A History of the Kaweah Colony: Resignation, Suicide, and Dispute
By Jay O’Connell. This 3RNews version as published August 2020.
The summer of 1891 was vastly different for the Kaweah Colony than the summer only one year before. The previous year, with their road complete and real hope that their land claims would be resolved favorably, it looked as if the Kaweah Colony would join that short list of successful American cooperative communities. Even during a troubled winter, hope remained alive. Annie Haskell opened 1891 with the following entry in her diary:
But soon she was complaining about the increasing bickering and tensions within a community struggling to survive. “This whole colony is full of people who can’t mind their own business,” Annie wrote in her diary. She was tired of people sticking their noses into “something that doesn’t concern them,” and lamented that her husband, Burnette, got “nothing but kicks for his pains and it makes me crazy.”
After it became increasingly apparent that the Colony’s efforts at Atwell’s Mill were a dismal failure, Haskell had taken about as many kicks as he could stand.
FAILURE AT ATWELL’S MILL
It should be pointed out that while Captain Dorst’s interference certainly had a debilitating effect on Colony logging, their Atwell’s Mill operation was probably doomed from the start. The equipment, some of which was included in the lease from Atwell’s heirs, was in poor shape. And the leased land surrounding the mill was already nearly logged out. Most of the useable pines and firs were gone, and the colonists had to resort to cutting giant sequoias, a labor-intensive undertaking that produced much wasted lumber. And finally there was the condition of the road, which always has rendered any large-scale operation in the Mineral King area economically impractical.
Burnette Haskell summed up why he felt Atwell’s Mill failed in his article, “How Kaweah Fell,” written in November 1891:
The strength of any organization lies in the people involved, and through cooperation, many hoped the whole (the Kaweah Colony) would exceed the sum total of the parts (the members). No one had preached this more fervently than Burnette Haskell, who had always possessed great talent to motivate. In the circular urging members to work harder, Haskell wrote, “Individual selfishness now means inevitably the ruin of Kaweah. Do you want to live or die?”
Haskell claimed that after five months, the operation at Atwell’s Mill cut only one-tenth of the 2.5 million feet they had expected, and “instead of being produced for $10 [per thousand feet] or less, it had cost from $18 to $20, and it was sold for $10.” Haskell added that “comment is superfluous, and whatever excuses may be made, the business failure is flat.”
The run of bad luck and the failure of the sum total to live up to expectations had, by the summer of 1891, left Haskell disillusioned. On July 25, Haskell, along with trustees Horace T. Taylor and William Christie, tendered their resignations from the Board of Directors. Notice was published in The Kaweah Commonwealth. The departing trustees, with forced graciousness, proclaimed:
As the year progressed, there was much fighting but it certainly wasn’t “shoulder to shoulder.” Early in August, Annie noted in her diary:
The Kaweah Commonwealth naturally did its best to put as positive a slant as possible on the news of the resignations, stating that it should not be looked upon by anybody as “being an evidence of any dissatisfaction with Kaweah.” The paper claimed that Haskell, along with Taylor and Christie, had given up their office “solely and simply because they know they can do better work in the ranks.”
But why did Burnette Haskell, who had worked so hard and tirelessly on behalf of his cooperative dream, finally resign his position? One clue can be found in Haskell’s resignation letter to the Board as legal counsel for the Colony:
Of course, it was more than a lack of appreciation that prompted Haskell’s actions. We have already seen that he felt operations at Atwell’s Mill were grossly mismanaged and that workers had carelessly exposed the trustees to possible arrest by cutting trees beyond the lease boundaries. On closer examination of his resignation letter, we see another root of Haskell’s anger, and perhaps the root of much of the growing Colony discord.
It may seem ironic that money had become such a motivating factor for Haskell. But the socialist agitator had never preached against the evils of money per se, but against the “competitive system” and “Capitalist scheme where Justice and Fraternity are sacrificed to the spirit of selfish greed.” Justice and Fraternity were now being pushed aside by self-preservation throughout the Kaweah Colony.
Haskell, the idealist, had also become frustrated by what he perceived as sloppy bookkeeping. He had become a realist, sensing that the light at the end of the tunnel was an oncoming train. In his resignation letter he offered the following warning:
It doesn’t take a lawyer to see that this warning also contains a thinly veiled threat by Haskell, perhaps the most disgruntled of any member at the time.
One other factor that undoubtedly raised Haskell’s ire that summer was once described by Tulare County historian Joe Doctor:
The San Francisco Chronicle reported, with headlines reading “Elphick’s Death—Rumors of Foul Play Freely Circulated,” that the frugal old man had gone to Kaweah to see about recovering $800 he had allegedly loaned the Colony and had died mysteriously. Members of the Colony, disturbed by the rumors, signed and sent a petition to Haskell requesting that he clear up several questions raised by the old man’s untimely death, including what happened to Elphick’s money. Even though charges were never formally made, and the San Francisco Examiner later reported that Elphick was clearly not the victim of foul play, the implications had to have been crystal clear to Haskell.
Frustrated at the disorganization of the Colony, feeling unappreciated and uncompensated, and finally accused — even if only an implied accusation — of murder, Haskell resigned one other post that summer. From The Kaweah Commonwealth, August 8, 1891:
SUICIDE AT KAWEAH
In October 1891, exactly one year and a day after moving to Kaweah, Annie Haskell wrote the following account in her diary:
The Kaweah Commonwealth reported that the deceased was a “native of Ohio, about 27 years of age, and a resident of Kaweah for about one year.” The newspaper also noted his “cheerful, kindly disposition with not a trace of moroseness in his nature.” The Commonwealth further explained:
The Visalia papers offered slightly different accounts of the tragedy and even hinted at a possible motive for the young man’s suicide. The Tulare County Times described the event in rather graphic detail, noting that Wigginton was found “still in bed, the pistol grasped firmly in his right hand lying on his breast, while immediately between and a little above the eyes a gaping bleeding wound showed where the leaden messenger had sped on its deadly work.” The paper also noted that Wigginton was universally liked by associates and of a cheerful disposition “although of late he has complained of what he believed the unjust treatment of himself and his associates by the government.” It is interesting to note that the Tulare County Times was still very supportive of the Colony at this time, while the Visalia Delta, which had become vituperative in its attacks on the Colony, offered a significantly different account of Wigginton’s state of mind:
It is perhaps reading too much between the lines to claim that the Delta infers Wigginton’s suicide was motivated by financial duress brought upon by a failing Colony, but when reporting an earlier suicide connected with Kaweah, blame is very clearly assigned to the Colony. On July 30, 1891, the Visalia Delta printed the following:
While the Delta could rationalize the obvious slanted bias of this report by labeling it the Chronicle’s account, it does mark a turning point in their reporting of the Colony, and foreshadows George Stewart’s devastating series of exposés that appeared later that year.
TING’S BITING LETTER
The Delta had, since the inception of the Kaweah Colony, reported with a remarkable restraint of judgment. It was particularly noteworthy that during its agitation to create a national park reserve, Stewart and the Delta were supportive of the Colony’s claim to land in and around Giant Forest. But as 1891 progressed, the paper became decidedly less positive in its comments concerning the Colony, and in November published a four-part history and scathing exposé on the Kaweah Co-Operative Colony.
The vehemence with which Stewart now attacked the Colony might seem an abrupt about-face, but Stewart had been exposed to definite and mounting motivations. In October, he received a letter from former colonist Peter Ting, which may have prompted, or at least confirmed, Stewart’s negative feelings for the Colony. Having heard that the Delta was willing to publish “true statements regarding the Kaweah Colony,” Ting was pleased to offer a “few facts.”
He prefaced his remarks by stating that he thought the best thing a local county newspaper could do would be to “expose such fraud and save families from being ruined by such vile creatures as the old Trustees of the Kaweah Colony.” Ting called the last two years of Colony existence “nothing more than a confidence game” and criticized Haskell’s despotic control of the so-called democratic process.
Ting put the question of the land claims into perspective when he wrote:
One major theme of Stewart’s series was that bickering and in-fighting had crippled the utopian enterprise. It had become a prevalent and apt criticism. By the time of Wigginton’s death in October 1891, members of the Colony were arguing and fighting over just about everything. Annie Haskell offered one particularly disturbing example in her diary the day after Wigginton’s death:
THE SWEET POTATO WAR
One episode that illustrates the depths to which the Colony had sunk — the bickering and fighting, the hardship and desperation — involved nothing more than a few sweet potatoes. Annie Haskell’s diary offers a version of the incident:
In an affidavit he prepared with Haskell’s help, Albert W. Green, age 58 years, explained that in the event of his death, the affidavit could be used posthumously. Even though his injuries were, as stated, severe, he thought however that he would survive. Annie Haskell, commenting on his injuries in her diary, noted that Green seemed “to be hurt internally and is considerably bruised and can’t sit up in bed without being lifted.”
In his affidavit, Green explained his membership in the Colony and the agreement he had made with the trustees to exchange produce for lumber and help in improving his land. He claimed the land was “waste ground that he worked hard—10 to 18 hours a day—to produce corn, squash, pumpkins and potatoes that he turned over to the Colony. They ate it up but did no improvement on my place in return.”19
The Visalia Delta reported on the incident:
An explanation as to why these sweet potatoes came into dispute was offered by the Tulare County Times:
In Green’s account, it was Haskell’s intervention that kept the mob, led by John Redstone, J.C. Weybright, Phil Winser, and Irvin Barnard, from beating him to death. He claims Haskell exchanged words, keeping his hand in a pocket in which “presumably he had a gun.”
If we are unclear at this point as to what really happened, an account by Phil Winser from the December 5, 1891, Commonwealth (which was now under James Martin’s control) should only add to the confusion. After stating the reasons why the potatoes were actually Colony property, the issue of the physical assault was addressed. Winser wrote:
History certainly teaches us that there is always more than one side to any story. The Tulare County Times, one of the few outside newspapers that still supported the failing Colony and the Martin faction, addressed what they called a “trumped up” assault charge, writing:
What really happened? We can only speculate. Except for Annie Haskell’s testimony in her diary about Green’s injuries, one could easily suspect Haskell of just such a ruse. A Visalia court, however, found Weybright guilty of assault and fined him $25. It seems most likely this dispute was symptomatic of a growing sense of panic in Kaweah. When things were running smoothly, cooperation had seemed to work. But as the end drew near and even food was scarce, cooperation disintegrated under the strain of tough times — when cooperation was needed the most.
COLONY DEATH RATTLE
By the end of 1891, Haskell had become desperate for money and sold an article to the San Francisco Examiner entitled “How Kaweah Failed.” The brilliant propagandist, once so tireless in his efforts to promote the Colony, was now driving the final nails into the coffin. Haskell, of course, was not the only one disillusioned with the Colony, nor was he the only one writing critically of the endeavor.
George Stewart’s series of articles in the Visalia Delta came out about the same time as Haskell’s Examiner piece. Both focused on the internal squabbles as one source of the Colony’s downfall, but whereas Stewart pointed the finger of blame at the founders and leaders of the Colony, Haskell blamed the weakness of human nature. Stewart harshly criticized the misleading nature of Colony propaganda while Haskell railed against a capitalist conspiracy. Stewart noted the comparative luxury in which Colony Secretary James Martin lived while other colonists were reportedly near starvation; Haskell bemoaned the existence of “too many average men.”
Shortly after Stewart’s scathing series appeared, Haskell, Martin, and H.T. Taylor were arrested for “using the mails for fraudulent purposes in sending out literature to people stating that the Colony owned thousands of acres of timber land.” So dispersed was the Colony by this time that only three of the five trustees named in the indictment could be arrested, as the other two had already left the Colony.
Indeed, by this time — January 1892 — the Kaweah Co-Operative Colony Company, having failed to “weather the storms of internal disintegration,” had been dissolved. In its place had sprung the short-lived Industrial Co-Operative Union of Kaweah, with James Martin as president. But it was too late for any phoenix to rise from the Colony’s ashes. Split into irreparable schism and denied their only resource (timber), the Colony’s reformation was in fact nothing more than its final death rattle.
The March/April 1892 issue of The Kaweah Commonwealth printed the official minutes of the Kaweah Colony for 1892, stating that on April 9, the 50th General Meeting of the K.C.C.Co was “adjourned sine die, there being no quorum present.” This was the last issue of The Kaweah Commonwealth published by the Colony — a Colony which, in any form, had ceased operation. A bitter Haskell later wrote:
SOURCES: A handwritten draft of a circular, “A Serious Word to the Members,” signed by B.G. Haskell and H.T. Taylor, dated July 7, 1891 (Haskell Family Papers, Bancroft Library) provided primary source information for this chapter, as did many of the already oft-cited contemporary news reports; diaries of Annie Haskell; and Haskell’s Out West account. A few other interesting sources include an undated petition to Haskell and A.W. Green to “furnish an explanation of the actions and conduct in relation to the late Father Elphick,” signed by, among others, James Martin, Irvin Barnard, Phil Winser, and George Purdy (Bancroft Library); a handwritten note from Albert Green to the Tulare County District Attorney dated November 11, 1891, found included in a letter Haskell wrote to his father (Haskell Family Papers, Bancroft Library); and a letter to the editor by Peter Ting to the Visalia Delta, dated October 25, 1891 (handwritten copy, Kaweah Colony collection, Visalia Public Library).