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Shalam: The Land of Children
By Lee Priestley, 1978
Shall I begin by my lack of qualification as a historian? I am only a writer in pursuit of a story.
There are two ways of going about historical research. There is the correct way. A careful collection of facts, sources noted, each item typed on a 3 x 5 card, indexed, cross-indexed and filed. The cards proliferate at an alarming rate, for there is always one more book to read, one more reference to check, one more old timer to interview.
Then there is the wrong way, otherwise known as the Priestley method. That begins with the first rumor of a fascinating story that expands in every direction like the widening circles made by a pebble tossed in a pond. Proceed then by collecting every tangent that touches the story. Record the fruits of the labor on the backs of envelopes, deposit slips, random notebooks and sundry bits and pieces of paper. Then store the whole contradictory clutch in an orange box and shove it into a closet or under a bed.
However, I submit the Priestley method is peculiarly suited to my subject here. There is scarcely a fact about Shalam that cannot be denied by another fact. Anything I say about the enigmatic colony can be canceled out by others who have delved deeper. As a novelist I have been more concerned with feeling than stark fact; with atmosphere more than total authenticity.
I’m not even sure that a bit of the supernatural activity that made Shalam awesome hasn’t gone on in my notes. A bulky envelope of interview notes has disappeared. And an exchange of letters with a present-day Faithist is simply gone. Even if I find them in some unlikely place, how did they teleport out of my orange box?
Actually I don’t intend to be facetious about any aspect of Shalam Colony. Mistaken it may have been, impractical it surely was, but there was nobility in its concept, its founding and even in its failure.
Little has been published about the colony. A few articles, a handful of newspaper cuttings, an excellent dissertation. Otherwise some ruinous foundations and a remarkable book are all that survive from a strange experiment in communal living.
In the late 1880’s a tall handsome man of commanding presence came to Las Cruces, New Mexico. He talked with some brother Masons about buying land. That much is fact. But the legend that has grown up around the fact makes a better story. That says that Dr. John Ballou Newbrough with his eyes blindfolded drove north at sunrise until he reached the village of Doña Ana. There he turned west and went unerringly to a bend in the river that his spirit guides called the ideal location for the Land of Shalam.
In 1884, Newbrough andhis friend Andrew M. Howland bought the tract that was part of the Doña Ana Bend Colony Grant. Later other smaller tracts were added to bring the total to more than 1600 acres.
Much of the story of Shalam lies behind this sudden appearance in New Mexico of two strangers who were to become founder and financier of the Colony. Like any drama, let us begin with a cast of principal characters.
John Ballou Newbrough born in 1822 was a physician and a dentist. From childhood he was a proven medium. He became a lucky gold miner who struck it rich in both California and Australia. He was a man of many charities who established one of the first rescue homes for alcoholics and spent a fortune over many years saving children from the slums of the cities.
Caught up in the wave of interest in spiritualism that swept the western world in the 1880’s, John Newbrough studied and meditated, then became in his own words “the instrument for recording a remarkable book, Oahspe, the New Bible.” For many months he rose at dawn when he believed communion with unearthly powers was best achieved. We are told how the revelation came.
“I had been commanded by the spirit voices to purchase a typewriter, a new invention that writes like the keys of a piano. I applied myself to this invention with indifferent success. Then one morning lines of light rested upon me. Over my head were three pairs of fully materialized hands, while behind me an angel stood touching my shoulders. My fingers played over the typewriter with lightning speed. I was forbidden to read what I had written and I obeyed. This same power visited me every morning. My hands kept on writing, writing for fifty weeks. The illustrations were made under the same control. Then I was told to publish the book which should be called ‘OAHSPE’, a Paneric word meaning Earth, Air, and Spirit.”
To this strange book, called the most notable example of automatic writing, Shalam owed its existence. The plan for the Land of Children was a part of OAHSPE. Its thousand pages and dozens of illustrations claim to be the sacred history of the higher and lower heavens for the past 24,000 years. Large parts of it seem sheer gibberish; other parts are sensible, even profound, sometimes poetic. Much of the content is reminiscent of the world religions Doctor Newbrough studied and compared in his search for his personal truth. But it is no mean accomplishment to have put together the elements of a new religion, elaborate in its forms and ceremonies along with a mythology, a history, and a complex plan for a new and better universe.
In its indictment of society OAHSPE says, “We pray, but not one of us puts forth a hand to accomplish what we pray for.” Doctor Newbrough believed he was called “to put forth a hand” at Shalam. He was well fitted for the role of prophet. He not only preached but practiced the extraordinary rites and commandments of his personal Bible. Already abstemious, he refined his life striving for physical perfection as a necessary step toward spiritual perfection. To accomplish his goal he ate only one meal a day, never tasting animal products and choosing only those vegetables that grew in the light of the sun.
Soon a group of disciples gathered around him at Pearl River, New York. In addition, there two more principal characters joined the Utopian enterprise. One was Andrew Howland, a Quaker possessing a considerable fortune founded on whaling and the wool trade. There came also Frances Van de Water Sweet, later known as the “mother of Shalam” who literally sold all she had in order to join the venture.
In late October, 1884, Dr. Newbrough and the original twenty pitched their tents in Shalam by the river. With more courage than judgment they slept on the ground, shook centipedes out of their shoes and drank the muddy waters of the Rio Grande. The Mexican neighbors at Doña Ana took pity on the tenderfooted newcomers and helped them all they could. They showed the easterners how to build outdoor ovens and introduced them to frijoles and chili, sweet potatoes and brown sugar.
However, despite the help of the neighbors the winter was hard. Several of the Faithists died of privation. With spring came new hope and a carload of groceries ordered by Andrew Howland. More than two hundred workmen from Doña Ana made adobes and began to build the Fraternum that was to house the colonists.
The Faithists wrote the charter for the First Church of Tae. (Tae meant the spiritual man as embodied in Dr. Newbrough.) The charter was signed by twenty-two persons. All the Faithists at the same time signed a covenant refusing any payment for work and renouncing personal ownership. They agreed to a modified but still austere vegetarian diet and pettishly banned certain persons from the place. “Let not these come,” said OAHSPE, “the lawyer, doctor, preacher or politician or others who desire to live by their wits.”
Advertising brought a new trickle of converts but usually the newcomers’ stay was short. Rooms were provided for one hundred; the accommodations were never used to full capacity. Few except the truly dedicated could endure the extreme self-denial demanded of the colonists.
As soon as the buildings went up, the Faithists began acquiring the infants that would be their hope for a better world. A receiving station was established in New Orleans for foundlings. Under an ornate Chinese lantern a cradle was placed with a sign: “Babies wanted; no questions asked.”
Ten infants of various ages and colors were dropped in the cradle and then taken by Mrs. Newbrough to Shalam in a chartered Pullman (Dr. Newbrough and Mrs. Sweet had married in 1887 after each had divorced previous partners.) Later other children were obtained in Chicago, Kansas City, Philadelphia and some locally in New Mexico.
Between 1887 and 1900 around fifty babies and small children were gathered in at Shalam. They ranged from Blacks to Chinese and were lovingly cared for without a thought of discrimination. No records were kept of their origins and all were given Oahspean names such as Astraf, Hiatisi and Thail. In later years some of the Shalam children tried to find their natural parents and cursed the impenetrable veil that concealed their origins.
Those were the building years. Shalam grew into a complex. The Fraternum, built around an inner garden, provided forty rooms and baths for adults. The Home, built in 1890, contained large nurseries, a dining room, twenty bedrooms, a library and office and marvel for miles around, ten small porcelain bathtubs for the children. All records and memories agree that the Home was a cheerful, happy place bright with singing caged birds and busy with toys and pets. The many visitors who came were admonished by large signs, “Do Not Kiss the Babies.”
Next came the gymnasium, a handsome cast-iron fountain to beautify the grounds, the Temple, the Studio, storerooms, a steam laundry complete with Chinese laundryman, barns, boiler and pump houses, poultry runs, a dairy and cheese factory, an apiary. . . all those filled the 1600 acres of the Colony. In all thirty-five buildings were erected.
The buildings were well designed for their purposes and of the finest construction available. The Children’s Home considered “the best building west of St. Louis” had an elaborate coffered ceiling, its massive mahogany moldings still intact and in place seventy-five years later. The Temple of Tae was rounded with a conical roof. In the Studio, Doctor Newbrough painted under spirit control in complete darkness. Using both hands at once he produced strange, sometimes beautiful, portraits of the great teachers and prophets of world religions, each wearing a mysterious star of light upon their forehead.
All of this building was in support of Shalam’s single principle and purpose: the education of its children so they would lead mankind into a new and better world and a happier heaven. So teachers were brought from Boston and a remarkable educational plan was originated.
Faithists divided education into the intellectual, the vocational and the spiritual. First the children, dressed uniformly in a white single garment that did not restrict any movement, were taught hygiene and the use of food in order to achieve bodily perfection. Then the five senses were trained by many forward-looking devices. Visitors were amazed to hear choirs of babes singing with perfect pitch and intricate knowledge of harmony. Elaborate visual training made infants expert in the analysis of light and color. Each child learned to read early and well and was trained to a craft or ability needful to agrarian life. Naturally spiritual education was given a maximum of time.
In the spring of 1891 the first dark days came to Shalam. Influenza swept the Colony causing the death of ten persons, Dr. Newbrough among them. Exhausted from nursing the sick, he contracted pneumonia. At his passing a frenzied mourning took place at Shalam. Loud wailings, the crashing of dishes and furniture, whirling winds and icy currents of air dramatized the grief of the Faithists for the loss of their spiritual leader.
Then the burden of responsibility fell upon Andrew Howland who had poured his fortune into the Colony. A mystic who practiced extreme self-denial, he did the hardest physical work on one meal a day of unsalted cabbage. He commonly wore only white Chinese trousers and sandals. When he galloped the fields, dressed in that manner, white beard and long hair flying, the native workmen crossed themselves. Surely only a demon could contain such energy! “But,” they said, “even if he was very strange, he was a good gentleman.”
Now the “good gentleman” turned to the fields recognizing that the fortunes of the colony rested upon the land. He proved himself far ahead of his time in the development of agriculture and husbandry. He began by devising an irrigation system using wood troughs, a deep well and steam pumps that cost their weight in silver. Next a small army of workmen recruited from nearby Doña Ana cleared and leveled the fields. Three steam tractors pulled five plows apiece.
Crops of corn, wheat, barley, sugarcane, beans and peanuts grew bountifully. Nectarines, artichokes and unnamed Oriental vegetables were introduced and thrived. A five-acre hot bed was constructed, looking forward to truck farming. An orchard of peaches, pears, apricots and plums covered thirty-five acres; the vineyard thirty more.
Husbandry was equally large scale. A purebred dairy herd provided bottled, sterilized milk for sale in El Paso with a butter and cheese factory using the surplus. Experts brought from the East set up a model chicken farm and broiler factory, also for export. A fine apiary provided much honey, a staple of the Faithist diet. Fifteen teams of fine horses and mules made the whole Valley envious. Then a cooperative store selling staples at cost to the Mexican workmen was established--workmen who for the first time in their lives had money to handle since they were paid at the unheard-of rate of a dollar a day. In addition, Andrew Howland, author of the feverish activity, worked tirelessly eighteen to twenty hours a day.
In 1893 Mrs. Newbrough and Andrew Howland married. Their union began as a measure to stop the continuing rumors of free love that had beset the Colony from the beginning. A bond of deep affection and mutual respect survived the hard times ahead.
Their happiness together probably had much to do with the next development at Shalam. Levitica was founded for those who wished to retain family life and have more freedom than the restricted communal life could provide. Two railway coaches of new colonists were installed in twenty houses, each set in an acre of ground. Seeds and tools were put into supposedly eager hands in hope of making rural life attractive and profitable.
However, Levitica was the end for Shalam. It proved a hotbed of discord. Gardens, if planted, died of neglect; chickens if hatched were allowed to freeze; blooded stock was stolen; young trees were uprooted in the orchards. More than once the messengers bringing the payroll from Las Cruces were waylaid and robbed.
The Faithists, totally committed to non-resistance, watched helplessly. After two years of increasing trouble, Andrew Howland ordered more railway cars. He provided tickets and even pocket money and sent the Leviticans wherever they wanted to go.
Then weeds swallowed the gardens and nocturnal spirits stripped the empty houses. In 1900 what was left of Levitica along with a promising hundred acres of alfalfa was swept away by the rampaging river.
Disasters then came thick and fast. The desert sun warped the wooden irrigation troughs spilling the life-giving water before it could reach the fields and orchards. The wells failed so trees died and vines withered. If a good crop was made, no market could be found for it. The excellent dairy products foundered on the uncertain train service. One at a time the outlying buildings had to be closed. Most critical of all, the seemingly inexhaustible flow of Andrew Howland’s fortune dwindled to a trickle.
Now the children for whom the undertaking had been made were growing up, often rebelliously. They resented being made to work at farm duties that had formerly been done by hired labor. They disliked being “different.” They found their lives too restrictive. When the Shalam School was closed for lack of teachers, the children were sent to Doña Ana where close control of them was no longer possible.
Two of the teenage girls eloped to marry Mexican boys. Others stole out at night to ride whooping through Las Cruces as the awakened citizens swore at “those wild Indians from Shalam.” Some of the older children were enticed into the chaparral by the mouth-watering scent of rabbits roasting over small fires. When the forbidden meats had been eaten, the boys who had built the fires helped to satisfy more carnal appetites.
In 1910 the Temple of Tae collapsed, a sure sign of impending doom. The Faithists said Tae’s spirit had destroyed the Temple rather than see it desecrated by unbelievers. Mr. Howland still faithful to his trust peddled dairy products and vegetarian foods in Las Cruces. When all his efforts could not avert the crisis, he petitioned the courts to restore ownership of the communally held properties to him, promising in return to place the children in proper homes. Some of them went singly to families; larger groups were placed in orphanages. The older ones went sadly out to make their way in a strange and frightening world.
Mr. and Mrs. Howland who had invested years of their lives and nearly a million dollars in the Colony sold the property in 1908 for $60,000. The doors of the Children’s Home were locked for the last time. In tears a handful of the faithful went away mourning the failure of a noble experiment.
With several of the teenagers from whom they could not be parted, the Howlands lived quietly in El Paso, in California and back in El Paso again. In their small home were kept the strange portraits of the prophets with the stars of light on their foreheads along with the original manuscript of OAHSPE. The relics of Shalam, which the Howlands had repeatedly refused to sell, were lost when a flash flood swept pictures and manuscript away, leaving everything else in the house dry and unharmed.
After the death of the Howlands in the twenties, Shalam Land of Children was left to the slow destruction of time. The Colony conceived before its century was a noble experiment. It was heroic even in failure.
[La Crónica de Nuevo México 7 (November 1978): 2-3. Published by the Historical Society of New Mexico and reproduced with their permission.]