Fairhope: Travels with Josh

Young Adult Friends

Hello my name is Joshua Ponter. I am a member of Haddonfield Monthly Meeting in South Jersey’s Philadelphia area. I have embarked on a year-long mission to travel around the country collecting stories about the founding of different meetings and looking at the way we practice Quakerism today. I will be blogging about my travels on the PYM website. Find my latest entry below. Please email me at JPonter1@gmail.com if there is anyone from your meeting who would like to sit down with me and speak to some of your history — or if you would like more information on me or my project . Thank you!

Read Part 1 Here, How Deep the Water Is

Read Part 2 Here, Pipe Creek

Read Part 3, Frederick

Read Part 4, Herndon

Read Part 5, Happiness

Read Part 6, Wilmington

Read Part 7, Change

Read Part 8, What does being a Quaker mean to you?

Read Part 9, Tallahassee

Part 10

Fairhope is a small town that sits directly across the bay from Mobile, Alabama. It is there I discovered a friendly group of Quakers in a small meeting that started more than 100 years ago. This alone would have made it a unique difference from the other meetings I had recently visited, though I was soon to discover there were many others.

Fairhope has an unprogrammed meeting for worship with only about 7 Attenders on this first-day;3 men and 4 women, all older light skinned individuals. Like many older meetings it has the partitioned meeting room with the allotted doors for each. Some ancient photographs show it built on a wooden frame with wooden siding that seems to have withstood the tests of weather and time. It was once associated with a small school that was built prior to the meeting house but now sits in disrepair adjacent to the property. The meeting room floor is lined with flat wooden benches which I was told were made by the original members in the decade before.

I learned the original members were part of a migration that came from Iowa, and were part of Ohio yearly meeting, which was motivated by timber and farming opportunities in the area. Another unique and attracting resettlement factor was the advent of the “Single” or “New” tax laws. Here is an excerpt I discovered in my research explaining what that means:

In 1879 the American political economist Henry George proposed a policy to address economic inequality: Tax land—not what’s built on top of it. Tax a parking lot, a seven-story building, and a skyscraper based solely on the value of their footprints. Tax landowners that way, George reasoned in Progress and Poverty, and they couldn’t afford not to develop their holdings. The “single tax” on land would create a strong incentive for bigger buildings, more offices, and more apartments, lowering costs for businesses, shops, and residential tenants. It would remedy the regressive advantage of the urban landowner, to whom George wrote: “[W]ithout doing one stroke of work, without adding one iota of wealth to the community, in ten years you will be rich!”

George was widely admired; Tolstoy, Churchill, and Einstein were fans. But his policies have been adopted in just a few communities in the United States. “The ‘single tax,’ ” Clarence Darrow said in 1913, “is so simple, so fundamental, and so easy to carry into effect that I have no doubt that it will be about the last land reform the world will ever get. People in this world are not often logical.”

Founded in 1894 by a group of progressive Midwestern settlers, Fairhope was the most prominent of a handful of single-tax utopias in the U.S. The Fairhope Single Tax Corp. bought thousands of acres along the sparsely populated shore and leased lots with rents pursuant to acreage but not to property improvements.

External events and policies threatened the Fairhope Single Tax Corp. The Great Depression strained the Corporation’s finances; the income tax put further pressure on the lessees. The separate, incorporated municipality of Fairhope, which sandwiches the strip of Corporation land, offered access to the Corporation’s amenities without the peculiar lease system. The colony surrendered its beachfront and parkland bluffs to the town in the early 1930s.

The American dream of home-stored wealth eventually broke the Fairhope model. Restrictions on profiting from lease transfers had been so abused that the Corporation stopped trying to regulate them in the 1980s. And so property in Fairhope became the same speculative commodity that it is elsewhere, with the caveat that a buyer did not really own the land but rather possessed a 99-year lease from the Corporation.

The Meeting felt a similar demur in 1967. What was once a bustling congregation of almost 60 families deteriorated to just a few members as the baulk of the membership proceeded on exodus to the Costa Rican city of Monteverde. I was told much of this was driven by the war in effort to avoid the draft or imprisonment as Conscientious Objectors.

The few women who were left continued to carry the meeting but as a result of mass departure there were so few members the Meeting was shortly thereafter Lay Down by Ohio Yearly Meeting. That affiliation was never renewed and to this day Fairhope remains as an independent entity.

I feel it is somewhat unfair to end there and leave this as the defining characteristic of the meeting. Though it remains autonomous, it still holds the same Quaker values that I cherish within the meetings I am used to. Never for a moment was I made to feel unwelcome or unwanted. They had many of the same conversations we are having back home; specifically in terms of race relations and the inequality that exists there.

I was made to think about my own resistance in tackling these issues on a personal level; thiscrisis that seems so prominent within our country today. I would like to make the excuse of time-constraints, feasibility, or the inability to measure success. The truth is it scaresme. That mission is so big and so intimidating that I would not even know where to begin.So, that is the question I would like to leave with you, dear reader: Where have you approached this concern in your own life?

Read Part 11, The Stories We Need to Hear