8 Utopian Experiments in Kansas

The fresh, unsettled land of Kansas attracted many idealists in the early part of the state’s history.  Agricultural land was readily available, either for free under the Homestead Act or for a low price from railroad companies.

A surprising number of utopian colonies were established throughout Kansas history, representing a wide range of theories.  The following is a list of some of these experiments:

  1. Octagon City: Located near Humboldt.  A colony inhabited solely by vegetarians was promoted by Henry Clubb, founder of numerous utopian settlements based on an incredible variety of beliefs.  At the same time, Octagon City was designed to prove the advantages of octagonal house construction and city design, as well as the effectiveness of water as a cure for all health problems.  Octagon City received greater interest from investors, so the two projects were combined into one.  Members took an oath to live morally, educate their children, and abstain from liquor and tobacco.  Some also pledged to live as vegetarians.  Disease, flooding, poor management, Indian raids, and a water shortage ended the experiment.  Lasted from 1856 to 1857.
  2. Workingmen’s Co-operative Colony: Also called Llewellyn Castle.  Located in Nemaha County.  Based on the political theories of James Bronterre O’Brien, an Irish Chartist who advocated a militant but nonviolent approach to achieving greater democracy in government.  Immigrants from London owned the land and natural resources jointly, leased them for agricultural purposes, and pooled the lease money for education, health care, and public works.  An attack of grasshoppers and the availability of cheap land nearby ended the experiment.  Lasted from 1869 to 1874.
  3. Silkville: Located southwest of Williamsburg in Franklin County.  Founded by French socialist Ernest Valeton de Boissiere.  A cooperative colony intended to achieve self-sufficiency through silk farming.  Fell apart as colonists departed to seek better lives elsewhere.  Lasted from 1869 to 1886.
  4. Danish Socialist Colony: Located near Hays.  Founded by Danish socialist Louis Pio, convicted of treason and later bribed by the police to leave Denmark.  The colonists found the emptiness of western Kansas too oppressive.  Only survived a few months in 1877.
  5. Esperanza: Located near Urbana.  A communist colony founded by settlers from Missouri, poorly documented compared to many Kansas utopian projects.  Collapsed in 1879.
  6. Progressive Colony: Located near Cedar Vale.  A Russian communist colony known for its strange mixture of atheism and liberal Christianity.  Fell apart through the domineering and sometimes cruel manner of its founder, William Frey.  Lasted from 1871 to 1879.
  7. Freedom: Located in Bourbon County.  Founded under the auspices of the Labor Exchange, a system designed to eliminate poverty, particularly through the creation of a “soft” currency that could serve as legal tender.  The colony featured a warehouse where workers could exchange their goods for “labor checks,” redeemable for other items in the warehouse.  Lasted from 1897 to 1905.
  8. Utopia: Located in Greenwood County.  Despite its name, Utopia did not originally start as a utopian experiment, but as a shipping point for cattle.  The utopian phase of Utopia came after World War II, when economist Roger Babson theorized that the town was sheltered by a “Magic Circle,” an area unlikely to face nuclear attack.  Furthermore, Utopia was located in an area that could theoretically sustain itself through agriculture and oil production without outside assistance in the event of World War III.  Babson envisioned an underground college (later constructed above the ground in Eureka) and the relocation of the U.S. capital to Kansas.  Utopia still exists, but is in danger of becoming a ghost town.

Many settlers came to Kansas seeking a better life.  Most thought primarily in terms of the American dream—they would work hard and eventually reap the fruits of their labors.  A few had other ideas.

While utopian experiments were not as common in Kansas as they were farther east, these eight colonies represent an undercurrent of political thought that left its mark on the Great Plains.  Communism and extreme socialism did not become the norm throughout the region, but they influenced a brand of progressiveness that drove Kansas politics throughout the end of the 1800s and colored national politics at the turn of the century.