When Fairhope was founded in 1894, it was as a unique attempt at an American utopia. For its founders and earliest residents, the single-tax colony was intended to draw the liberal, the open-minded, the thinkers and dreamers and artists. And it did just that.
In its first decades, the singular little city wooed Northern artists, not just with its promise of temperate winters and friendly smiles like traditional Southern resort cities, but with the promise of intellectual stimulation and an out-of-the-box approach to life. Artists and writers ventured South to stake out not their fortunes, but their genius.
Upton Sinclair, 1909
Writer Upton Sinclair was no stranger to mortal attempts at Eden. Sinclair was disenchanted with the griminess of humanity—unsurprising, given his deep delve into the underbelly of Chicago’s meatpacking district, with storylines of unimaginable poverty, sexual assault, and accidental cannibalism in his award-winning novel The Jungle. Following the success (and payout) of his book, the muckraking author made his first attempt for Utopia by establishing his own artist’s colony, Helicon Home Colony. Sinclair’s experimental community welcomed its first residents in Englewood, New Jersey, in October of 1906. By March of the following year, the building burned to the ground, charring Sinclair’s literary profits with it.
Ever the idealist, the near-destitute Sinclair set his sights next on an already established colony: Fairhope. Sinclair’s socialist leanings aligned with the Single-Taxers found at Fairhope, and it was there he ventured, staking out a tent on the windy beach in which to work on his next novel, Love’s Pilgrimage. But it was at this time that Sinclair’s own pilgrimage of love fell on rocky grounds, as his wife’s lover came to stay with them at Fairhope before she and her beau left Sinclair on the barren coast for a month. Though Sinclair searched for Utopia in Fairhope, adhering to a raw food diet and plunging bravely into the icy bay waters daily, it was his own broken heart that prevented his happiness.
Sherwood Anderson, 1920
On the cusp of the roaring Twenties, writer Sherwood Anderson sought quiet solace in Fairhope. A frequenter of such Chicago cultural institutions as the Dill Pickle Club, Anderson was exhausted by the the social pressures and civil unrest of the big city. Seeking recovery from illness and from the hounding popularity that accompanied the success of his story collection Winesburg, Ohio, Anderson journeyed south to Alabama.
Like Sinclair, Anderson found inspiration in the unprecedented commune, if not in the people at least in nature. Writer’s block collapsed under the gentle coaxing of nature’s call, and Anderson quickly and easily polished his next book, Poor White, for publication. The pastel wash of winter’s colors in Fairhope also inspired Anderson to put brush, in addition to pen, to paper, as he experimented with painting for the first time.
Wharton Esherick, 1919
It’s possible that Sherwood Anderson’s first foray into painting was inspired by his fast friend, Wharton Esherick. The two artists met at Fairhope and immediately embarked on a friendship that would last throughout their lives.
Esherick, unlike Sinclair and Anderson, came to Fairhope for the somewhat less romantic incentive of regular employment. He accepted a position as an art teacher at the School of Organic Education. It was a promising position for someone who was, at that time, a somewhat unpromising artist. Esherick was a painter, but painting was a medium in which he did not flourish, and his work was not particularly well-received.
Esherick did, however, find inspiration at Fairhope, and began experimenting with different artistic approaches, painting in Cubist and Abstract forms and sculpting with clay. The medium that eventually gained him national prominence was sculpting, especially in wood, a form he fortuitously encountered at Fairhope. Esherick began using a set of chisels for creating woodcuts; by some accounts, the set was gifted to him by his friend Anderson, which makes sense since such chisels were often used to create illustrations for books. Esherick quickly adapted to the new format and began his transition into the nation’s foremost woodcarver and, later, woodworker.
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