The Sylvania Association, usually incorrectly referred to as the Sylvania Colony, Sylvania Society or even the Greeley Colony, was formed in the fall of 1841, when a group of “warm friends” from New York City and Albany banded together to form a joint stock company, “for the melioration of the condition of man and his moral and intellectual elevation.” Purchasing 3200 acres (not 32,000 as reported by some), including a sawmill built by Mahlon Godley Sr. in 1828, the members of the association moved to their “Utopian” colony in the mountains of northeastern Pennsylvania in May of 1842. The bylaws of the organization were loosely based on the ideas of Francois Marie Charles Fourier, a noted French philosopher and were modified significantly by Albert Brisbane, a self taught idealist who paid Fourier 12 dollars for twelve 1-hour lessons in socialism. Brisbane then paid Horace Greeley to print his ideas in the “Tribune”, attracting members to the experiment in a shared lifestyle in the wilderness of Pike County, Pennsylvania. His writings intrigued Horace Greeley, who accepted a position as treasurer of the association. With his own money, Greeley purchased (and personally held the deed to) the association property. In 1851, the land was sold to the Reverend Thomas Taylor and Mahlon Godley Jr. for almost twice the purchased price. Their subsequent logging partnership over the next forty years harvesting timber from the forests of Pike County, was very lucrative. It appears Horace Greeley was the only member of the association to realize a profit from the failed experiment in socialized living.

The Historical Marker

The two road side signs were manufactured for the Pennsylvania Historical and Museum Commission in 1948 to commemorate the 100th anniversary of the founding of the colony. Unfortunately they contains many errors and need to be replaced.

  1. The name was not the Sylvania Colony.
  2. Horace Greeley was not the leader or founder.
  3. Brook Farm was founded after the Sylvania Association.
  4. The experiment was certainly NOT “Utopian” by any stretch of the imagination.
  5. It was actually based on the radically different ideas of Albert Brisbane who briefly studied Charles Fourier and Karl Marx.
  6. A July frost did not kill all the crops. The association actually failed because the lazy, inexperienced and wilderness challenged members failed to plant sufficient crops in 1845.

The Mill

When the association purchased 3200 acres from Mahlon Godley Sr. in 1842, the improvements included a small vacant twenty year old saw mill, two small two story houses, and a small barn. Only the foundation of the mill remains with some of the walls exceeding twenty feet in height. The walls of the wheel room are in very good condition with very little deterioration. The mill was an older design with water flowing under the water wheel rather than the typical over shoot design. This allowed for a greater efficiency with water always flowing forward but did not provide as much power as the typical overshoot design. The support foundations of the supply flume remain. Until a few years ago, a portion of the 18-inch diameter main shaft of the water wheel remained in its support structure inside the mill. The superstructure was destroyed by fire in 1898, but the shaft was not completely burned due to the location deep inside the building. According to the owner of the home across the street, a portion of the foundation is from one the original houses of the commune. Inspection of the stonework confirms the probability of the claim.

In the picture on the left you can see three stone supports for the wooden flume than carried water to the mill. On the right, Chris Gibson is showing the curved entrance where water entered the wheel room of the mill.

Inside the wheel room looking toward the waste weir.Inside the wheel room.

Outside the building, the supply flume and waste weir are visible to the knowledgeable explorer. There are many other remains located nearby that are becoming difficult to observe except for the foundations and supports of the many building and structures of the association. The old stone bridge across Taylortown Creek, immediately down stream from the mill was washed out in 1955 from flooding of hurricane Diane. However, the foundations and approach remain intact and in relatively good condition.

Why did the directors select such an inhospitable location for their experiment?

With apologies to the other residents of Greeley, the area is certainly NOT an ideal location for the establishment a Utopian commune. Summers are typically short, spring and fall almost nonexistent, and brutally cold winters usually last from October until May. The location, 1000 feet higher in elevation, was a five mile hike up a steep rocky path from D&H canal transportation in Lackawaxen, or a three mile hike through the forest, from the expensive Owego Pike stage line. There were (and still are) rattlesnakes, bear and other nasty critters invading living spaces, with the rocky soil certainly not conducive for the growing of “slender crops”.

With high hopes, about forty men set out in May of 1842 to prepare the property for those who were to follow. Their hopes, however, did not last long, for the skills and labor needed to transform the rocky, wooded landscape into a socialist utopia quickly proved beyond their abilities. Where Fourier called for members to live in a palatial communal phalanstery, the one hundred and thirty six residents of Sylvania, including 51 children, crowded into two small houses, the mill and the loft of the barn. Some residents worked hard clearing and fencing more than one thousand acres, while others attempted to build the large frame house, repair the dam, comstock and sawmill, and make other improvements to the property. The “ungrateful soil and uncongenial climate”, the Pike County property that had been chosen by a painter, cooper, and homeopathic doctor, none of whom knew much about farming, was not fit for agriculture, and the fall harvests of buckwheat yielded no more seed than they had planted. Additionally, the supplies provided by the Association were distributed unequally, slackers ate their fill while dumping the burden of heavy labor on those who were willing to work. Parents were required to have their children raised communally although some insisting on remaining in traditional family units as best they could with the crowded conditions. Most of the members were young and inexperienced with minimal wilderness or leadership skills.

The operation of the commune was not unlike many of the summer camps in the area today except there was little outside communication and it operated during the winter. Within three years, members of the Association had sunk close to $14,000 into the venture, the equivalent of almost one million dollars today.

In the 1840’s and 1850’s, Americans established more than forty Fourierite phalanxes in the United States, six of which were located in Pennsylvania. Although none lasted more than a few years, they marked the first great flowering of secular experiments in communitarian living.

The officers of the organization were:

Thomas W. Whiteley, President

J. D. Pierson, Vice-President

J. T. S. Smith Secretary

Horace Greeley, Treasurer

Here are the basic rules of the Sylvania Association as proposed by Brisbane and approved by the majority of the stockholders.

  1. The association would be a joint stock company with the members investing their labor, capital and talents. Women could vote at the age of eighteen and men at the age of twenty.
  2. Out of the common product, an equal subsistence portion would be given to each member and the remainder (if any) would be divided.
  3. The phalanx (never constructed) would have been a large common dwelling with a dining hall serving up to seven meals a day.
  4. The emphasis would be on agriculture, but every member would be free to work when and where they chose.
  5. Any person of “character” could become a member of the association, by owing at least one share ($25) and laboring on the domain under the rules of the association.
  6. Dress and items of wearing apparel could not be regulated by the association and were at the sole discretion of the individual.
  7. A library and “suitable apartment” for public exercise and “amusement” were to be provided.
  8. Children under the age of ten, the aged and infirm were at the charge of the association.
  9. The association was not allowed to suppress any form of amusement, or exclude wine or ardent spirits from the tables of the association, but was actually required by the bylaws to furnish the same to any members desirous of using them.
  10. The association was not allowed to hire a minister of religion.

Does this seem like a recipe for failure?

Albert Brisbane filtered the doctrine of the moral inequities of the association and reported a purified version into the receptive mind of Horace Greeley, the New York Tribune and its readers.

Obviously the other New York newspapers, especially the “Post” and the “Herald”, had a field day ridiculing Brisbane and Greeley. Many of the members were “troubled” children and young adults sent by their parents in hopes that they might make a contribution to a different type of lifestyle.

The real tragedy of the experiment was the eleven children born of bliss with no family ties at Sylvania. Three of the children were adopted by their mothers upon the demise of the experiment in free love, but unfortunately eight others were abandon and placed in orphanages upon return to New York City in July of 1845.

Certainly not all of the fault lies in the wayward and worthless young people sent to Pike County in the early 1840’s. A significant portion of the blame should be directed to the parents, who put up the money to send their children away and to the directors of the association for accepting these “members” who could make little contributions to the experiment and proved to be a constant source of trouble and discontent.

Horace Greeley spoke little of the experiment after the demise. It certainly proved to be an embarrassment to him personally and to his newspaper.

Holding that the administration of President Ulysses S. Grant was corrupt, Greeley, in 1872, accepted the nomination for president of the United States by the dissident Liberal Republican party. He was subsequently endorsed by the Democrats but was soundly defeated by Grant in the election. His health failed quickly and he took little part in the Tribune editorship.

The last words penned by Horace Greeley on November 9, 1872.

“I stand naked before my God, the most utterly hopelessly wretched and undone of all who have ever lived. I have done more harm and wrong than any man who ever saw the light of day. And yet I take God as witness that I have never intended to injure or harm anyone. But that is no excuse.”

Horace Greeley died in a mental hospital at Pleasantville, New York on November 29, 1872.

The community, originally named Godleyville, was referred to as “That Greeley Place” shortly after the demise of the association. It was officially named Greeley in July, 1892, with the establishment of a United States Post Office. The logging village of Taylortown, organized in 1873 lies about one mile west of Sylvania and present day Greeley. Most residents of Greeley today know little if anything of the failed experiment in socialized living that occurred here in the early 1840’s.

Finally, the story of the sudden demise of the colony after a “July Frost” which suddenly killed all crops and caused everyone remaining to leave the area within two days. Yes, the morning of July 4, 1845 was cold, about 28 degrees according to residents of Godleyville and Shohola Falls, but freezing temperatures are not uncommon in the Pocono Mountains, even in July. I have personally experienced below freezing temperatures in July and have experienced a snowfall every month except July. The clear morning was cold, but warmed quickly in the summer sun. It would take an extended cold period to “kill all crops”, something which did not occur. No other area farmers lost crops to the July 4th frost. The story was created by the members of the association as an excuse to depart the wilderness of Pike County and return home to comfort of New York City.

The colony was deserted in just two days, never to be resurrected again.
Pictures were taken by Kyle Smith in August of 2000.

The text was written by Tom and Kelly Gibson on August 13, 2000

I have been researching the Sylvania Association for almost forty years. I have read the Brisbane articles in the N.Y. Tribune, all of the available texts on the Association and interviewed local residents who passed on stories from the members of the commune. I have been collecting artifacts and giving tours of the site since 1966.
For more information, please E-mail info@shohola.org