Paradise Lost: Building a Socialist Utopia in Contra Costa County

By William Mero

The 1890s were a time of social and political turmoil. Labor strife, votes for women, prohibitionists, free love, and the sight of cigarette smoking women began stirring America's intellectual stew. The rise of monopolies and industrial trusts created a fertile field for the growth of socialism that was brought to America by the rising wave of left leaning European immigrants. California was swept up in this spirit of experimentation and idealism. A reflection of this social ferment was an interest in forming communes that wouldn't be seen again until the 1960s hippie phenomena. A few of the most famous "utopian" societies were those near Visalia (Kaweah), Santa Rosa (Alturia), Fountain Grove (The New Eden of the West), Russian River (Icaria Speranza), and Bakersfield (Joyful).

Our own little Contra Costa County was not immune to this frenzy of experimentation and search for social justice. The Brotherhood of Winters Island was intended to be a new communist society living together with complete equality after the elimination of private property. Winter Island is a soggy, little, tule covered patch located within the junction of the Sacramento and San Joaquin rivers opposite the small town of Pittsburg. On the face of it, the island appears to have been a strange place to create a utopia.

In 1893 the 650 acre Winter Island was sold to the Brotherhood by its first leader, Erastus Kelsey, for $20,000. For a socialist Kelsey was a pretty good businessman. He used his idealistic connections in an attempt to make a handsome real estate deal. Each of the Brotherhood's 100 members paid a $1.25 membership fee and $5.00 per month to establish the new social order(and help pay off its new mortgage). Farming was expected to support the group with the profits divided evenly among the society members. Their first major task was to build a levee so that the island could be protected from the river.

The first president of the utopian colony, Andrew J. Gregg, was from Oakland,. He was a carpenter and Populist Party candidate for lieutenant-Governor in 1894. Gregg campaigned for the elimination of private property and helped found the Carpenters Union. One of the most prominent and influential members of the colony were Kate and Louis Nevins. The rest of their lives would be involved in some way with Winter Island.

Kate was elected assistant secretary of the colony. Eventually she would become the vice president and a driving force behind this ambitious enterprise. Louis and Kate Nevins were some of the most colorful characters living in the Delta. Louis was a supporter of Native American rights and a friend of Chief Seattle and his daughter, Queen Angeline. Among the northwestern Indians Louis Nevins was known as "Heap Pony." Kate was a strong promoter of Esperanto as a universal language and organizer of the million man Farmer's Alliance. Traveling alone on organizing trips, she always carried a shotgun for protection and often camped by the roadside. She was famed as a tough suffragist and street corner socialist agitator espousing various radical doctrines.

Active participation by the Brotherhood members in the commune was disappointing. No more than 10 members lived and worked on Winter Island at any one time. Crops included tomatoes, onions, grapes, raspberries, blackberries, strawberries, milk, hay and pasture. In time an orchard was also planted. Word spread to the members living in Berkeley and Oakland that building the levee was hard, dirty work. Once built the levee was under constant attack from burrowing muskrats and beavers. Two years later in 1895 the levee was still unfinished. High tides often brought water up to the house and barn.

However, during this time, a sympathetic visitor to the island wrote that "we had a chance to see what love and unity could do..there is a way to live in quiet and peace-not as slaves to arbitrary laws, but to be holders of a certain share..which would free our mind from poverty and friendlessness." Unfortunately the real truth was that personal and financial storm clouds were gathering around this outpost of Contra Costa idealism.

There was one huge issue that gnawed at the heart of the cooperative. This was the unhappiness of workers who did the dirty work but got the same pay as the administrators, planners, and accountants. Many of those who labored in the fields began to feel that they should earn more than those who never dirtied their hands in the muck. There were increasingly serious arguments over who should labor and who should supervise. There was also the problem of equal pay for those who worked hard and those who were lazy. Eventually even the radical socialist Kate Nevins admitted "..that the labor of one adult was equal in value to the labor of any other one adult was wrong. One man may accomplish twice as much as another one."

In 1895 the commune faced an environmental issue. Some members strongly urged that their human waste be spread on the fields so as not to waste this "natural resource." However it was decided it would be easier to sell their farm produce if their untreated human sewage was piped into the river. Later that year it was announced that "We pump the water out of the Bay for drinking and cooking, and mighty good water it is too!"

The severe depression and panic of 1894 began cutting into the financial support that the Brotherhood had found essential for its survival. Two projects on the island provided an economic transfusion which for a time held off the looming collapse. In 1896 the San Francisco Fire Department began pasturing over 40 horses on the island for a $1.00 a month per horse. The soft soil allowed the horses to restore their hooves after galloping on the hard, city cobblestones. On January 1, 1897 the Brotherhood took over the operation of the government navigational lights on Winter Island. But soon payments to Kelsey on his $20,000 mortgage began to falter. Dissatisfied workers began drifting away. Equality of reward regardless of equality of contribution continued to cause dissent among the colony's members.

By 1898 the last crop of onions were harvested by the dying colony. In 1901 the Brotherhood defaulted on the Winter Island mortgage and the property reverted to Kelsey. Within a few years most of the land was sold to private duck hunting clubs and then farming corporations. Today the island has pretty much reverted to its natural state.

In later years the Nevins bought a small plot of land on Winter Island. Kate was supposed to have beat a tin dishpan during spells of dense tule fog to warn passing river ships of the island. On the island the Nevins lived in a cabin salvaged from the ship wrecked sternwheel steamship, Orizaba. After Louis died in 1921, Kate divided her time between Winter Island and a shabby house boat along the Antioch waterfront. Always a free spirit she enjoyed the companionship of a variety of men friends. She died in the Napa State Mental Hospital in 1943. The floating community of house boats were burned in 1945 by the fire department in order to rid Antioch of its notorious red-light district.

All of the utopian social experiments in California gradually withered away. Most suffered from the same personal and philosophic infighting that destroyed the Brotherhood of Winter Island. Some like Kaweah ran smack into the budding environmental movement. The financial success of the Kaweah colony depended on their being able to log the giant redwoods on the communes' land. The fire storm of opposition to the proposed destruction of these magnificent trees, doomed the socialist community and it was eventually abandoned. The last large Marxist-socialist utopian colony was established in the Antelope Valley in the 1920s. Internal dissent and legal irregularities in selling membership shares soon had state investigators invading the commune at the same time as disgruntled settlers were leaving. These early experiments in constructing a new society were run by largely gentle souls.

Sadly, during the latter part of the 20th century, the most recent upsurge in building utopian societies led to the murderous insanity of Manson, Jim Jones, and Waco.


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