Meet The Well-Meaning Pioneer Behind A Vegetarian 'Fairy Land' In Kansas | KCUR

Meet The Well-Meaning Pioneer Behind A Vegetarian 'Fairy Land' In Kansas

Jul 14, 2019

Vegetarians have their reasons for not eating meat. But "I am an optimist" doesn't have a regular spot on lists more typically focused on health and environmental benefits.

Optimism was, however, the Englishman Henry Clubb's rationale more than 100 years ago, when he enticed dozens of people to move to the radical territory of Kansas to start a vegetarian settlement in what is now Allen County.

It didn't go well.

"Now we all have come! have brought our fathers, our mothers, and our little ones, and find no shelter sufficient to shield them from the furious prairie winds, and the terrific storms of the climate!" wrote a woman from New York named Miriam Colt.

Colt and her family were among those who had given money to Clubb based on his promise that the settlement would be habitable by the time they got there. It took the Colt family more than a month to make the trip. They arrived exhausted, soaked from a spring storm, and were greeted with a meal of hominy, stewed apples, and tea in a wet tent.

"Can any one imagine our disappointment this morning, on learning from this and that member, that no mills have been built," Colt wrote, "that the directors, after receiving our money to build mills, have not fulfilled the trust reposed in them, and that in consequence, some families have already left the settlement."

In 1862, Miriam Colt published an account of her participation in the failed vegetarian settlement in what became Allen County, Kansas.
Credit Public Domain

Colt published her account of the experiment in 1862, under the extraordinary title "Went to Kansas; Being a Thrilling Account of an Ill-Fated Expedition to that Fairy Land, and its Sad Results."

"I think it's way too easy, when you look back on previous times, to kind of laugh and say, 'What were they thinking, all packing off to Kansas where there wasn't even a railroad and thinking they could subsist as a vegetarian colony?'" says Kansas City writer Aaron Barnhart.

Barnhart and his partner, Diane Eickhoff, have published several books about the region's history. They're now working on the story of Henry Clubb's settlement; their initial research was based on Colt's book.

The two have visited the site of Clubb's outpost just south of what is now Humboldt, Kansas. Barnhart acknowledges that, yes, the town failed, but so did thousands of other pioneer settlements all founded with similar optimism.

"Going to the place where history happened humbles you, and makes you realize that these people were intelligent beings who wanted to change their world and the world around them, and you've got to respect that."

In the mid-1800s, Clubb was certain that vegetarianism was the path to physical and social reform, and hopeful that humans could attain a divinity that carnivorous animals never could.

And Kansas made so much sense as the American epicenter of vegetarianism.

As a journalist, Clubb covered the passing of the Kansas-Nebraska Act of 1854, which allowed residents of a state to determine whether that state would be free or allow slavery.

Aaron Barnhart and Diane Eickhoff at the site of the 1809 Bible-Christian Church in Salford, England, where Henry Clubb dedicated himself to vegetarianism before moving to the U.S.
Credit Aaron Barnhart

He saw abolitionists and slavers alike flood the territory in order to shore up their side of the cause before Kansas became a state and declared itself one way or the other.

At the same time, Clubb knew the women's suffrage movement was strong in Kansas.

The territory was the fulcrum of social change in the center of the nation in the middle of the century. The vegetarian movement fit right in.

Clubb's settlement was in Osage territory on the banks of the Neosho River. The first intended residents arrived in the spring of 1856 and left that same fall.

At its core, Barnhart says, the movement was not a health or lifestyle decision Clubb and his followers were making, it was an ethical decision.

"When (Clubb) was trying to convey this to small children in the publications he edited over the years, he really boiled it down to these three words: Do Not Hurt," Barnhart says.

These words are the working title of Barnhart and Eickhoff's book on the subject. Clubb and his followers might not have harmed animals in the attempted establishment of their settlement, but the people ended up in a whole world of hurt.

Aaron Barnhart spoke with KCUR on a recent edition of Central Standard. Listen to the full conversation here.

Follow KCUR contributor Anne Kniggendorf on Twitter @annekniggendorf.

Correction: This story has been updated to reflect that Miriam Colt was from New York state, not New York City as previously written.