30 November 2008

Utah: Clarion's Jewish colony

The Salt Lake City Tribune carried a story about the Clarion Jewish agricultural colony in Utah.

I first learned of Clarion through a colleague at the Henderson Home News in Southern Nevada - her family had lived in Gunnison. Later, I discovered more at sessions on Utah's Jewish history during several international Jewish genealogy conferences held in SLC.

Jessica Ravitz's story includes two sidebars, multimedia, historic and contemporary photographs.

Three miles west of Gunnison in south central Utah, where tumbleweeds roll across several thousand acres of rocky and barren land, 200 unlikely families once arrived to plant dreams. They were new Jewish immigrants from Russia and Poland, people who, in most cases, had been in America for less than five years.

Leaving crowded city tenements and East Coast sweatshops, factory and peddling jobs behind, they signed up in 1911 to be part of a global experiment.

The back-to-the-soil movement of the late 19th and early 20th centuries saw 40 Jewish agricultural colonies sprout up across America. This happened just as similar projects took root in Canada, Argentina and Ottoman-ruled Palestine, now Israel -- the genesis of the kibbutz movement, communal settlements that flourished in Israel's early years and still exist today.

The man who led the charge for those who journeyed to Utah was Benjamin Brown (nee Lipshitz), a Russian-born ideologue living in Philadelphia who believed this effort would save his people by getting them out of congested environments, diversifying their skills and instilling in them greater self-sufficiency and confidence.

The story has quotes from Brown's daughter Lillian Brown Vogel, now 99 and living in Ukiah, California.

University of Utah history professor Bob Goldberg wrote a book - Back to the Soil: The Jewish Farmers of Clarion, Utah, and Their World - about the colony and its struggles.

Four years of irrigation woes, a flood, an early frost, broken-down equipment, bad weather, financial troubles, poor soil and abysmal crops took a toll, causing most everyone to hop trains to cities. Along the way, three had died, including Aaron Binder, a strapping member of the community who was crushed in a logging accident.

Goldberg recently led high school seniors of Utah's largest synagogue, Congregation Kol Ami, to the area to see the remnants: a few headstones in Hebrew, ruins of foundations, etc.

In 1982, while looking at a book about the state's ghost towns, Goldberg discovered Clarion, and he wanted students to see an often overlooked chapter in Jewish and Utah history.

The Clarion colony was part of a final push for these agrarian developments in America. It was the largest in land area, as well as population, and lasted longer than any other settlement west of the Appalachian Mountains, Goldberg said. Brown and his scouting partner, Isaac Herbst, had settled on Utah because the land was cheap, the state was hyping the promise of the new Piute Canal, and it was situated near railroad tracks. But, perhaps as important as anything else, Goldberg added that it was also far enough away from the East that it would make giving up and leaving more difficult for farmers.

Most families left in 1915 after the struggles proved too much. Their train tickets were paid for by Jews living SLC. Most went to cities, although a few went to farm elsewhere. The Jewish community tried to help and the history documents the fact that Mormon farmers offered assistance and knowledge. The church even donated $500 to help the Clarion group survive its last winter. The Clarion community utilized only half of the 6,000 acres they purchased.

A few families stayed until the late 1920s, but finally left when they became concerned that their high-school teenagers might marry Mormons.

Bruce Sorenson, 49, understands the intrigue. The local Mormon farmer, reached in his Centerfield home, first spotted the cemetery headstones when he was 16. Ever since then, he's remained fascinated and has taken it upon himself to watch over the grounds. He used to bring flowers to the two gravestones, which are surrounded by small fences to protect them -- until Eileen Hallet Stone, another Salt Lake City historian, told him Jews don't traditionally honor their dead that way. Every now and then, when he thinks of it and even though he admitted he doesn't know what he's doing, Sorenson shows up with candles to light on Hanukkah.

He occasionally spots people wandering around in search of something. visitors have included Brown's daughter Lillian and her son, other colonists' descendants, and even people from Israel. He helps out by showing them where to go, what he knows and asks them to sign his copy of Goldberg's book.

There's much more in the complete article at the link above.


  1. thank you My Son is currently studying ideal societys it is nice to have had one so close to home. I am only sorry the Tribune article is no longer available as a link

  2. My great-grandfather was one of the Jewish farmers of Clarion. He moved there in 1911 until approximately 1920/1 when he moved his family to a farm in Indiana. It's interesting for me to research my family history.

    1. My great-grandfather was Ben Brown, one of the founders of Clarion. I'd love to hear from you if you see this comment.