Below is an article by Anna Ferdinand:
By Anna Ferdinand
Things haven't changed too much here in Edison in the last hundred years or so. There's still a couple of bars and a liquor store and probably always will be. It’s a quiet jewel - a town for two's, with two bakeries and two art galleries adding to the twin bars and two hundred people. The biggest difference since the turn of the 19th century is that Edison is no longer the socialist Utopian destination that brought a steady migration this way.
Named after Thomas Edison, the town on the northwestern corner of Skagit County was established in 1869. It was the same year the Samish tribe was omitted from a Federal list of recognized tribes. They had officially disappeared into thin air. Their own utopia based on the fish of the sea and the fruit of the land was wiped out, first by sickness, then homesteaders.
By the 1850's the steady stream began to arrive. There wasn't enough gold for everybody out on the west coast, but there were tree's a plenty. By 1879 Edison had a post office. Settlers built dikes to hold the waters back. Timber was flushed from the mountains down the Samish River. Edison became a center for commerce in Skagit County. Boats docked at the Mercantile, which now houses the Edison Eye, a well established art gallery.
Eugene Debs would momentarily transform the town. A locomotive fire fighter from the age of fourteen, he led an aborted railway strike, and was jailed for his involvement. After his release, he became a spokesman for the worker in the socialist movement, which advocated revolutionary action to change the Capitalist system.
Instead of revolution by violence, Debs and his followers would lead a revolution by example. There had already been a few scattered socialist colonies across the U.S. Debs and other Socialists hoped to eliminate the huge capitalist monopolies by out-competing capitalist bosses and working collectively, eradicating the “parasitic” management classes.
Debs and his fellow thinkers created the B.C.C.: the Brotherhood Cooperative of the Commonwealth. They advocated collectivity to the then 500,000 members of the Socialist Party. First they would take over a state, then the country with this new society. A group of 100,000 would go to live in new colonies. Brotherhood entry fees from the four hundred thousand remaining members would finance this new way of life.
John R. Rogers, the populist governor of Washington State from 1897 to 1901, liked the idea and offered the state as a test location in a letter to Debs. George Edward Pelton, a socialist and a woodsman from Maine, took a steamboat to La Conner then walked to the town of Edison, looking at the rich land lining the road way. When he came upon the crest that brings the lay of flat land before the Chuckanut Mountains and Samish bay into view, he ended his search for the perfect place.
Pelton met with Casey Lewis, a member of the BCC who showed him a tract of land for sale in the foothills of the Chuckanaut Mountains. The site was littered with abandoned logging camps, oxen trails and empty log farmhouses. Pelton reported back to BCC headquarters, “This is certainly an embryo garden of Eden. It only requires a common sense socialistic colony to render it a veritable paradise.” The party voted to buy the land and build their community.
By the end of 1897 socialists were flooding the town of Edison. They renamed the local hotel "Freedom Inn". Edison was now the headquarters of a national movement. Money poured into the post office from national members, surprising then postmaster Dale with its magnitude.
With low timber prices the colonists built apartments to house the people waiting in nearby Edison. They built a barn and a center house named Fort Bellamy after Edward Bellamy, author of Looking Backward, a popular utopian novel. They named the colony after its sequel, Equality.
The first conflict to arise was between the Edison branch of the colony and Equality up the muddy road. The Edison branch wanted to become autonomous and Equality members complained that socialist money was only getting as far as Edison, and not making it to the colony up the hill. The complaint was taken to the larger BCC body, generating a crack in the movement.
But the Colonists up the hill were beginning to produce income. Trees were cut, and the stumps hauled. They built a mill, started a dairy. They sold apple butter, produced honey and grew “coffee cereal,” a coffee substitute. They made bread, with sales peaking at 600 loaves a day. The colony had a barbershop and a tailor’s shop, sold lumber and fire wood, made furniture and had a school for the young socialists. They also made clothes, using what they needed and selling the rest. People came, putting all their worldly possessions into the collective, fueled into action by a dream to take over the country with this new way of life.
George E. Boomer brought his press to the town of Edison. He had been editor of a socialist weekly in Girard, Kansas, Appeal to Reason, until he was run out of town by a mob carrying a rope to hang him after he had written an editorial calling the National flag, “a piece of patched rag tied to a stick,” which he said, was valued above the well being of others. He brought the press to the town of Edison, which was housed in what became the Odd Fellows home. Industrial Freedom went into nationwide circulation with 7,000 copies in 1898.
Edison had a total of twenty-three businesses which remained distant from the socialist activity of the colony up the hill. Town members and local residents tolerated the “crazy” socialists but did not share their goals. Edison now served only as printing headquarters and as a drinking Mecca for thirsty socialist workers.
The first major setback to the colony occurred when the political wing of the Socialists walked out on the utopian faction at the 1899 national convention in St. Louis. The colony saw their monthly remittances drop from $2,000 a month to $100. As the money dried up, membership dwindled.
When the railroads were built in 1902, they brought more business to the colonists. But workers from the colony realized there was more money to be made in the capitalist system and began to defect. Their hard work ethic was in demand all over the county.
The downward spiral was accelerated by Anarchists and Free Lovers, a nudist colony which came to Equality. Catherine Savage, a woman who recorded her memories of the colony days as a young girl, wrote that her former teacher was beaten to death after trying to vote these “hoodlums” out of Equality. There was also a fire, which burned the barn and the silo. The colony was disbanded in debt in 1907.
The next generation would see Edward R Murrow move to the town of Blanchard, less than a mile from the colony site. Murrow attended school in Edison while his father worked as a logger. The hard work of this frontier life and the working conditions of the loggers, which Murrow experienced himself as a young man, would influence his famous radio broadcasts over his entire career. He remained true to his early roots and dealt one of the final blows to the Joseph McCarthy witch hunts. At the end of his career Murrow made a final denunciation of the entire capitalist system, his own beloved CBS included.
Soon after Murrow left, not enough trees remained to sustain logging and many of those who depended on the industry moved away. The Depression of the 1930s had arrived. In 1931 a fire in the town of Edison wiped out one of the saloons, the meat market and the shoe store, and another fire in 1937 took out the Union Hotel and the grocery store. Though these buildings were rebuilt, the town had lost its economic base.
Edison maintained only a grocery store, a liquor store and a post office as well as the two taverns and a lumberyard. In the 1970‘s the grocery store closed shop, the lumberyard shut down, and the post office moved to Bow. The Edison Cafe remained in business, as did the bars and the liquor store, pushed just south of town. The old storefronts remained but paint was chipping. Edison kept an air of purity, but by the eighties was dead quiet except for the taverns, an ice cream parlor and the traffic running through town.
Our most recent revival here in Edison is no socialist colony. Rather it consists of small capitalist efforts, furnishing affordable luxuries such as fine bread, cheese, baked goods, coffee and art.
Just across the flat farmland Wal Mart and the like are the strongest indicators that Monopolists had beat out, first the Nuwaha and the Samish tribes, then the Debs, the Peltons and the Murrows—their lives and hopes just utopian ghosts and memories.
In Edison, the revival has a certain quality to it. When the Farm to Market Bakery opened, it brought a place for people to meet. It was a powerful refuge when the 9/11 planes hit the trade towers, warm and welcoming like a home away from home.
The Bread Farm followed with its artisan bread, which soon surpassed the volumes achieved by the Equality Colony Bakery. Slough Foods, a cheese and wine shop opened for business. The Edison Eye with art openings, and the Longhorn with their raging business, often transforms Edison into a hopping weekend cultural destination all out of proportion to its population of 200. Shop Curator and the Lucky Dumpster have since come to town – a jeweler and carpenter using recycled materials, respectively, putting their own creative mark on the streamline landscape of America today. “Else America,” James the carpenter calls it.
Skagit Valley socialism is dead and few people dare hope for a perfect world. But our communal revival is here for the moment, a small colony of quality where art and good food and drink are now the economic mainstays of the town. Utopia is buried in the ground, but preserved in the layer of clay beneath our feet, always ready to sprout up anew.