Gunnison » 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.
"My father was sort of the little Moses, leading Jews to a new world," Lillian Brown Vogel, 99, said by phone from her Ukiah, Calif., home earlier this week. "In the beginning, everyone was very enthusiastic."
But the enthusiasm that created the Clarion colony -- the name a reference to Brown's clarion call to beckon Jews there -- was quickly tempered, if not killed, by the struggles the Jewish farmers faced, explained Bob Goldberg, a University of Utah history professor who wrote a book about the experiment. 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.
While in most respects the Utah settlement was a failure, it remains a story rich in lessons.
"They took a major risk with their lives, not to benefit themselves but to change a people," Goldberg said.
On a recent stormy Sunday, the historian led his own pack of Jews -- in this case high school seniors affiliated with Congregation Kol Ami, Utah's largest synagogue -- to the area, where only remnants of the colony remain: a couple of cemetery headstones (including Binder's) inscribed in Hebrew, a scattering of foundations and the broken walls of a water cistern that burst and fell apart the first day colonists used it.
Goldberg, who discovered Clarion in 1982 when he was flipping through a book about Utah ghost towns, wanted the students to see an often overlooked chapter in Jewish and Utah history. He also hoped to impress upon them that the idea of Jews working the land isn't as far-fetched as it seems (see sidebar for more information).
"We forget how agricultural and pastoral we were, going back to Abraham," he said. "We were shepherds, gatherers and farmers."
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.
Brown's daughter, Lillian, was 2 when she arrived at Clarion. She doesn't remember much about day-to-day life, although she does recall that everyone spoke Yiddish -- it was her first language -- and that her mother used to bathe her in the muddy stream behind their home.
"The kind of food we got, I can't remember. But apparently it was good enough for me to get where I am," the 99-year-old woman said with a laugh.
Most families left in 1915, thanks to train tickets donated by Jews living in Salt Lake City. Some went on to farm elsewhere, but the bulk were city-bound. The Jewish community in Salt Lake had tried to help the Clarion Jews as best they could, and they weren't alone in doing this. Mormon farmers reached out to offer assistance and knowledge. And The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints even donated $500 to help the Clarion community survive its last winter, Goldberg said.
A few families stayed on into the late-1920s, but left when they worried that their teenagers, attending high school in Gunnison, would marry Mormons. Brown, the colony leader whose marriage ended, stuck around Sanpete County and was one of the founders of Utah Poultry Association, which became the Intermountain Farmers Association. He also helped create, with a Mormon partner, the company that became Norbest Turkey. In later years, during the Great Depression and under the New Deal, Brown tried his hand at another farm cooperative, this time in what's now Roosevelt, N.J.
The Clarion Jews only tilled about half of the 6,000 acres they purchased. Surveying the vast expanse of land around him, Goldberg said, "The key to me: We still don't farm this stuff."
For the students who joined him, the trip was eye-opening.
"Looking at the gravestones, it was cool because it made the history tangible," Dane Brodke, 17, said. Plus, given the fact that "there are virtually no Jews in southern Utah," seeing Hebrew writing -- a piece of Jewish life in the middle of nowhere -- was worth the journey.
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.
From time to time, over the years, the local farmer has spotted people wandering around or driving down the road obviously in search of something. They've been visitors such as Lillian Brown Vogel and her son, other descendants of colonists, people from as far away as Israel who have come to learn about their own histories, he said. So he shows them where to go, tells them what he knows, and asks them to sign his copy of Bob Goldberg's book.
"I guess I can spot the lost people pretty good," he said.
Opening a letter he received some years ago, Sorenson read a note from Bob Basow, a professor at the University of Kansas.
" 'I just wanted to say thanks to you for taking the time to show me the Jewish neighborhood populated by ancestors I never knew,' " Basow wrote in May 2000. " 'Had Grandpa Hyman been a better farmer, perhaps we could have been neighbors and friends.' "
Jessica Ravitz writes about religion and spirituality. She can be reached at email@example.com or 801-257-8776.