In the Time of COVID. Day 31
April 18, 2020
During the 19th Century there was a great upsurge in Utopianism. Much of it was driven by Christian Pacifism.
From Russia, the Doukhobors fled persecution and military inscription. They fled to the plains of southwestern Canada and the region around Lake Kooteney, in British Columbia. The Hutterites fled Germany for similar reasons. They moved along the Canada / US frontier on both sides. Both groups created what they considered authentic Christian communities. To this day they live in exclusive farmsteads, in communal housing, in communal everything. They are industrious, hardworking and faithful to their covenants. There is a Hutterite community near Warden, Washington, less than 50 miles from my hometown.
I remember seeing strangely dressed people coming into Spokane when I was a kid. The men had long beards and no mustaches , they wore black clothes and tall black felt hats. They spoke to one another in German. The women wore long black dresses and discreet bonnets covering their hair. They stayed together when they shopped. Their coming too town was a rare event.
In 1962 a 250 acre parcel of farmland was inherited by a guy name Hugh Williams. His grandmother was an original farming settler in Eastern Washington. Hugh was a pacifist. He was involved with the Committee for Nonviolent Action. CNVA members actively protested Nuclear Arms and war of any kind. Hugh lived by those principles. He placed the 250 acres into a communal farm. He named it Tolstoy Farm. The Original Tolstoy Farm was created by Mahatma Gandhi in 1910 in South Africa.
Hugh put the word out in Anti-War publications that Tolstoy Farm, in Washington State was inviting dedicated Pacifists to join the commune. The organizational model was government by consensus, no leader. The whole farm was off the grid. There was to be no private property. Those who wished to live life as authentic purposeful pacifists in a decentralized rural setting were welcome to give Tolstoy Farm a try. At the end of one year a consensus vote would be taken to determine if the person could stay as an actual member. There was a central farm house with community kitchen and library and sleeping areas. Eventually cabins dotted The acreage. The toilets were out-houses. Eventually there was a sustained population of 2 dozen people from all over the world. The farm was less than 30 miles from Spokane.
I met these guys and gals at a Ban the Bomb rally at the Federal Court house in Spokane in 1964. The farm was then a fledgling enterprise. Several members were from Seattle, Portland, New York, Boston and Chicago. For reference, this was 2 years before the Summer of Love and the Hippie Thing. We spoke and they seemed sensible and well educated in their beliefs. They invited me and my friends to come visit. We did. We brought sleeping bags and crashed on the floor of the farm house for the night. We learned more about the peace movement.
The guy that impressed me the most was “Singing Plow”. He and Hugh got hold of a couple of healthy draft horses and Singing Plow harnessed them. The horses pulled a 19th century steel bladed plow, called a singing plow. Singing Plow took the name as his own. The guy loved to plow the alfalfa fields and the Potato field and what became a massive garden plot. A sunflower field on the lower 40. He, with the team, was a plowing power house.
One day when we were visiting, a couple of big farm trucks pulled up out of the blue. Down hopped a bunch of those black garbed Hutterites. They announced that they had brought chickens, chicken feed, and the materials for a chicken house with roosting boxes and a fenced chicken yard. Where did the folks want it set up. It was a gift of charity.
Hutterite women pulled out food baskets and set up some tables to feed everyone. There was a big discussion about the proper location for then hen house, and it was decided near the creek, near the farm house , near the big garden. Everyone set to work. There was pounding of hammers, the singing of hand saws against fir boards, they hump hump of post holes being dug and and stretching of wire. It was a wonderful site to see the chicken house go up and 4 dozen chickens and a few roosters, released to scrabble for cracked corn spread out over the ground.
After the meal, they loaded up and off they went, waving back at us with big smiles as dust kicked up behind their trucks and they climbed the road up out of the valley. It was like Christmas time. The bounty of eggs would be a daily blessing. The gardens would love the chicken shit.
Some months later I was back visiting when one of the folks announced he was of a mood to have himself a chicken dinner. Some of the others drew back in revulsion. They had a big consensus debate. The hungry guy went to the kindling box and picked up the hatchet. He was hungry for some fried chicken, vote be damned. He stormed out the door toward the hen house with lust for chicken in his eyes, Singing Plow jumped up and ran ahead of him. He pivoted to face the hatchet man just in front of the gate. He got down on his knees and stretched out his neck. He yelled, “if your going to cut off a head , cut of mine!”
This may seem melodramatic but Singing Plow at the moment was absolutely willing to give his life to protect those chickens. It was another vegetarian meal that evening.
To this day Tolstoy Farm exists. They supply the best quality organic produce to the Spokane Farmers Market.
4 thoughts on “Singing Plow”
I visited there once. My memory is clear about the Navaho style round house burmned into a slightly raised site ( no flood water run off). The floor was beautiful
. Tightly compacted earth resembled brown old fashioned linoleum. I could have stayed instead of continuing my hitch hike excursion to California. I Did not. Now , reading your posting this morning I am pleased to learn that Tolstoy Farm still exists. Thanks.
Thank you for this interesting bit of Western history that I never heard before.
Ya, the utopian movement really loved the plains and western US / Canada lots of elbow room
That was a great earth berm home. I remember it with an acre of mature sunflowers above it.