Title: Material Related to ‘Single Tax’ Colonies, 1895-1999
Predominant Dates: 1925-1986
Henry George disliked the idea of establishing colonies to “test” the single tax. He feared the limited nature of such experiments might cause them to fail, thereby misleading the public about the feasibility of the single tax. George believed that so long as state and federal governments continued to levy other taxes in addition to a tax on land values, the single tax could never be “single” and therefore, must ultimately fail. Despite his warning, George’s followers established more than a dozen single tax enclaves in the United States, Canada, Europe, Australia, and Asia.
This collection features material related to the two oldest ‘single tax’ colonies in the U.S. at Fairhope, Alabama and Arden Delaware. Neither Fairhope nor Arden has collected the full value of land rent and thus, represent only limited demonstrations of Henry George’s single tax. This collection also contains documents related to Fred Pease and the town of Milk River in Alberta, Canada, which relies solely on a land value tax for revenue.[i]
The Fairhope idea great out of a Des Moines-based social club formed in 1889 by E.B. Gaston (1861-1937) to “investigate” social and economic issues of the day by studying the “best and latest literature.” Among the books read by Gaston and the Investigating Club included Henry George’s Progress and Poverty (1879), Edward Bellamy’s Looking Backward (1886) and Laurence Grounlund’s The Cooperative Commonwealth (1884). In 1894, Gaston presented a blueprint for a utopian community to his friends in an essay called, “True Cooperative Individualism.”
Born in Knox County, Illinois on November 2, 1861, Gaston spent most of his childhood and young adult life in Des Moines, Iowa. He attended Drake University and graduated top of his class in 1886 with a degree in business. When Gaston formed the Investigative Club at the age of 28, he enjoyed financial security as a result of his real estate purchases around the University, where he had correctly predicted that land values would rise. In 1891 Gaston joined the Iowa Populist Party and the editorial staff of the Farmer’s Tribune.
While Gaston shared Henry George’s belief in the need to restore individuals’ natural right to the land, he also sympathized with populists, most of whom refused to accept George’s single tax as the “universal solvent” to the problems plaguing society. The Omaha Platform of 1892—the first official program of the Populist Party—recognized land as “the heritage of the people” and condemned the monopolization of and speculation in land. It also, however, demanded five key reforms including a graduated income tax, which George adamantly opposed. Gaston decided to administer his proposed colony on the tenets of both populism and the single tax.
The colony, Gaston envisioned, would restrict land ownership and collect the full annual rental value of land. It also would collectively own and operate all public utilities including electricity and water. Gaston and his followers decided on the name Fairhope for their new venture because they believed they had a ‘fair hope’ for success. For a variety of reasons including cost and climate, Gaston and the other members of the Fairhope Industrial Association—renamed the Fairhope Single Tax Corporation in 1904—settled on a 132-acre site in Baldwin County, Alabama along Mobile Bay for the location of their colony.
The Fairhope Single Tax Corporation
The constitution of the Fairhope Single Tax Corporation empowered an Executive Council, with the approval of Corporation members, to determine the annual value of land not derived from improvements. Any person over the age of 18 who purchased at least one share of capital stock—initially priced at $200 and later reduced to $100—was eligible, upon approval of the Executive Council, to become a voting member of the Association. Gaston and the other founding families established this system of membership to attract investors who sympathized with the principles of the colony by rewarding them with a vote in colonial affairs even if they didn’t reside in Fairhope.
Families who settled in Fairhope leased land directly from the Corporation for 99-year periods. The terms of the lease closely followed the Constitution, mandating that lessees pay the annual rental value exclusive of improvements of their land to the Corporation. Corporation members determined annual rental values in Fairhope and how to spend the collected rent after paying each lessees county property taxes.
While non-single taxers have outnumbered those committed to Henry George’s theory residing in Fairhope, in the early years of the colony, most Corporation members were ardent single taxers. As a result of this reality, Fairhope was plagued by internal strife. Twice during its 120-year history, Fairhope residents have sued the Corporation for violating the Alabama Constitution in an effort to undermine the colony’s ability to collect the annual rental value of lessees’ land. Both times, the lawsuits failed.
School of Organic Education
Besides its distinction as America’s first single tax colony, Fairhope enjoys international recognition for its School of Organic Education, founded by Marietta Johnson. Johnson, a Minnesota school teacher, came to Fairhope with her husband and young son in 1902. The following year, she took charged of the colony school and began implementing a new, experimental curriculum which emphasized manual tasks and catered to students’ individual interests. Johnson called the theory behind this curriculum “organic education.”
Organic education followed the maxim that “education is growth.” Johnson believed that no economic reform, including the single tax, would be successful until “false conceptions of justice,” first learned in the nation’s schools, were corrected. Education needed to do more than train students for their future; it needed to nurture the “immediate needs of the whole organism,” Johnson maintained. In 1909, Fairhope financier and soap magnate Joseph Fels donated $10,000 to Johnson’s school.
The origins of America’s second “single tax” colony at Arden, Delaware began on June 15, 1895. Donning Union uniforms, Frank Stephens and Will Price led an army of Philadelphia-based single taxers into Delaware where they campaigned for a new state government sympathetic to Henry George’s ideas. They called themselves the Delaware Single Tax Party, and for 17-months, Stephens, Price, and their followers campaigned throughout the Diamond State. The campaign was highly unsuccessful.
The press portrayed the single taxers as “invaders.” Local officials arrested Stephens and other members of the Single Tax Party on multiple occasions for “noisy assemblage” and “impeding the thoroughfare.” On election day, no single tax candidate earned more than 1,000 votes and a State Constitutional Convention held the following year, delegates passed a clause that prohibited the legislature from ever adopting “a system of taxation the object of which is the confiscation of land.”
Despite these disastrous results, Stephens and Price remained committed to making Delaware the first “single tax state.” In 1900 and with the financial backing of Joseph Fels, Stephens and Price purchased a 162-acre farm six miles north of Wilmington and 20 miles south of Philadelphia. On this site, they established America’s second single tax colony, which they named after the forest in Shakespeare’s “As You Like It.”
‘You are welcome hither’
Stephens and Price set up a system of trusteeship to administer colony affairs. As trustees, the founders held the title to the land in Arden and leased it for 99-year terms to anyone who applied. In return, the lessees signed a contract to pay the full rental value exclusive of improvements. After paying state and county taxes, the trustees agreed to use the remaining funds collected from land rent to provide services desired by the leaseholders.
Similar to Fairhope, the Arden trustees have faced difficulty collecting the full annual rental value of land. Instead, lessees have demanded that the colony collect just enough to pay taxes and provide some public works. Despite this, Arden attracted many adherents of the single tax in its early years.
Other liberal reformers also found Arden an ideal place to call home. Socialists, pacifists, anarchists, and anti-viviscectioners have lived in Arden at various times, helped the small village attract a good amount of public attention. In 1910, for example, Arden was the center of an adultery scandal involving one of its more famous residents, the Socialist author Upton Sinclair. On a less scandalous note, in 1973 Arden became the only village ever placed on the National Register of Historic Places.
MILK RIVER, CANADA
Unlike Fairhope or Arden, Milk River was not created to test the theories of Henry George. Instead, Milk River was created in the early 20th century when the Alberta Railway and Irrigation Company began parceling out its land near the Canada-U.S. border. It became a village in July 1916 and was incorporated as a town in 1956.
Despite its non-single tax origins, Milk River has implemented a single tax system for most of its entire history. Fred Pease introduced the idea in 1912 shortly after he moved to Milk River with his wife. Pease had become interested in Henry George’s theories, as well as socialism, while living in Auburn, California in the 1890s. Pease served as mayor of Milk River throughout much of the 1920s and 1930s.
In 1927, the Alberta legislature passed a law requiring villages to assess improvements to property at 2/3 the actual value for taxation purposes. Milk River fought for an exemption to this law, which it won in 1929. During the time Milk River was forced to tax improvements, the government ran a deficit of nearly $1,200. Within three years of returning to a single tax on land values, Milk River enjoyed a budget surplus of $1,600.
[i] Milk River also enacts a very small fee for dog and cat licenses.
Alexandra W. Lough, “The Last Tax: Henry George and the Social Politics of Land Reform in the Gilded Age and Progressive Era” (PhD diss., Brandeis University, 2013), 282-236.
Fred Pease, “Milk River Tests the Rent Tax.” The Freeman (June 1938)
Sanford Wise, “Milk River Has a Problem.” The Freeman (April 1939)