Clarion call: Failed settlement lives on in Jewish hearts

Published: Friday, Sept. 2 2011 10:00 p.m. MDT

Some 200 Jewish families in Philadelphia and New York paid $300 each to be part of the Clarion experiment. Representing those families, Ben Brown took a trip West to investigate land possibilities in Colorado and New Mexico. While he was traveling he was contacted by the Utah Land Board, which offered to him 6,000 acres of what they called "the best land in the state," near Gunnison in Piute County. The land had numerous advantages, not the least of which was the promised Piute Canal, which Brown was told would furnish all of the water they would need to flourish in the area. Other advantages included the property's proximity to Gunnison and to railroad connections and an extra good financial deal from the state of Utah.

"The LDS Church even threw in $500 to help with the purchase," Goldberg said. "Brown advised the others in the group to take the Utah deal. He felt it was the perfect place to colonize. And he liked the fact that it was so far away from the East Coast. He knew what they were about to do was going to be hard, and he wanted to make it as difficult as possible for people to pack up and go home."

The first group of Jewish men arrived at the Clarion site on Sept. 10, 1911. They immediately began to clear the land and plant 1,500 acres of wheat, alfalfa and oats. But the land was dry and rocky, and the promised canal was not yet finished. They tried to haul water in from Gunnison, both for watering and for drinking, but they couldn't keep up with the need. "The first year's crop was a disaster," Goldberg said.

During the second year more men, as well as many women and children, arrived in Clarion.

"The women and children brought new energy and vitality to the young community," Goldberg said. "Colony lands were divided into individual farms, although machinery and other resources were shared cooperatively, like in an Israeli 'moshav.' "

At its peak the town of Clarion swelled to 156 residents farming 2,400 acres of land. Life was hard, but the community seemed to be on its way to success when a series of incidents and disasters hit. Soon after the canal was finished, heavy rains broke the canal's banks and flooded the fields, washing out the land and the crops. Successive years with early frosts and summer drought proved catastrophic. The canal, upon which so much of their hopes for success was based, was always unreliable and often just plain dry.

"These people had come directly from Eastern cities," Goldberg said. "They were not prepared for the hardships and requirements of this kind of life. Their knowledge of farming and their funding were both inadequate to sustain them. As each new disaster presented itself, it became harder to accept the difficulties, harder to say 'wait until next spring, harder to deal with dissension and division.' "

By 1916, most of the community had disbanded. Thanks to the kindness of members of the Salt Lake City Jewish community, they were able to buy train tickets home to Philadelphia and New York. A few went on to California ("They had been told by friends and family in the East that this was a bad idea, and they didn't want to have to go back and tell them they were right," Goldberg said). Brown and a few others stayed and farmed in the area until the 1920s. By this time their children were old enough that they felt they needed to return to the East for educational and cultural purposes.

Today Clarion is essentially a ghost town. Here and there you can find a few deteriorating cabin foundations, the remains of the irrigation system, a collapsed cistern, a ditch or two and occasionally a belt buckle or a child's shoe. In the area you can now see evidence of agricultural success accomplished in later years, thanks to modern farming technology. But mostly you can see the parched earth and crusty soil.

Still for many, like the family of that Clarion descendant in California, Clarion is a symbol.

"It represents a dream, something for which a group of people was willing to risk everything," Goldberg said. "While it's true that they failed, it's equally true that they tried. The name of the community itself expresses what they were about: They were sounding a call, making a declaration to the world and to themselves. That heritage of idealism has endured through the years, and holds a special place in the hearts and souls of those who know and remember the stories of Clarion."

A special celebration of the 100th anniversary of the settlement of Clarion will be held in Gunnison on Sept. 9 and 10. Events will include speeches, historical presentations, an original musical, a field trip to the Clarion site and dinner. For specific information please contact Clive Romney at clive@upharts.org.

EMAIL: jwalker@desnews.com

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