In the first days of the first year of the twentieth century, three men, all socialists, formed the Free Land Association, and one year later, on the southern shore of Holmes Harbor on Whidbey Island, the utopian community of Freeland came into being. Hoping to avoid the doctrinal disputes and human failings that had doomed other such experiments, the association's plan for Freeland was to value cooperative living over political dogma. Other settlers in the area were self-described "capitalists," believers in free enterprise who wanted nothing to do with socialism. Despite considerable tension and deep distrust, this mismatched group of tough, industrious, determined men and women managed to coexist, if not in harmony, at least without violence. The Free Land Association would succeed in creating a relatively durable and largely harmonious cooperative community, but failed badly in its commercial efforts. More than a century later, Freeland thrives as an unincorporated residential area, South Whidbey Island's commercial center, and home to Island County's largest private employer, Nichols Brothers Boat Builders.
The socialist Brotherhood of the Co-operative Commonwealth (BCC), established in St. Louis in July 1896, believed that if a single state could be shown to prosper under socialism, the rest of the country would follow suit. Washington was fertile ground for the first effort -- the Progressive movement had put down early roots in the state, organized labor was increasingly activist, and fertile land was abundant and inexpensive. In September 1897 Equality Colony near Edison in Skagit County was established to put theory into practice, and on June 18, 1898, the BCC newspaper, Industrial Freedom, published at Equality, carried this invitation:
"The Brotherhood of Co-operative Commonwealth has room for all manner of socialistic organizations which accept its central idea, that of carrying the State of Washington for socialism in 1901" ("Room for All").
It was not long before many at Equality who belonged to "all manner of socialistic organizations" were arguing with one another about all manner of things. Turf disputes between national and local BCC leaders soon infected the rank and file, but the problems were both theoretical and personal. As one history notes, "each man trusted his neighbor to do his best, fairly and equitably, and it didn't work" (Neil and Brainard, 116). By the end of 1903, only 38 people were still sticking it out, and by 1907 feuds, freeloading, a devastating fire, and lawsuits brought the final collapse.
Other secular colonies in the state during that era included the Puget Sound Cooperative Colony (1887-1904) at Port Angeles, the anarchist Home Colony in Pierce County (1894-1921), the socialist Burley Colony in Kitsap County (1898-1913), and Whidbey Island's Freeland Colony, established just as the twentieth century began. (Note: Confusingly, one faction at Equality Colony adopted the name Freeland Colony in 1904, by which time the Freeland Colony on Whidbey Island, an entirely separate entity, had been in existence for nearly four years.)
Freeland's Beginning: The Odd Couple
The Freeland Colony on Whidbey Island sprung from an unlikely alliance between a prominent Seattle capitalist and a bearded, biblical-looking, late-in-life utopian socialist. It is unclear exactly where, when, or how they came together, but their lives before that point could hardly have been more different.
James Patrick Gleason (1860-1938) graduated with a law degree from Albert College in Dublin, Ireland, in 1882, emigrated to the United States soon after, and moved to Seattle in 1888 to start a career in real estate and finance. Gleason was establishment to his core, a devout Catholic who served as collector of internal revenue for the Washington District from 1894 until 1898. He also worked for the Fidelity Trust Company, a Seattle investment firm that in the late 1890s was spiraling into bankruptcy. Shortly before the turn of the century, Gleason's path crossed that of George Washington Daniels (1832-1921).
Daniels was born in New York state, but little has been recorded about his early years or his education, which was probably sparse. In 1850 he was living on Indian land in Wisconsin, where in 1859 he married Julia A. Conner (1844-1879). Daniels fought for the Union during the Civil War, and a brother died in a Confederate prison.
Between 1865 and 1879 Daniels and Julia had 10 children. In the latter year the couple, now living in Tennessee, lost a newborn son, and Julia succumbed to tuberculosis soon after. Four years later, now living in Polk City, Iowa, Daniels married Nancy J. Linfoot Prouty (1846-1915), a widow with eight children of her own. Shepherding 10 younger children of the blended family and driving a herd of cattle, they traveled west by wagon in 1884, settling down and starting a successful dairy operation in southeastern Montana.
In 1890 Daniels, now nearly 60 years old, sold the dairy operation and moved with his wife and a number of their surviving children to the Topolobampo Colony, a utopian socialist community in Sinaloa, Mexico. Within a year one of his sons died of typhoid fever at age 17 and another drowned, age 21. Plagued by malaria-bearing mosquitoes, an erratic water supply, and factional disputes, the Topolobampo Colony failed shortly thereafter. By 1895 what was left of the Daniels family was living near Tempe in Arizona Territory, where Daniels was reported to be building "a handsome residence" (Arizona Republican).
The Mexico experience did not sour Daniels on socialism, and he became an active member of the BCC and a financial supporter of Equality Colony. In a letter published in Industrial Freedom on October 15, 1898, writing from Arizona, he pledged to contribute $5 for every $500 pledged by others for the colony's purchase of a steamboat.
Daniels left Arizona in 1899 and was next reported living near Artondale in Pierce County, possibly looking to join either the Home or Burley colony, both of which were nearby. It is unclear whether he ever lived at Equality; if he did it was but briefly, and by late 1899 Daniels had started putting together the venture that would become Freeland.
The Free Land Association
At this point events and relationships become increasingly murky. This much appears in the available record: In late 1899 Daniels, joined by Henry L. Stevens and Henry A. White, organized the Free Land Association, which they incorporated in Island County on January 12, 1900. Stevens, his wife, and their three daughters came from the Burley Colony, where they had operated the Hotel Commonwealth for about a year. White's origins are not recorded.
James Gleason, either in his own capacity or acting for Fidelity Trust, had purchased land around Holmes Harbor, a five-and-a-half-mile-long bay on Whidbey Island's eastern side. How Daniels and Gleason met is not known. Some sources say that the Freeland Colony was "sponsored" by Gleason, and that Daniels was his "agent" (e.g. Cherry, 152). Whether they were collaborators or simply engaged in arms-length real-estate transactions is a question that has little relevance today, but there is some evidence that Gleason regarded the Free Land Association with something more than mere commercial interest.
The Rochdale Plan
Although Daniels, Stevens, and White were veteran socialists, they had learned from the mistakes of others and wanted to avoid the endless factional disputes and other controversies that had torn apart earlier attempts to create socialist utopias. They modeled the Free Land Association after the Rochdale Society, a consumer cooperative founded in 1844 by struggling tradespeople near Manchester, England. The Rochdale Society is considered the wellspring of the international cooperative movement and the source for a set of ideals -- the Rochdale Principles -- that still guide many cooperatives today.
The bylaws of the Free Land Association were notably conventional and entirely free of socialist cant. Among other things, its "Objects and Purposes" included "to buy, sell, own, lease, mortgage ... all kinds of real property," to develop a townsite, and to "construct, own, manage and operate saw mills, shingle mills and other timber manufacturing plants, railways, toll roads, tramways, steamers ... barges, boats, docks, wharves, depots, sheds, storehouses, bridges" ("By-Laws," Article 1).
The fundamental goal of the association's founders was to enable members to own the land on which they lived and to share in the operation and the profits of a variety of cooperative enterprises. Writing in 1902, association co-founder Henry Smith explained how Freeland differed from socialist colonies that had preceded it:
"A great many people object to colony living because almost all these associations are upon the communistic plan of living; and a great many object to them because 'the individual home' is so nearly eliminated. But Freeland is a noticeable exception to this objection. Here the home is the central thought. Everyone is at liberty to make his home as veritably every man's castle as in the days of Feudalism. Here everyone is given full swing, untrammeled by the drones upon which objectors to cooperative society so much delight to expostulate" ("Freeland, a Rochdale Town").
Anyone could join the Free Land Association by buying up to 10 (but no more) shares of stock, at a par value of $10 per share, for an initial payment of $10. If more than one share was purchased, the balance owing could be paid from the member's portion of the profits of cooperative businesses. Each member had one vote, regardless of the number of shares owned. All paid-up stock was to earn interest at 8 percent, a feature considered capitalistic by more doctrinaire socialists.
Association members could buy five-acre tracts of land for a 20-percent cash down payment, the balance again to be paid through shares in the earnings of a communally owned store and other planned enterprises. This was considered close enough to "free" land to justify the colony's name. Once a member's stock and land were paid off, they would continue to receive a share of the profits from the cooperative businesses, with 5 percent retained by the association. Although it is not a model of clarity, a stock ledger for the Free Land Association covering the years 1901 to 1903 indicates that approximately 59 individuals had bought shares. Almost all were men, and many if not most had families.
Subsequent amendments to the bylaws allocated the retained 5 percent to a store fund and a machinery fund, and added a $30 payment for an interest in a sawmill and other planned ventures. The latter change caused some early members to withdraw from the association, and with the exception of the cooperative store and, sporadically, a ship, none of the association's commercial ambitions would be realized.
The Birth of Freeland
On December 29, 1900, just less than a year after the formation of the Free Land Association, Daniels filed with the Island County Auditor a plat map for the town of Freeland, sited in the center of the southern shore of Holmes Harbor. The plat comprised 15 five-acre upland blocks, one of five and a half acres, and three adjacent smaller blocks along the shore, divided into six lots each. Included and dedicated to the public were four streets -- Bayview Avenue (later renamed Shoreview Drive), which ran roughly east and west along the southern shore of the bay, and Woodard, Freeland, and Myrtle avenues, which ran inland from Bayview. The westernmost street, Woodard Avenue, was named for Alvin Woodard, an association member and captain of the sailing schooner Bessie B., which in the early days was Freeland's only connection to the mainland and the best way to reach other shore-side island communities. (It was not until 1926 that a county road, winding and indirect, connected Langley, Freeland, Coupeville, and Oak Harbor.) An irregularly shaped bluff that protruded into the bay was designated in the plat as a park.
In the plat application, Daniels described himself -- and not Gleason, Fidelity Trust, or the Free Land Association -- as "owner in fee simple" of the land. This was simply not so. More than two years later, in February 1902, William B. Lieseke (1858-1943), a veteran of the failing Equality Colony who became a longtime and active member of the Freeland community, purchased one upland block and an adjacent shore-side block of the 1900 plat. The grantors on the warranty deed were James D. Gleason and his wife, Nelle D. Gleason, with Daniels signing only as a witness. This lends substantial support to sources that characterize Daniels as Gleason's agent, although the full details of their relationship seem beyond recovery. Eight months after Lieseke's purchase, on October 5, 1902, Gleason evidenced a charitable fondness for the Freeland settlers when he and his wife gifted to "The Public" the portion of the plat that Daniels had designated as a park.
A relatively small part of the land around Holmes Harbor was controlled by the Free Land Association, and other settlers were drawn by the area's pristine beauty and abundant resources. Many of these were pioneering individualists, self-described "capitalists" determined to control their own destinies and wanting nothing to do with socialism, cooperative schemes, or the like.
Some predated the Freeland Colony, but one of the most energetic and ambitious capitalist families was the Spencers, who arrived somewhat later. Hudson Hewlett Spencer (1858-1931) and his wife, Sarah Alice Adams Spencer (1861-1946), had eloped in 1877, lived in Michigan for many years, then came to Washington and homesteaded in remote Clallam County with their four children, Hugh (1880-1946), Percy (1882-1966), Arthur (1884-1954), and Minnie (1887-1932). The family moved to Everett in 1900, where they operated a five-and-dime store. In 1904 Hudson and Sarah moved to Freeland with their two youngest children, Arthur and Minnie, and daughter-in-law Carrie (1891-1983), whose husband, Hugh, was a tugboat captain and often absent. (When Minnie Spencer married Freeman Plum in 1909, the couple spent their honeymoon in a tent on nearby Dogfish Bay, known ever since as Honeymoon Bay.)
The Spencers bought land on the southwest shore of Holmes Harbor, just beyond the western boundary of Daniels's original plat. Hudson and Sarah opened the Harbor Cash Store, which competed with the Freeland cooperative store (formally called the Free Land Association Mercantile Department) near the base of the bluff to the east. Next door to the Harbor Cash Store they put up a two-story dwelling, the ground floor of which was used for dances and community meetings. The store was later moved onto pilings and the dwelling remodeled into a large residence that over the years housed various members of the Spencer family. Well more than 100 years after Hudson and Sarah Spencer arrived at Freeland, some of their descendants still lived on Whidbey Island.
The Spencers branched out into other enterprises, including a dock, a logging operation, a sawmill, and a log-peeling factory that shipped its output to Mexico. In 1916 Arthur Spencer began operating Rover, a 55-foot motor vessel that made regular runs between Whidbey, Camano Island, and Everett. He also built a machine shop and living quarters on pilings next to the Spencer store, moving it across the road to dry land in 1939. In 1964 it was bought by Frank Nichols, who lived there with his family and founded Nichols Brothers Boat Builders, which became the largest non-government employer in Island County. Even as the boatyard expanded, the green facade of the Arthur Spencer's machine shop was preserved and still stands, now carrying the Nichols Brothers name.
The decision by Daniels and his cohorts to organize Freeland along the lines of a Rochdale cooperative rather than on a more rigid socialist model was not entirely in vain. The Free Land Association lasted longer, and with much less drama and dissension, than other utopian experiments that were destroyed from within by factionalism and freeloading. And if its organization was not traditionally socialist, most of its members were, and remained so even as their cooperative economic efforts failed.
The Socialist Party of America was founded in 1901, and in May 1902 a local branch was established in Freeland. An Island County Socialist convention was held in Freeland in September that year, and eight of the 11 party members nominated for county positions were members of the Free Land Association. Two years later, seven of 12 Socialist candidates came from Freeland. Association members would remain politically active until well past the second decade of the twentieth century, regularly participating in electoral politics. As stated in Coupeville's Island County Times, the Socialists, though knowing "full well that the ticket placed in the field would go down to defeat ... are laboring for the maintenance of the principles of their party" (Utopias on Puget Sound, 127).
But with the coming of the capitalists, tensions grew. The two sides were largely unable to overcome their mutual distain and distrust, and Freeland became a divided community, one side barely speaking to the other. To their credit, living as they were cheek by jowl, their fraught relationship never descended into violence. But suspicions ran high, and both spying and pettiness were not uncommon -- Ethel Spencer, who had married into the capitalist Spencer family, was severely criticized, even by her in-laws, for helping the sick infant of a socialist family.
Things Fall Apart
As prominent as the Spencer family became, it was just one "capitalist" family among several living in uneasy proximity to their socialist neighbors. Some prospered, as did a few members of the Free Land Association, many of whom worked in nearby lumber camps and mills, on farms, or in construction. But the association, even before facing competition from new arrivals, had proven unable to fulfill its most basic expectations. As early as 1902, the colony newspaper, The Whidby Islander (a common misspelling of the time), admitted that due to "disappointments in real estate matters" the association's central aspiration -- providing essentially free land for its members -- had to be abandoned. This meant that "new settlers coming in will simply have to buy land as in other places" (The Whidby Islander, August 15, 1902). In the same edition, the editors characterized Freeland as "simply a settlement of socialists co-operating on semi-capitalistic principles."
Of all the planned enterprises, only the association's Mercantile Department was successfully established, and it was plagued by bad luck. Within just a few years, a cooperative wholesale store in Seattle failed that was the source of most of the Freeland co-op's inventory, and shortly thereafter the Freeland operation failed as well. It was resuscitated in approximately 1908 by Henry Blair (1847-1920) and Rose Blair (1854-?), who continued to run it as a cooperative until 1917, when two other association members briefly took over. The Free Land Association finally went bankrupt in 1920, and the experiment officially came to an end.
The First Thursday Club and Freeland Hall
There was one notable exception to the discord between the socialists and the capitalists, and not surprisingly, it was brought about by the community's women. In 1902 Alma Gearhart (1855-1931), a member with her husband in the Free Land Association, founded an organization for the women of Freeland that she named the First Thursday Club, for the day it would meet every month. Few capitalist families had yet arrived, so the group's initial membership of nine women was predominately (and perhaps entirely) socialist. By 1904 the membership had grown to 14, and by 1909 a few women from the capitalist camp had joined, including the Spencer matriarch, Sarah, and her daughter-in-law Ethel. This appears to have been, if not the only, certainly the most successful effort to put aside political differences and work together across the divide that had alienated neighbor from neighbor.
The club's motto was "Do your own thinking" and its stated purpose was "the uplifting of women and [the] welfare of society" ("Historic Freeland"). Much of the monthly agenda consisted of poetry readings and book reviews, but current issues of importance were also discussed and debated. Some topics were purely informational and practical, others sociological or political: "The harm of wearing long skirts, how to manage a husband, medicine and the art of healing, noted women of the world, what should be the attitude of earnest women toward their fallen sisters? and property rights of women in the State of Washington" ("Celebrating 100 Years ...").
Another lasting legacy of the Free Land Association is Freeland Hall. William Liesecke was entrusted with the deed for the park land that Gleason and his wife gifted to "The Public" in 1902. In 1914 a drive was organized to build a community-owned hall on that property, and the women of the First Thursday Club donated $25 on condition that a room be set aside for their use. In 1915 Freeland Hall, built entirely with donated funds, materials, and labor, was opened, and remains in use today (2019). The First Thursday Club met there regularly until the 1960s, when it merged with another group to become the Holmes Harbor Activities Club.
Emotions no doubt cooled as the years passed, and it is likely but not well documented that the socialists and capitalists collaborated in other ways as well, such as lobbying for a post office (which they were without from 1904 to 1914) and a school. And in later years, together, they fought attempts by mainlanders with vacation homes to limit access to the shoreline of Holmes Harbor.
As roads were completed, most commercial activity in Freeland became concentrated in an area called Harbor Center, about a half mile southeast of the original Daniels plat. When the post office in the old Spencer store moved there in 1954, the area took the name Freeland, and it became the primary commercial and retail center of South Whidbey, located just off State Route 525, the main north-south highway.
Slow Growth and Mysterious Boundaries
The early days of older American communities, when men and women struggled to carve a life out of the wilderness, are very often the most interesting. For Freeland this is particularly true, due both to its utopian beginnings and to the fact that very little of historical note happened there for much of the twentieth century. In common with hundreds of other small communities in Washington, Freeland grew slowly, adding an average of barely 18 residents a year between 1900 and 2010, with much of that growth coming between 1990 and 2010. A move to incorporate the community in 2006 failed, and as of 2019 Freeland still relied on Island County to provide all of its basic services, including police protection.
Freeland's geographical extent has always been somewhat a matter of opinion. The U.S. Census Bureau, using its own formula, classifies Freeland as a Census Designated Place (CDP), and in 2010 counted 2,045 residents. In that same year, the boundaries of Freeland as a Non-Municipal Urban Growth Area (NMUGA) under the state's Growth Management Act encompassed a smaller area than the CDP, with a population of only 1,627. The population in both counts was overwhelmingly white and, at a median age of approximately 52, considerably older than the state median of 37.3. In 2016 Island County commissioners reduced the size of the Freeland NMUGA still further, but what is popularly considered Freeland encompasses a wider area.
The Founder's Fate
It seems likely that George Washington Daniels was moderately wealthy after the sale of his dairy operation in 1890. In earlier censuses he always described himself as a farmer. He was in Mexico during the 1890 census, but in 1895 was reported to be building "a handsome residence in Arizona," and in the 1910 census gave his occupation as "Owned Income."
Daniels and his wife left Freeland in 1911 and moved to Snohomish County, where he died in Pinehurst on October 11, 1921. He was brought back to Whidbey Island and buried in Bayview Cemetery, where there is evidence suggesting that by the time of his death he had sacrificed everything in his quest for utopia. The grave of Daniels and his wife, who had died six years earlier, is marked by a small cement slab, rough, cracked, and poorly cast, edged with pebbles, and clearly homemade. Spelled out in children's marbles, now barely visible, is simply this: