduce an industrial dimension into Alliance were now taken up by the Baron de Hirsch Fund, and Alliance, like Cape May’s Woodbine colony, became an agro-industrial community.

Still, in comparing Alliance with other ventures like New Odessa and Crémieux, it would be false to conclude that Alliance succeeded where the others failed, namely, in the establishment of a Jewish colony of farmers. But as a Jewish community in which agriculture played a vital, yet secondary part, Alliance enjoyed rather substantial success. Stainsby’s praise of the Alliance farmers aptly referred to their “ready adaptability to the circumstances by which they are surrounded and to their untiring energy,”20 as well as to the excellence of their products. Bailey offers some examples of Alliance’s adaptability and energy:

It is our old maxim that not “by bread alone lives man, but on the word of God.” Mr. Stavitsky brought with him a Sefer Torah, Mr. Krassenstein the Talmud, and we (my wife and I), the works of [the German poets] Schiller and Goethe. There was one public school in Union Grove and another in Willow Grove, about four or five miles apart. Our children had to walk long distances, through woods in order to reach school. Of course, they had to get up early and come home late. This was not satisfactory to our Jewish parents with whom education of children comes next in command to the “Shema!” [“Hear O Israel”—recital of Judaism’s monotheistic creed]. We petitioned the Board of Education for greater school facilities, and in consequence another school was built in Alliance. In all as many as five public schools were built in our midst.21

The area of the settlement being rather large and the population constantly increasing, we built four synagogues. Almost as soon as we arrived in Alliance, we inaugurated a Sabbath School where my wife read poems in Yiddish from [Morris] Rosenfeld and others, and also in German from Schiller and Goethe, and I spoke on Jewish current events and Jewish post-biblical history and on Jewish ethics generally, from the Scriptures and the Talmud. Later we had Friday night gatherings at the hall of the big synagogue where we also conducted a public library of which I was for many years librarian. We succeeded in getting Mr. [Maurice] Fels interested in our library to which he donated many valuable books. We also conducted night school for adults. Charles Spivak taught at one time, later Charles Rice and I conducted the night school for almost six years. Professor [Louis] Mounier did educational work for many years. He arranged lectures, concerts and taught music. We subscribed for Yiddish and English papers and magazines, acquired books and musical instruments.22

Several factors favorable to the survival of Alliance stand out. For one, the colony was near two large metropolitan centers, New York and Philadelphia, which meant access to a variety of markets and also to aid societies when the need for their services arose. In support of the “self-reliance” principle, various industrial enterprises were encouraged and established. There were times when the colonists grumbled at the meager wages paid them and at the fact that the enterprises were often enough shortlived. Still, the industrial dimension helped to tide the farmers over slack seasons, and by attracting others to the colony, expanded the local market. All these factors, singly or together, helped to carry the colony through sixteen years of struggle until the Baron de Hirsch Fund responded to the appeal for further aid. Alliance’s early history, paralleling that of other ventures which failed to survive, served to emphasize that a Jewish colony founded purely on agriculture could not endure; that if colonization was to achieve any measure of success, it had to be combined with industrial or mechanical pursuits.23 Alliance prospered sufficiently for Bailey to observe:

Now after a lapse of fifty years from such a meager beginning, when many a rib was broken as we ran into a stump while plowing or cultivating; after learning how to harness horses to a double plow, and to use tractors, hay-loaders, potato planters and other farm machinery, we may feel thankful and satisfied with our achievement. Our farms are all paid for; we have a good name, and credit in the bank, befitting industrious and thrifty people. We feel prosperous and can keep our heads up; we are employed steadily; we are our own bosses. We are well and fairly comfortable and happy. Even the crisis which played such havoc in the cities with our brethren who were gambling in real estate and in stocks and bonds, didn’t hurt us very much. We lost neither our heads nor our homes. Indeed, we have less temptations, albeit less luxuries. We lead a natural life.24

Woodbine

The best example of an agro-industrial community is not Alliance but Woodbine, the Cape May County sister-colony which was begun in 1891, nine years after the founding of Alliance. At the outset, it must be stated, Woodbine, too, failed as an agricultural settlement. The aim of establishing a colony consisting exclusively of Jewish farmers soon had to be abandoned, and as Woodbine developed, the number of those engaged in agriculture continued to decline.25 Nonetheless, farming played a vital, however subordinate, role in the life of Woodbine.

The history of the agricultural efforts undertaken in the 1880s was not in itself sufficient to inspire new attempts. The creation of Woodbine, the last important agricultural venture of the nineteenth century, was the result of a fresh outburst of persecution suffered by the Jews in Russia. During the years 1887–89, the German financier-philanthropist Baron Maurice de Hirsch had carried on with the czar’s government negotiations in which he proposed to assume the cost of educating his fellow-Jews in agricultural and mechanical pursuits, providing the government would repeal the harsh and discriminatory legislation denying Jews a position of equality in the Russian empire.26 The negotiations had broken down when de Hirsch came to the realization that the Russian government had absolutely no desire to improve the position of the Jews, but rather preferred their removal from the realm. Emigration was the only solution, but de Hirsch preferred an orderly emigration with the object of “establishing Jews primarily as farmers and also as handicraftsmen in those lands where laws and religious tolerance permitted them to carry on the struggle for existence as noble and responsible subjects of a humanitarian government.” For de Hirsch, too, agriculture held a messianic promise: “The poor Jew, who until now has been hated as an outcast, will win for himself peace and independence, love for the ground he tills and for freedom; and he will become a patriotic citizen of his new homeland.”27

Founders of the Alliance Colony, New Jersey. “They looked to father Sun and mother Earth.” Shneur Bailey, second row, first on left. (Courtesy AJA, Cincinnati)

Baron Maurice de Hirsch. Agriculture held a messianic purpose. (Courtesy AJA, Cincinnati)

Hirsch L. Sabsovich, founder, champion, and mayor of Woodbine, New Jersey. (Courtesy YIVO)

Mayor and other members of the municipality, ca. 1905. (Courtesy YIVO)

A view of Woodbine. (Courtesy YIVO)

Woodbine: proof that the Jew “loves the beautiful, the quiet and natural life of man”

Young colonists. (Courtesy YIVO)

The actualization of this scheme led to the baron’s well-known colonization ventures in Argentina and, in the United States, to the creation of the Baron de Hirsch Fund.28 Acting on de Hirsch’s suggestion, Isadore Loeb of the AIU approached a number of prominent laymen in New York City, men like Jacob H. Schiff, Meyer S. Isaacs, and Emanuel Lehman, and requested them to form a central committee to determine the disposition of the money de Hirsch would provide for the improvement of the position of persecuted Jews. The central committee held a formal meeting of organization on March 13, 1890, in New York City. Nine members were chosen to act as trustees. Later the committee adopted the name of the Baron de Hirsch Fund.

In its deed of trust, the aims of the Baron de Hirsch Fund were stated:

        1)   to make loans to immigrants from Russia and Rumania, to actual agriculturists, settlers within the United States, on real or chattel security.

        2)   to aid in the transportation of immigrants after arrival at an American port to places where they may find work and make themselves self-supporting.

        3)   to teach immigrants trades and to continue their support while learning such trades.

        4)   to furnish instruction in agricultural work and in improved methods of farming.

        5)   to furnish instruction in the English language and in the duties of American citizenship . . . to all in the establishment of special schools and workshops.29

The Baron de Hirsch Fund was not concerned exclusively with agricultural activities, nor did it aim solely to make farmers out of the Jews. Its major task was to help the immigrant adjust quickly to his new home; the fund sought to achieve its goals by whatever means seemed best. In later years when the agricultural responsibilities of the fund became pressing, it turned over all such matters to the Jewish Agricultural and Industrial Aid Society, which subsequently transformed itself into the Jewish Agricultural Society. Even before these events, however, the fund undertook the creation of Woodbine.30

To carry out its task of helping the harried victims of czarist bigotry, the fund appointed the Committee on Agricultural and Industrial Settlements, headed by Dr. Julius Goldman, a notable proponent of agricultural colonization. Despite the record of failure of such colonization, Goldman vigorously urged the establishment of another colony in the hope that this time the disasters of the past would be avoided. A majority of the committee, however, was not persuaded by his proposal. The majority view held that, since swift settlement of the immigrants was necessary, families should be placed in groups on small plots of ground located near a large city. The aim was to have some members of each family work the farm, while the rest secured jobs in the city or in the colony itself. In this way a steady income would be assured to tide the families over the initial period of clearing the land, plowing, planting, and sowing. The colony, wrote Rosenthal, was to “be set up, not as a charitable undertaking, but [one] founded on pure businesslike commercial principles.”

From its inception, the Woodbine colony was predicated on the assumption that some form of industrial activity would be necessary to supplement farm income, though ultimately, it was hoped, all the residents of the colony would become farmers. The Committee on Agricultural and Industrial Settlements appointed a three-member subcommittee to investigate the possibilities of a South Jersey site for the projected colony. Two of the subcommittee’s members, Herman Rosenthal and Paul Kaplan, were Am Olam founders. On the advice of Hirsch L. Sabsovich, an outstanding agricultural chemist, Woodbine, part of Dennis Township in Cape May County, was the site chosen.31

The reasons given for this selection were that Woodbine was only fifty-six miles from Philadelphia and twenty-two miles south of Vineland, the site of another colonization scheme.32 A large tract of land was available, or could be easily assembled. The soil, though covered with a dense growth of scrub oak and pine, had proven capable of adaptation to truck-farming and to the cultivation of fruits. Markets existed nearby in Sea Isle City (only sixteen miles away), Cape May, and Philadelphia. The West Jersey and Seashore Railroad furnished ample transportation. There were already improved farms in the neighborhood. And, lastly, the attitude of the native farmers seemed friendly toward the newcomers,33 an important factor in the lives of persecuted Jews.

Once it had been determined that Woodbine would be the site of the venture, a corporation to manage it was created under the name of the Woodbine Land and Improvement Company. Its directors were the trustees of the Baron de Hirsch Fund, and it was capitalized at $50,000, with the fund holding all the capital stock. Goldman was elected president of the Company, and Sabsovich was named superintendent of the colony.34 In August 1891 the Woodbine Land and Improvement Company purchased 5,300 acres of land for the sum of $37,500. Preliminary to the transfer of families, the land was surveyed and 800 centrally located acres were set aside for the town plot. The rest of the land beyond the town limits was divided into parcels of fifteen acres each. Beyond the farms there was to be pasture land. In all, the development resembled the layout of a medieval English village.

The entire venture was marked by a great effort to leave nothing to chance. The experienced New York representative, Herman Rosenthal, was assigned the task of selecting the colonists. Each family was required to invest some of its own money and to pay an additional $200, though the latter condition was not always insisted on, since it might have led to the elimination of many desirable families. A fifteen-acre plot of farm land was to be sold each farmer at a nominal sum, and in addition the purchaser could take out an option on an adjoining fifteen acres to be purchased within a reasonable span of time. The contracts made between the prospective settler and the Woodbine Land and Improvement Company called for the payment of $150 rent for the first three years and the execution of leases upon presentation at the end of that period. The colonists were to agree to pay $200 down, give a purchase mortgage for the land and house and a chattel mortgage on implements and livestock in exchange for a deed. At the end of twelve years, at an average cost of $1,100, the settlers would hold clear title to their thirty-acre farms. According to the best authority on the Baron de Hirsch Fund, the fund did not place too much stress upon the contracts, for it was never its intention to evict anyone for failure to live up to their terms,35 a significant point in the light of developments in the year 1893.

The first arrivals, sixty heads of families, most of whom had been settled in the United States for some time, signed the contracts. As the press reports of the time make clear,

Before the families of the settlers moved to Woodbine, the men built the houses and prepared everything for the final settlement. During this interval they lived in rude structures that afterwards became barns. A small stove, a table made of a barrel and a board, and rough bunks on the ground and in the loft were the only furniture.

The usual task of clearing the land was undertaken. For this work the Woodbine Land and Improvement Company paid them a weekly wage. They were to clear ten acres of their thirty-acre tracts, build their houses and plant four and a half acres of fruit-trees and berries. When his own plot was completed, each colonist would join the others in making a new farm. When this new farm was ready, another colonist from New York would come and occupy it. The company supplied all lumber, tools, trees and seeds beside the necessary animals. It was not an easy life, but, particularly once families were reunited, it held genuine promise.

The diet of the men was mostly coffee and black bread. Their Russian costumes in most cases had been put aside. Some of the older men, however, clung to their astrakhan cap and the long cloak with the astrakhan trimmings. The Hebrew cast of countenance was not so marked as expected. The faces were broad and full. The hair of the young girls was cut straight across the forehead. The children were noticeably bright and active.

According to Sabsovich, each new colonist was to begin cultivation of his tract with ten acres all ready for planting, and twenty acres wooded. The wood could be cut for fire, or sold. In 1892, a year after the project was begun, Sabsovich estimated that

the time will now be coming when the farms will all be taken and laid out and there will be no work for which the company can offer wages to the colonists. In order to provide against this happening long before the farms begin to pay a living, any kind of industry should be encouraged.36

The second year, Sabsovich believed, the colonists with luck would get enough return from their vegetable patches to provide for their families, but it would be three years—1894—before the strawberries and small fruits would begin to bear. “That year would be the test of whether the colony would pay its way or not.” Woodbine meanwhile seemed to be thriving. Cincinnati’s American Israelite, in describing the Woodbine enterprise, was more charitable or more hopeful than it would be a few years later in depicting the Alliance experience:

According to the report for Mr. [Francis B.] Lee, the agent of the New Jersey State Board of Agriculture, the town of Woodbine, in Cape May County, under Superintendent Sabsovich of the Hirsch Fund, consists of 1,536 lots, around which are 30 acre farms and the outlying lowlands are reserved for pasturage upon the plan of medieval English communities. In a year 650 acres of farmland, 12 miles of driveway, and 170 acres of town lots have been wrested from a natural wilderness. The town houses were built by the company (composed of the Trustees of the American Hirsch Fund), cost from $850 to $1,300 each, and are models of neatness and adaptability for the colonists’ needs. Active work is expected to give Woodbine 150 houses by spring. A hotel, a railway station, a synagogue, and a public school are completed, or are in course of erection. A park has been laid out with side streets and avenues lined with poplars and maples. On the farms each agriculturist has 250 fruit trees, planted in 1891, with an acre of grapes and small fruits. Early vegetables growing as readily in Cape May as in Norfolk, were also successfully raised.37

In an address given some months later, in August 1893, Lee described the conditions of that year.38 Work had progressed rapidly. Six hundred and fifty acres of farmland had been cleared, and a hundred miles of farm roads had been built. Farmhouses were erected, and in his opinion, they were as well-built as town houses. They contained the latest features in scientific ventilation and plumbing. The recently established Jonasson Cloak factory was in operation and employed one hundred fifty people, and other factories for cutlery, knitting, and cigars, were soon to be built.39 Anticipating the demands of a transient trade, a new hotel was built, and the railroad even opened a station at Woodbine to accommodate traffic. Goldman’s report to the Baron de Hirsch Fund was very optimistic. The Woodbine experience would prove that mass colonization of East European Jews on agricultural land could be successful.40

But in the spring of the following year, 1894, all building stopped, and practically all farm work was suspended. This was the year referred to by the colonists as the “Year of the Trouble.” Chiefly responsible was a failure of communication between the trustees, who were well-Americanized gentry of German Jewish background, and the colonists, who were, of course, Yiddish-speaking immigrants. The Jewish communal worker Boris Bogen, who for a while taught for the Baron de Hirsch Fund in Woodbine, has deftly summed up the characteristic attitude of Westernized Jews to the exotics from Eastern Europe: “The immigrant was a child who must be carefully kept in his place. His benefactors knew better than he what was good for him. These benefactors had made substantial business successes and, therefore, felt they were the competent guardians of the newcomers.”41 The trustees had decided to discontinue the fund’s monthly aid, a course of action they justified by contending that, with the cloak factory now operating, the foundations of the colony had been secured. The farmer could find work there in his slack season; all further aid from the fund was simply unnecessary. Moreover, the capital which had been set aside for Woodbine was practically exhausted.

An anxious correspondence followed between Superintendent Sabsovich and the trustees. In a letter to Goldman, Sabsovich pointed out the unwisdom of cutting off aid to the colonists. He reminded the trustees that the Jonasson Cloak Factory had been open only since April 1892, not nearly long enough to assure the employment that the trustees assumed was available to the farmers. Only those whose children could work in the factory during the winter had acquired sufficient income; and all the farmers were burdened with great expenses like providing their families with transportation from Europe and improving their farms. They had exhausted whatever savings they may have possessed. “I strongly advocate more help for the farmers,” Sabsovich asserted.

I would suggest that we advance them $100.00 each to plow and harrow the land; for though they earned good money during the first year of Woodbine’s existence, still, considering that everyone had to build a new home, and besides that, send a considerable amount of money to Russia to bring their families over, and to invest some on their farms, it is easy to realize that of their earnings they could save nothing. By helping them to improve their farms we shall the sooner free them from our wardship. After all, they are our wards.

Of the trustees, however, Goldman alone agreed with Sabsovich’s suggestion.42

The fund’s decision to discontinue its aid was the chief cause of the “Year of the Trouble.” But there were other troubles plaguing Woodbine. For one, conceded by Sabsovich, too much clearing had been attempted, due as much to inexpert management as to the overenthusiasm of the farmers. As a result, few farms had been properly cleared, which limited their income-producing ability and was only further evidence of Sabsovich’s contention that the farmers were not yet self-supporting. Then, in January 1893, when the leases which the original contracts called for were presented, only two of the sixty farmers signed. The fund trustees interpreted this failure to sign as evidence of willful and unwarranted spite, and they therefore instituted eviction proceedings against those who were considered the leaders of the agitation. Naturally, this course of action led to fierce controversy—what the historian Joseph Brandes has called “the Woodbine revolution”—and the fund received sharp criticism. The New York Press, for instance, undertook to tell the story in terms that were less than flattering to the Baron de Hirsch Fund: The colonists had

first bought five thousand acres of the scrub oak and pine land at $6.00 an acre. It is called virgin soil. It is severely virgin. Spinster soil confirmed in old maid habits would be, perhaps, a better name for it. There is no doubt that it will make good farm land with patience, time, and scientific methods, but the battle to be waged against the stumps and the everspringing brush, is one that is taking the heart out of many a “farmer” bred to town ways, and has done much to bring about the present state of affairs.

So far as the Press could tell, the selection of the families who were to settle in the South Jersey wilderness was equally “ideal and chimerical.” Having many children had been seen by the patrons of Woodbine as “the first requisite.” The children were to be employed in the cloak factory and comparable enterprises to be set up; they were to earn needed money while the father stayed home and devoted three or four years to bringing “the wild land under subjection.” The scheme thus sought to make a virtue of necessity, though it could not be “supposed that the children should support the parents while they were farm making.” The would-be farmer’s other resources were the seven dollars he was to be paid for each acre of the farm he cleared and whatever he could earn constructing roads in the colony. He would have a house and a cow bam, be given $40 to buy a cow, and $12.50 to buy chickens, and in addition would receive “implements, seeds, fruit trees, and plants . . . for a start.”

Sixty heads of families were chosen with care for the experiment. Most of them had settled for some time in this country. Only about fifteen were brought from the other side. They all signed contracts which would give them in fee simple, thirty acre farms in twelve years at an average cost of $1,100. The first three years they were to pay fifty dollars rent, and execute leases upon presentation. Then they were to receive a deed upon paying $200 down, and giving a purchase mortgage for the land and house, and chattel mortgages on implements and livestock.

After the first heads of families had been selected they sent a delegation down to Woodbine to look at the site. Then the contracts were signed, and it is probable that no great stress was laid upon the contents at the time, for the simple reason that the company had no mind that the worthy beneficiary would suffer by not being able to live up to its terms. They have asked none but the agitators for the first year’s rent.

The construction of housing for the settlers had been poorly planned. None had been put up until late fall and early winter, hardly the best season to begin farming in the wilderness. The consequent hardship had embittered the colonists. The New York Press focused in particular on two farms at the two extreme ends of the colony. The first shelter available there was “a little shanty” no bigger than “a hen’s roost.” The occupants of those two farms complained of having “lived in that place, sixteen in all, for five months,” while their land was being cleared.

This was not a desperate matter for pioneers who, as Superintendent Sabsovich says, are glad in Dakota or Kansas to live in dugouts their first years. Yet work under these circumstances made just this significance in the case, that it gave the colonists a feeling of having put some of their lives into the soil and animating that feeling which made evictions so incomprehensibly hard for the Irish peasant, which made the interminable lease peasant of the patroons rise in this state in 1845 and set their pitchfork tines against the clauses of these manuscripts and the bayonets of the militia.

The Press went on to offer an account of the Woodbine difficulties and Sabsovich’s admission that the inexperienced farmers had been given too many acres and too many seeds too soon. The trustees of the fund, it was implied, might have had right on their side, but would have been well advised to temper justice with mercy. “Failure will add another agony to the perplexing problems of immigration.”43

The trustees took what seemed the only course left open to them; they appointed Colonel John B. Weber, former Immigration Commissioner of the Port of New York, to investigate. Colonel Weber interviewed fifty-five farmers and made a series of recommendations. Chief among his suggestions were that the colonists make no further extension of farm plots; that they gradually fill up the farms now vacated; that the fund develop the town of Woodbine by introducing industries; that they also introduce a non-Jewish element among the factory operators, a policy which would tend to promote the Americanization of the settlers; and, lastly, that newcomers be scattered among those having agricultural experience. “Further experience,” he declared, “may develop the wisdom of another experiment of a farming colony upon lands yielding immediate returns, instead of lands requiring four or five years for clearing and putting in tillable shape.”44

The trustees acted on Weber’s recommendations and made many concessions. The Woodbine Land and Improvement Company would now furnish the farmers with work until their lands were cleared and rendered suitable for farming. Also, the terms of the leases were modified; the price of the farmhouses, land and livestock was reduced; the amounts of the installments and the interest were also reduced; and, finally, the interest payment of 1893 was postponed until October 1894. Even so, legal action was taken against a number of the Woodbine “revolutionists,” those who in January 1893 had refused to cooperate with the fund trustees, and they were forced off their holdings.45

As for the trustees of the Baron de Hirsch Fund, profound disillusionment followed the “Year of the Trouble.” For them, Woodbine had failed as an agricultural enterprise. The New York journalist-lawyer Myer S. Isaacs had already expressed his pessimism: “I do not think we should repeat the experiment of sending a certain number of families, whose capacity and history are unknown, to an uncleared tract of land and to be held responsible by them or in our own minds for their failure to become successful farmers.”46 Julius Goldman, who had pinned his hopes on having Woodbine prove a success agriculturally, was now of the opinion that agricultural settlements among Russian Jews on any extended scale were bound to fail; settlers sent to agricultural colonies in large numbers without being required to invest any means of their own would lose their self-reliance and become communal burdens.47 Because of the discussion in the press and the dispossession of some of the settlers, Woodbine received a great deal of unfavorable publicity among East European Jewish immigrants. Sabsovich admitted that many farms were vacant because of the ouster of dissidents, and that the turnover among the remainder was very great. Finally, as a result of the loss of interest and activity in farm work, the trustees turned toward the development of industries and toward the establishment at Woodbine in 1894 of an agricultural school named for Baron de Hirsch and intended, under Professor Sabsovich’s direction, “to raise intelligent, practical farmers” in a two-year course of study.48

The picture of Woodbine after 1893 would change considerably. The next seven years witnessed the establishment of a number of industrial ventures.49 The policy of the Woodbine Land and Improvement Company was to grant manufacturers subsidies of all kinds (free rent, free light, etc.) in order to encourage them to set up their factories there. The first such enterprise was a short-lived broom and basket factory. It was followed by a machine shop which later developed into the Woodbine Machine and Tool Company, one of the most successful of all Woodbine enterprises. The Jonasson Cloak Factory, initiated in April 1892, closed its doors in 1893 after the industrial depression of that year made itself felt. Other clothing factories were set up, however. In the case of one of them, Haas Brothers, the Woodbine Land and Improvement Company went so far as to give free rent for three years, as well as free light and steam for six months, and agreed to rent at nominal terms twenty farmhouses and four town houses for the use of the firm’s workmen. Despite these concessions (some of the trustees felt because of them), Haas Brothers closed its doors in 1898. In only one instance did the Woodbine Company directly participate in the management of an industry in Woodbine, but this venture, too, lasted only five months. Before the century closed, the Universal Lock Company agreed to transfer its plant to Woodbine, the Woodbine Company in its turn undertaking to build a factory to house Universal and to advance on mortgage 70 percent of the cost of erecting twelve new homes for their workmen. In the summer of 1897, the American Israelite was able to report:

In an interview with a representative of the New York Evening Post, Mr. A[dolphus]. S. Solomons, agent of the Hirsch Fund, says of the Baron de Hirsch colony at Woodbine, New Jersey: “Hard times have not injured in the least the prosperity of the colony at Woodbine. There is not an idle man or woman in the settlement. There have been no reduction in wages, no strikes, no worriments of the sort that have come to the rest of the country. In the iron mills, the basket factory, and the brick-yards, the tailoring shops, and on the farms there has been no trouble such as that in the Alliance colony in Salem county, New Jersey.”

Still, the Israelite remembered the troubles of earlier years at Woodbine:

There are about 240 families in this colony, over 1,000 people. If Mr. Solomons is correctly reported it is an achievement to be proud of. . . . But why should so good a work be shrouded in mystery? Why do not the Hirsch Fund trustees give a public account of the discharging of their trust? They have achieved a great success and the world is anxious to know how it was done that the methods may be copied.50

Behind all the Woodbine ventures was the hope, even after the “Year of the Trouble,” that the town population would create a market for farm products, that agriculture and industry would complement each other. This hope was, of course, far removed from the original conception of making agriculture the paramount objective, a conception which had expressed itself, for instance, in a very early decision to rent no houses in Woodbine to persons who came there merely for the sake of being employed in any industries that might be established.

As for Woodbine’s Baron de Hirsch Agricultural School, though not an unequivocal success (it was plagued by curricular vacillations and student unrest), apparently it had a beneficial influence on New Jersey agriculture. Stainsby at any rate devoted much space to a description of the school and its activities.51 The school won several prizes in the Paris Exhibition of 1899, and in 1900 Governor Foster M. Voorhees of New Jersey ordered Stainsby, acting as a special agent, to give an account of it in his annual report to the state legislature. By 1912, nearly 900 students had attended the school; some 400 had completed the course of study.52

The main building of the school. (Courtesy AJA, Cincinnati)

Baron de Hirsch Agricultural School, Woodbine, New Jersey

Office and classroom building. (Courtesy AJA, Cincinnati)

Students spraying potatoes, 1907. (Courtesy YIVO)

Mechanics in the school shop. (Courtesy YIVO)

Students planting tomatoes, 1907. (Courtesy YIVO)

Agricultural students, 1930s. (Courtesy YIVO)

Scenes from South Jersey farming colony: Carmel, 1889. (Courtesy YIVO)

By the end of its first decade, Woodbine presented what Professor Samuel Joseph thought proper to call “a hopeful picture of growth.” What had been at the outset “a barren wasteland with hardly a sign of habitation” presented a strikingly different appearance in 1901. Of the colony’s original 5,300 acres, “1800 . . . were cleared and improved; in the town site 275 acres were cleared. Fourteen miles of street had been laid out, four miles of which had been graded and gravelled; there were twelve miles of farm roads in excellent condition. There was a population . . . of over 1400, with one hundred and sixty Jewish families and thirty-four non-Jewish families.”53 At that time, 40 percent of the population was engaged in agriculture, 60 percent in industrial pursuits.54 Of the fifty farms (a decline from the original sixty), sixteen were already paid for in full, while the others were under leases and the farmers were rapidly clearing them. Fifty percent of all the residents owned their homes. Many public buildings had been erected; for instance, a synagogue, a Baptist church (the ground for which had been donated by the fund), a public bathhouse, and two school buildings. Industrial activities included the Woodbine Machine and Tool Company, the Universal Lock Company, a large clothing concern (Daniels and Blumenthal), two small clothing factories, and the Woodbine Brick Company. Woodbine also led in the production of fine fruits and vegetables. Speaking of the farmers of Woodbine, Stainsby said:

The Jews who enter upon farm life are hard workers, and from earliest dawn to sundown the hours are spent in labor on the farm. They are always anxious to find the best methods to pursue in cultivation of the soil and the treatment of growing crops. In taking a tract of 15 acres of his farm, the head of the family devotes himself to that work, perhaps retaining a son to help him, the rest of the children find employment in the factory and earn sufficient to supply the needs of the family until the farm is well-cultivated and productive.55

Woodbine by now possessed many of the attributes of political autonomy: an improvement association, a board of health, a volunteer fire department, a school system. Apparently it also had its share of political corruption. In March 1903 Woodbine was formally detached from Dennis Township and incorporated as an independent borough, the “First Self- Governed Jewish Community Since the Fall of Jerusalem,” a New York enthusiast called it. No longer would its citizens be compelled to see their tax revenues devoted to purposes from which Woodbine derived little benefit. Woodbine would now be separated “from the hands of the surrounding politicians,” would “become conscious of its civic responsibilities,” and would develop “a proud citizenship scorning the corrupter.” Moreover, it would no longer need to “maintain itself . . . by the philanthropy of the Baron de Hirsch Fund.” Sabsovich, elected mayor in April, presided over “a Jewish administration.”56

Writing of Woodbine a year later, in 1904, Abraham R. Levy, a rabbinical visitor from Chicago, compared the pioneer work of the South Jersey colonists to the achievement of the Pilgrim fathers.57 Like them, the Jewish colonists had come to a new land, subdued it, and built a culture which was a blend of the old and the new. In speaking of their agricultural efforts, Rabbi Levy asserted that they were the most successful intensive farmers. Their products, particularly sweet potatoes and grapes, were famous throughout the East. The problem of keeping the children on the farms had been dealt with more successfully than in non-Jewish farming villages throughout the nation. “It is probable that fewer young men and women leave Woodbine and the other Jewish settlements than leave the average American farming villages.”58 The reason was that social institutions, schools, synagogues, social clubs, were being developed simultaneously with the economic growth. The rabbi concluded that “Woodbine proves that although the Jew is not naturally a farmer, with proper training, aid and encouragement, he can become one.”59

As a grand experiment in agricultural colonization, Woodbine was a failure, but as an experiment in agro-industrial colonization, it must be pronounced a success. Despite the agricultural instability which dominated the closing years of the old century, as the new century began, two–fifths of the Jews in Woodbine were earning their living as successful farmers.

The largest single differentiating factor between Woodbine and the other colonization attempt was, of course, the support given by the Baron de Hirsch Fund. Woodbine was the child of the fund, the direct application of its principles. Despite the reluctance of the trustees of the fund to pour unlimited sums of money into Woodbine lest their largesse corrupt the colonists’ spirit of self-reliance, they never withheld aid when it was necessary, as events even after the dismaying confrontations of 1893 bore out. The de Hirsch Fund leadership had come to understand what one student of Jewish agricultural efforts would conclude a generation later: that for Jews to succeed as farmers was primarily a matter of environment and adaptation. Jews had no instinctive aversion to farming. On the contrary, “nurture [was] more powerful than nature. Efficient training in the proper surroundings, and subsequent encouragement [were] the basic needs.” Woodbine thus had the benefit of careful planning, expert direction, and large resources. Most important of all, it became evident that only as an agro-industrial community would Woodbine survive and flourish.60

Perhaps no one who supported these South Jersey experiments around the turn of the century ever summed up the feelings they inspired better than Bernard A. Palitz, of Philadelphia, who succeeded Sabsovich as superintendent of the Woodbine colony. In 1907 Palitz drafted an account of “The Borough of Woodbine,” which concluded:

If the South Jersey colonies have made their progress gradually and probably slower than a settlement started by a population used to the tilling of the soil and country life, they are sufficient to convince the anti-Semite that the Jewish conception of social life is not commerce, that he loves the beautiful, the quiet and natural life of man and lives it when equal opportunities are offered to him. To the Jew who wastes away his life and the lives of his children in the filth of the tenement house, in the death-traps of the sweat shop, in the immoral and unhealthy surroundings—they cry out: come back to your natural calling, to the healthy life-prolonging occupation, to more light and purer air; harden your muscles and broaden your mind for the struggle that Israel is yet to meet before his mission is accomplished and his prophecies fulfilled.61

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2. Our Russian Colonies

Additional Information

ISBN
9780814344644
Related ISBN
9780814344651
MARC Record
OCLC
1055139115
Pages
73-107
Launched on MUSE
2018-10-02
Language
English
Open Access
Yes
Creative Commons
CC-BY-NC
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