Octagon City, continued....

Why Did It Fail?

There has been much speculation from Kansas and communal historians as to why the Vegetarian Settlement Company failed. After studying it myself I think it boils down to unpreparedness. Almost all the settlers were of a middle-class background and were not ready to take on the frontier lifestyle. The advertisements published by promoters painted a picture of a small, prosperous settlement like those in eastern states, and many of the shareholders assumed that this kind of environment could just pop up on the Kansas grasslands and be ready to accomodate persons of all trades. This was not the case, and since only one-third of the settlers were farmers, while two-thirds were mechanics and professional men, many were forced to make an early departure from the colony.

Henry Clubb probably best serves as an example of a person completely incompetent to take on the life of a frontiersman. His background was in lecturing, journalism, and office work. He had absolutely no experience or knowledge on what the life of a Kansas settler would involve. Watson and Samuel Stewart, who were two of the very few settlers who had some prior pioneering experience both became convinced after meeting with Clubb that the colony would fail. Watson Stewart recorded the following in his memoirs: [Samuel Stewart] had met our Secretary, Mr. Clubb, and found that he was a man with no experience of Western life and a new country, and was, in his opinion, unfitted to manage the affairs of the company. Some of the people thought that he had misappropriated the funds entrusted to him. I did not have that opinion of him, but I believed that he did not have the practical ability to manage the affairs of the company successfully. He was wholly unacquainted with Western life; he was an Englishman, about thirty years of age, with a wife but no children; had been connected with the New York Tribune, I think as a reporter, and knew nothing outside of office work.

As Stewart indicated, some of the settlers believed that Clubb misappropriated the money that had been collected. Others thought the whole thing was a scheme to take money away from innocent victims, and resentment against Clubb grew as time passed and the settlement failed to develop. Suggestions like these probably came from frustration, though, since Clubb certainly never gained anything financially from the situation. He too became sick with fever and was forced to move back East, and most likely lost plenty of money from his investments in the company as well. Some of the settlers went to him asking for refunds, but when he had no money the best he could offer was dry goods to take with them. He seemed to be personally honest, but was just incompetent to manage a Kansas frontier colony.

But even to place the blame entirely on Clubb to me seems a bit far-fetched. Instead, I think responsibility falls on all the shareholders in that they came to Kansas unprepared for the lifestyle they had to face. Particular responsibility falls on those who drew up the company's advertisements: If this colony had been advertised as a pioneering venture on the frontier, and if the harsh realities of life on the plains had been portrayed accurately instead of false utopian forecasts, the venture might have eventually turned into a prosperous vegetarian town in southeast Kansas. Instead, the settlement dissipated, leaving only a few remaining settlers in Allen County.

It is also interesting to speculate how Kansas might be today if the outcome had been more positive. The vegetarian center of the country would be in southeastern Kansas, and tourists would be flocking to see the five octagonal villages that had been the site of one of the most unusual experiements in the country. Instead, the only remnants of the colony in Allen County are a small creek known as "Vegetarian Creek" and the "Cottage Grove" township where the settlement was located, and the only octagons in Allen County are stop signs.

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If you know of any additional resources on this topic, the Philadelphia Bible Church movement, or Henry Clubb I would be very interested. Please e-mail me at andrewmchenry@hotmail.com. Thanks!

A.T. Andreas, History of the State of Kansas (Chicago: The Lakeside Press, 1883) p.668.

Henry S. Clubb, Letter to the American Missionary Society (Topeka: Kansas State Historical Society Collection, 1856).

Miriam Davis Colt, Went to Kansas (Watertown: L. Ingalls & Company, 1862).

L. Wallace Duncan and Charles F. Scott, comps. History of Allen and Woodson Counties, Kansas (Iola, Kansas: Iola Register, 1901) pp.13-14.

Daniel Fitzgerald, Ghost Towns of Kansas (Lawrence: The University Press of Kansas, 1988).

Orson Squire Fowler, A Home for All (New York: Fowlers and Wells, 1854).

Joseph G. Gambone, "Kansas - A Vegetarian Utopia: The Letters of John Milton Hadley, 1855-1856" Kansas Historical Quarterly, vol. 38 (Spring, 1972), pp. 65-87.

Russell Hickman, "The Vegetarian and Octagon Settlement Companies" Kansas Historical Quarterly, Vol. 2 (November, 1933), pp.377-85.

Watson Stewart, Memoirs of Watson Stewart: 1855-1860 (Topeka: Kansas State Historical Society Collection, 1904) pp.15-30.

Sandra Van Meter McCoy and Jan Hults, 1001 Kansas Place Names (Lawrence: University Press of Kansas, 1989) p.199.

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Letter from Henry Clubb to the American Missionary Society

Neosho City via Ft. Scott, K.S.
June 23, 1856

Rev. S.S. Joselyn

Dear Sir,

You will be pleased to learn that we have commenced a settlement here with very fair-prospect, entitled Neosho City. Seeing the necessity and feeling the want of religious services I have commenced holding them regularly every Sunday. During the summer we do very well with a congregation under the shade of the trees on the beautiful hill I have selected for my homestead, but unless some provision be made for the winter we may be compelled to discontinue our meetings in the want of a Church as none of us are likely to have rooms large enough for the Congregations. We have not been established two months & yet our population in over 50 & will certainly increase. The neighbors round for 10 miles are arranging to come if we can only succeed in establishing a Church and Sunday School. I can go heartily in for these myself & find that I can get the labor requisite if we are only aided by the friends in the East with a fraction of the funds raised for Churches in K.S. We should also be glad of the occasional if not the permanent aid of your missionaries & would insure them a good congregation. As you know me, perhaps it would not be asking too much of you to request that you will place our necessities & desires before those who are engaged in the distribution of funds for these [people?]. I [will?] guarantee that any funds sent shall be appropriated for the purposes designated by the [....]. We proposed to erect a Congregational Church with a Sunday school & library as soon as we can be aided in our efforts. Our own resources here are absorbed in [......] necessities & [...] making up the losses occasioned by border ruffian [......], & it must be many years before we can get the blessings of churches & Sunday schools if we have to depend upon our won efforts entirely.

Our location here is very beautiful. A small church costing some $1000 would, when placed on one of the beautiful knolls of the centre [park?] have a very happy effect in the [.......................] a valuable addition to the scenery while we trust that its religious advantages would greatly transcend its outward effects.

If you will please inform [...] the proper steps to be taken to obtain Sunday school books, hymn books [.....] of the [........] established for the purpose, or [...] write such notes to the secretaries as will secure an application form [.........] attention, I shall esteem it a great favor, as the need of such things [now?] we are so far away from there is felt very severely. I have never really felt the value of a Hymn book or a Bible so much as I do now where they are so scarce that a large Congregation has to do with one or two.

If you could make known our wants through your American Missionary it might greatly aid us in obtaining donations of books & funds for our library & church. Address letters & books by mail Neosho City, Fort Scott K.S. Byexpress, care of [Riddlesberger?....................................] for Henry Clubb.

Yours faithfully,
Henry Clubb

PS. Present my kind regards to Mr [Lappan?] & the other friends in the office. Your American Missionary which you kindly promised to send me when I become permanently located would be highly valued here & eagerly read. I can get subscribers to it if I have a [excursion?].

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