Sunrise Cooperative Farm: A Depression Era Kibbutz in Michigan

This was originally published as a guest post on the University of California Press Blog, part of a series published in conjunction with the meeting of the American Historical Association in Atlanta. UC Press authors share insight into their research and stories that reflect this year’s conference theme, “Global Migrations: Empires, Nations, and Neighbors.”

A barn at the Sunrise Co-operative Farm Community, Alecia, Michigan, circa 1933-1936. Courtesy of the Boris Yelensky Papers, 1939-1975, Labadie Collection, University of Michigan Library (Special Collections Library).

A barn at the Sunrise Co-operative Farm Community, Alecia, Michigan, circa 1933-1936. Courtesy of the Boris Yelensky Papers, 1939-1975, Labadie Collection, University of Michigan Library (Special Collections Library).

At its high point in the decade before the First World War, the anarchist movement in the United States was composed primarily of immigrants from Italy, Spain, Russia, and Eastern Europe, many of them Jewish. The Yiddish language anarchist weekly, Fraye Arbeter Shtime (Free voice of labor), circulated an estimated 30,000 copies per issue in 1914, while most other anarchist periodicals topped out at 3,000.

As outspoken critics of capitalism, nationalism, and imperialism, anarchists suffered harsh repression at the hands police, federal agents, and vigilantes during the war. Though diminished in size and left strategically disoriented, anarchists maintained a rich institutional life in New York and other large cities during the 1920s and 1930s. Although the 1930s are widely remembered as banner years for the “Old Left” in the United States, little has been known until recently about the ways anarchists—anti-statist socialists—reacted to the Great Depression and the rise of the New Deal. Perhaps most intriguing among their varied efforts was the attempt by Jewish anarchists to establish an agricultural commune northeast of Detroit as a means of circumventing the dismal wage economy while putting their ideals into practice.

In the fall of 1932, Fraye Arbeter Shtime editor Joseph Cohen published a prospectus explaining that in such a venture, “The land, the means of production and the things that are in common use must belong to the community as a whole; the individual should own only objects of personal use (clothes, furniture, books, works of art) and share of the common income.”

When a 10,000 acre farm, replete with buildings, equipment, and livestock, came on the market for a reasonable price, the group snapped it up, with families buying in for $500 a piece. By May of 1934 one hundred fifty adults and fifty-six children lived at the Sunrise Cooperative Farming Community year round. Despite their inexperience, this inspired crew managed to bring in a crop of peppermint, sugar beets, and grains worth nearly $50,000 during its first season.

Residents of the Sunrise Co-operative Farm Community, Alecia, Michigan, circa 1933-1936. Courtesy of the Boris Yelensky Papers, 1939-1975, Labadie Collection, University of Michigan Library (Special Collections Library).

Residents of the Sunrise Co-operative Farm Community, Alecia, Michigan, circa 1933-1936. Courtesy of the Boris Yelensky Papers, 1939-1975, Labadie Collection, University of Michigan Library (Special Collections Library).

Despite promising beginnings, however, difficulties and conflicts quickly arose. Promotional meetings for the colony had been conducted in Yiddish and many participants had assumed the colony would function with Yiddish as its primary language, as a means of retaining Jewish identity. Labor Zionism was growing in popularity, and to some, Sunrise appealed as an opportunity to experience kibbutz life. Yet Cohen argued for English as the primary language since the colony had “several” non-Jewish members and was home to dozens of children who spoke little Yiddish. He may also have been mindful of the anarchist movement’s growing desire to appeal to native-born English speakers. Residents eventually agreed to conduct meetings in English, with language choice at other times a personal matter, but the debate remained an open sore.

Acts of nature also created setbacks for Sunrise residents. The commune’s second season was severely marred by the same drought that uprooted farmers throughout the country. The following summer brought heavy rains, which flooded the low-lying land, followed by an invasion of crop-eating caterpillars. As the economy began to improve after 1936, a stream of colonists abandoned the farm to return the city life with which they were more familiar. Faced with financial disaster, the remaining colonists agreed to sell the entire operation to the government as a means of extricating themselves from the venture.

Despite these setbacks, many Jewish anarchists continued to view kibbutzim as the best way to put anarchist values into practice, leading some to endorse or join the politically fraught settlement of Jews in the British Mandate of Palestine. Twentieth century U.S. anarchism is replete with similar stories of global migrants proposing intensive forms of “neighborliness” as solutions to structural challenges, while attempting to balance the cohering properties of national identity with a severe antipathy towards nation-states.