My grandmother Kitty Flanagan often referred to her years in Leclaire, Illinois, as the pinnacle of her childhood, the peak of family life, complete with music lessons and rose gardens. I discovered that her father Moses Flanagan was the Superintendant of the Cabinetry Shop for the Leclaire-based company N.O.Nelson Manufacturing. Imagine my surprise when I found out that Leclaire actually was a little piece of heaven—an intentional community founded expressly to be a worker's utopia.
The mid-1880s was an era of "the labor problem" in the United States. The Gilded Age robber barons found themselves in violent opposition to the million-member Knights of Labor. Fears of class warfare grew. Fears sharpened with the1886 bombing in Chicago's Hay Market Square during a union rally.
That year, in St. Louis, when the Knights of Labor struck the railroad lines controlled by magnate Jay Gould, a citizen's committee was formed to mediate. One of its members was Nelson Olson Nelson.
The ambitious son of Norwegian farmers, young Nelson had moved from rural Missouri to St. Louis, focused on a failing plumbing-fixture business, and found himself a millionaire by the age of thirty.
Nelson was a pragmatist focused on getting rich, but he liked his employees. The cruelty of capitalist bosses pitted against the Marxist leanings and threatened violence of the union men rattled him.
There had to be a better way.
Nelson wasted no time.
Turning to developments in France, he was inspired by Edme-Jean Leclaire and Jean-Baptiste André Godin, whose companies had adopted profit-sharing and cooperative management. Nelson jumped on the idea of profit-sharing immediately, awarding his St. Louis workers dividends based on their annual wages.
Visiting France, Nelson was also inspired by the community Godin built to serve his workers. Based on the theories of French utopian socialist Charles Fourier, the factory-town of Guise was Nelson's introduction to communitarianism.
Back home and wishing to pursue the ideas of a cooperation-based community for his workers, Nelson turned to the Reverend Edward Everett Hale, who had written the popular Man Without a Country. Hale instructed Nelson in the Social Gospel, which provided a religious underpinning to the late 19th-century progressive movement.
In 1890, Nelson secured 250 acres on the outskirts of Edwardsville, Illinois, and moved his factories and his family to what would become a little workers' utopia.
The architect A.E. Cameron designed airy factory buildings with large windows, skylights, and sprinkler systems.
Adjacent to the landscaped factory grounds was the new village. Workers were not required to live in Leclaire, but Nelson made it attractive. He built pretty houses in a variety of styles. He gave away plants and flowers from his greenhouse. He added athletic amenities, a library, a school, and a theater. As the town grew, the residents themselves organized concerts, debates, plays, and dances, as well as a cooperative store and insurance benefits.
Nelson underscored his beliefs in communitarianism and non-Marxist socialism with lecture series for the residents. These included Chicago's Jane Addams, who spearheaded the Settlement Movement with the opening of Hull House; Boston's Edward Everett Hale; and Toledo's mayor Sam Jones, who used the Golden Rule as his guiding principle for municiple reform.
As the rich got richer and the poor worker flirted with revolution, non-Marxist socialism had a moment. In 1888, Edward Bellamy published Looking Backward: 2000-1887. The hero of this time-travel novel wakes up in a utopian socialist future. The book was immediately and immensely popular. It spawned more than a hundred Bellamy Clubs to discuss socialist ideals. N.O. Nelson counted Bellamy among his friends.
In 1894, when Moses Flanagan was overseeing the production of fine woodwork in the Cabinetry Shop, Nellie Bly came to visit. Bly was a superstar journalist. She had exposed insane asylum practices by pretending to be a patient. And she'd made headlines travelling around the world on her own in fewer than the eighty days of Jules Verne's fictional hero Phileas Fogg.
Bly was writing a feature on company towns. The article published in the NY World (and reprinted in part in the St. Louis Post-Dispatch) presented a stark contrast between the depressed and depressing Pullman, Pennsylvania, and the vibrant, cooperative Leclaire, Illinois.
Leclaire prospered for decades as a beacon of cooperation and egalitarianism between employer and employed. But Nelson began to spread himself thin trying to implement his ideas in other parts of the country. During this time he made friends with muckracking journalist Upton Sinclair, author of the fictional meat-packing expose The Jungle.
Nelson's family grew exasperated. His wife left him and his extended family managed to wrest the company from his management. The story reminded me of God Bless You, Mr. Rosewater by Kurt Vonnegut, Jr.—rich guy with a social conscience, misunderstood. Broken, Nelson retired from his work and moved to California, where he lived for a time with Upton Sinclair's family.
The cooperative innovations of Leclaire gradually faded with the onslaught of 20th-century events and the village was incorporated into the town of Edwardsville.
But I thank the visionary Mr. Nelson for giving my Flanagan ancestors a little piece of heaven before the onslaught of their own tragic events. Kitty lived there between the ages of three and seven. She spent the rest of her life in search of beauty, music, and good ideas.
Graphic: composed by SBP in Photoshop with art generated by Midjourney
Kim McQuaid, "The Businessman as Reformer: Nelson O. Nelson and Late 19th Century Social Movements in America," The American Journal of Economics and Sociology, Vol. 33, No. 4 (Oct., 1974), pp. 423-435 (13 pages) https://www.jstor.org/stable/3485882
Kim McQuaid, "The businessman as social innovator: Nelson O. Nelson as Promoter of Garden Cities and the Consumer Cooperative Movement," The American Journal of Ecoomics and Sociology, Vol. 34, No. 4 (Oct., 1975), pp. 411-422 (12 pages). https://www.jstor.org/stable/3485431
John S. Garner, "Leclaire Illinois: A Model Company Town (1890-1934)," Journal of the Society of Architectural Historians, Vol. 30, No. 3 (Oct., 1971), pp. 219-227 (9 pages) https://doi.org/10.2307/988748 • https://www.jstor.org/stable/988748
"Sharing profits: annual gathering of the N.O. Nelson Manufacturing Co.," St. Louis Post-Dispatch, St. Louis, Missouri • Sun, Dec 18, 1892 Page 22 (link)
"Nellie Bly at Leclaire: compares it to Pullman and calls it a workingman's heaven," St. Louis Post-Dispatch, St. Louis, Missouri • Sun, Jul 29, 1894 Page 11. (link)
"For those who toil: the experiment of a philanthropic employer," The Dispatch, Moline, Illinois • Sat, Dec 21, 1895 Page 7. (link)
Jerri Stroud, "Landmark in 19th century socialism," St. Louis Post-Dispatch, St. Louis, Missouri • Wed, Oct 17, 1979 Page 61 (link)
Cindy Reinhardt, "Leclaire," Madison Historical (The Online Encyclopedia and Digital Archive for Madison County, Illinois), May 7, 2020. Includes a map and photos.
Friends of Leclaire. History and support, including historic homes, events, and research.
Cindy Reinhardt, Leclaire (Images of America Series), Arcadia Publishing, 2010.
Bob Gill aka Bobprovide0z, "Leclaire: 100 Years of Prosperity," YouTube, 2017.
Bob Gill aka Bobprovide0z, "Leclaire Model Village to Modern Village," YouTube, 2022.
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