Photos courtesy of Free Acres Association and Chris R. Morgan
Free Acres, NJ is best described by those quaint, inoffensive words used to whet the appetites of suburbanites in search of peace and tranquility: verdant, unspoiled, wholesome, and uncorrupted. The century-old anarchist community nestled back in a heavy and deep wood is a place of “ideologically beautiful abnormality," as lifelong resident Scott Mack put it. While nearby suburban townships have become overdeveloped sprawls in recent years, Free Acres remains a magical woodland Lothlorien. It looks like New Jersey looked decades ago. Or how rural Vermont looks today.
Streetlights and curbs are prohibited in the community in order to maintain the primitive, rustic aesthetic. All the streetsigns are carved out of wood and the streets have names like Beechwood, Cedar, Apple Tree and Water. The community has always been committed to ecology and radical ideas.
Since its inception in 1910, Free Acres has been all about redefining the concept of properity ownership. The land is communally held by all the residents. People lease lots for 99 years. You could say it’s a co-op of sorts, but most co-ops operate in a good-natured, Rousseauvian bent. Free Acres is a social experiment, one man’s dream of anarchism in action.
That man was Bolton Hall, a turn-of-the-century lawyer and author from New York City. Hall was deeply involved in the most radical activities and reform campaigns of his time. He was a friend of Emma Goldman’s, a founder of the American Longshoreman’s Union and member of the Free Speech League. The man was arrested in 1916 for distributing birth control information. A leftist critic of Marxism, Hall fell under the spell of writer and populist economist Henry George, who believed that all resources should be shared in common. He promoted the idea of the “land value tax” which he believed would generate so much revenue that it would make all other taxes obsolete. As Free Acres archivist and resident Laurel Hessing put it, “Land is a nonrenewable resource like air and water. It shouldn’t be taxed. Only the home or whatever is built on it should be taxed."
Karl Marx called George’s concept capitalism. Murray Rothbard saw it as a direct path to nationalization. Richard Rorty simply called Henry George “nutty.”
Undaunted, Bolton Hall deeded 70 acres of land in Berkeley Heights that could never be sold or speculated on. He lived on the land in a shack called Suepine Hall, and convinced many likeminded people to join him by advertising in churches and synagogues around New York and New Jersey. “Free Acres differs from other communities,” Bolton wrote, “it requires no profession of belief, religion, adherence to the ‘Single-Tax’ or any other doctrine or social practice. It does not seek to control its members. There are laws enough already, God knows, for that.”
In the early 1900s, Free Acres became a bohemian oasis that artists from Greenwich Village escaped to in the summer. The legendary James Cagney, then a budding Broadway actor, spent time there. So did Thorne Smith, author of the racy Topper novels, and illustrator Will Crawford. They built their own homes and shacks and teepees, wrote inflammatory newsletters, and entertained themselves with outdoor theatre, summer camps and archery.
This may sound like a kind of adult summer camp, but the ideas behind Free Acres were ahead of their time. In its charter, the community gave voting rights to women a decade before the federal government did. Immigrants were given citizenship, and radicals of all stripes were given voice. This was during the time when anarchists were being hanged for their beliefs and socialists were regularly jailed.
It was not just a do-over of Walden Pond. Free Acres was a serious attempt at alternative living in the period between the Gilded Age and the Progressive Age, when things still seemed possible.
Mike Gold, author of the 1930 bestseller Jews Without Money, spent time in Free Acres.
There was also Albert Boni, a socialist who founded the Modern Library. Boni traveled to Soviet Russia and was detained there, suspected of spying for the United States. Benzion Liber, an anarchist and supporter of the Modern School movement, kept a bungalow in Free Acres. And in nearby Berkeley Heights proper was Joseph Ishill, the editor and publisher of the anarchist Oriole Press. The area around Berkeley Heights was a hotbed of anarchism.
The radical sheen would not last. Starting in the 1930s, residents began to lose interest in seasonal residence and want to set up shop permanently. There was talk of mortgages and bank financing in the air. People wanted to build actual houses and pave the roads.
Free Acres has changed a lot, but it has kept many of its old traditions. Meetings are still held every month at the Farmhouse and decisions are still made by consensus. The community hasn't been immune to the McMansion scourge. “Most of Free Acres’ current residents know little of its history,” says resident Martin Bierbaum. “They’re drawn here by its natural charm, and for the fact that it’s a good place to raise children.”
In a sense, Free Acres is still pretty free. Like America, it was founded on lofty ideals and like America its had to jettison some of its ideals in order to survive. The place maintains a balance between natural order and human intrusion more than any other place I've ever been. But in a way, it’s just like any other suburban neighborhood: an attempt at utopia that isn’t quite perfect.
Chris R. Morgan is the publisher of Biopsy Magazine.