Brentwood Public Library
An 1857 "labor for labor" Modern Times promissory note.
Brentwood Public Library
Anarchist visionaries: Stepen Pearl Andrews, above, and Josiah Warren, below, founded the nonconformist Modern Times on cheap forest land along the new railroad in Suffolk in 1851.
|An Experiment in
Modern Times, the notorious and short-lived utopian village that preceded Brentwood
By Elizabeth Moore
British and French philosophers exalted it. New York intellectuals argued about it. And riders on the Long Island Rail Road gawked out the windows as they passed Modern Times, the notorious Suffolk County settlement where there were no police, money, fences or laws. Where women went about in bloomers. Where free-love escapades were rumored to be behind every cottage door.
Actually, the anarchist village of 150 was never as wanton as outsiders imagined, and it never lived up to its aim of an entire economy based on barter. It lasted only from 1851 to 1864 before its name was changed to Brentwood. But in that short time, it managed to leave a more mundane legacy as one of the first suburbs created by the railroad. And if some of the radical mores that led to its undoing wouldn't raise an eyebrow nowadays, others foreshadowed domestic partnership laws and sexual freedoms still evolving.
All of which might have comforted settlers like Charles Codman, who near the end of his life in 1900 picked up a pencil and described the people of Modern Times:
"If they were lacking in Capital they were flush in Enthusiasm . . . they were willing to sacrifice much in building an Equitable village which should be an example of Harmony and Justice; which should be a bright and shining light to all the world . . . They hoped that . . . the sacrifices of pioneering in the howling wilderness would be but of short duration, sure to be followed by enduring peace and plenty."
Codman said his fellow pioneers believed that "the long dreams of the millennium" were imminent in Suffolk County. "They felt . . . that the ideals of prophets, philosophers and poets of all ages were near at hand -- Yea, already located in the `Pine Barrens' of Long Island, N.Y."
The Revolution had pulled the plug on history. The wide-open continent offered room for every kind of social experiment, and a parade of idealists -- from Shakers to Quakers, pietists to perfectionists -- had founded scores of model communities to usher in the golden age. Others, like Ralph Waldo Emerson, argued for nonconformity, while Emerson's friend Henry David Thoreau protested his taxes and dropped out of society at Walden Pond.
"That government is best which governs not at all," Thoreau wrote in 1849.
At about that time, a philosopherinventor named Josiah Warren was coming to the same conclusion while surveying the wreckage of New Harmony, the Indiana socialist community he'd lived in.
Warren and a fellow visionary named Stephen Pearl Andrews decided some cheap forest land along the new railroad in central Suffolk would make a perfect place to experiment with anarchy, an approach no one had yet tried. Warren's only covenant for the settlement of Modern Times would be anathema in today's Long Island: Nothing could be sold for a penny more than it had cost. The land was there for homes, not real estate investments.
He printed "A Card to the Public" in Horace Greeley's New York Tribune, and American dreamers arrived from all over: A contingent of Yankees from a failed Boston community. A covered wagonload from Ohio. A dentist from New York. The estranged wife of an Englishman.
The settlers bought one-acre lots in Warren's woods for about $18 and began ripping up stumps, planting gardens and erecting houses of home-made brick. Some were skilled craftsmen, fewer were skilled farmers, but they all excelled at talk. Many were fleeing failed marriages, hungry to reinvent their lives in a remote place whose motto was "mind your own business."
They planted pine trees and cedar hedges along the lanes, and many kinds of fruit trees, so that, as one city father put it, "the wayfarer may not have to demean himself by begging at our door." Women cut their locks short and men grew theirs long as a badge of nonconformity. They bartered goods and services through a "time store" using "labor notes" based on the corn standard.
In the evenings, Modern Timers sang, staged plays, danced and held lectures in the "Archimedian Hall" of William Dame's house, which the Yankee carpenter had designed in an octagon, like Modern Times' schoolhouse, for more efficient use of space. There, Codman recalled, they jawboned about every kind of reform. "From . . . Abolition of Chattel Slavery, Woman's Rights, Vegetarianism, Hydropathy (and all the pathies), Peace, Ante-Tobacco, Total Abstinence, to the Bloomer Costume."
The pioneers were usually tolerant, if cool, toward the string of nuts and faddists drawn by the news of their free-living town: the blind man who paraded naked in the street, the woman who wore men's clothing, the young fellow who set up house with three ladies, and the woman whose "theoretical speculations about diet" led her to subsist on beans without salt until she wasted away and died.
But residents were upset when feminist divorcee and free-love lecturer Mary Gove Nichols moved in and promptly announced that anyone thinking of moving to Modern Times must be dedicated to free love and "willing to be considered licentious."
In the end, Modern Times' pioneers cared more for ordinary happiness than a life in the radical vanguard, says State University at Stony Brook historian Roger Wunderlich. He said monogamy, not bed-hopping, was the norm. Men and women living "in sin" usually married each other as soon as pending divorces became final.
Most also earned real currency outside the village -- like dentist-phrenologist Edward Newberry, who commuted by train to his Manhattan office. And the pioneers passed on Warren's educational theories, opting to set up a conventional public school district.
When the Civil War broke out, this anarchist haven showed its patriotism with a brass band and 15 volunteers. This was finally too much for Warren, who abandoned his social experiment for good sometime after October, 1862.
Well pleased with the pretty village they'd built but tired of the notoriety, Modern Times' citizens toned down their costumes and in 1864 renamed the haven Brentwood after a decorous English suburb. And as the healthful forested land rose in value, they took what the traffic would bear, Wunderlich says, going on to lives of getting and spending in the best Long Island tradition.
"The fundamental mistake we made," Codman wrote, "was in thinking that even a small percent of those who are clamorous and insistent for Justice are honest and in earnest -- they are not."
Codman's millennium never arrived. "Alas! . . . that I shall have passed without a glimpse of the `promised land' . . . and my query is Will anyone see it? -- Is it only a Chimera?"