Ferrer ý Guardia
History of the Stelton Modern School begins
with Spanish Anarchist and Educator Francisco
Ferrer ý Guardia. Ferrer was born
in Barcelona Spain in 1859. He developed
anarchist leanings particularly in response
to what he believed was the oppressive nature
of the educational system, controlled by the
Catholic Church. He set about to develop
a new system of "free" education
- free of the oppression of the church and
eventually free of all direction and control.
Ferrer set up the first modern school, the Escuela
Moderna in Barcelona in 1901. Along with
primary education, it incorporated adult education
and a leftist publishing house. The school
thrived, but was finally shut down by Spanish authorities
in 1906 when Ferrer was implicated in a plot to
assassinate King Alfonso XIII on his wedding day.
On July 26, 1909, workers in Barcelona began
protests which would rapidly descend into riots
and rebellion in what would come to be known
as the "Tragic Week." Following
the events and protests of the Tragic Week
in Bacelona, Ferrer was arrested and later
executed as one of the leaders of those events
outcry followed Ferrer's execution.
All over the world, a movement ensued to start Modern
Schools in Ferrer's memory. In New York, the
Francisco Ferrer Association was formed in 1910
by Anarchist leaders Emma Goldman, Alexander Berkman,
Leonard Abbott, and Harry Kelly. In January
1911 a Modern School was opened on St. Marks Place
in Greenwich Village. The Modern School of
New York, like it's Spanish predecessor, featured
a publishing house, adult education center, and
served as a community center, in addition to it's
educational goals. Because of limitations
in the Greenwich Village facility, the building
was soon moved to a new building on East 12th Street.
The school started up with nine students, among
them, Margaret Sanger's son, Stuart. Will
Durant (1885-1981) became principal early in 1912.
The school quickly became an important center
for leftist political and labour movements
in New York City. Adult classes were
particularly popular. The realist Ash
Can School founders Robert Henri and George
Bellows taught there, and Man Ray was an early
student. Writers and activists such as
Margret Sanger, Jack London, Upton Sinclair
and Elizabeth Gurley Flynn gave lectures.
In 1912, the school moved again to 107th Street
in Harlem. In 1913 Will Durant left to
pursue other interests and Cora Bennett Stephenson
movements were very active in early 20th century
Manhattan, and as the labour movement grew
and developed, factions of it became more militant.
Thus it was in 1915 that a group of men loosely
associated with the Adult Education Programe
at the Modern School attempted to build a bomb
intended for John D. Rockefeller's Manhattan
mansion. When the bomb went off
prematurely, it instigated a series of searches
and raids on Anarchist and Labour movement
enclaves as the police cracked down on what
they perceived to be terrorist activity.
Kelly c. 1945
It was decided that this increasingly polarized
environment was no place for a school, and
Harry Kelly, Leonard Abbott and Joseph Cohen
set about making arrangements to move the school
out of New York City. They formed the
Ferrer Colony Association to purchase the land.
They found 68 acres in Piscataway Township,
New Jersey, which included a barn and farmhouse.
The Stelton Colony was unique among anarchist
colonies of that time, and indeed around the
world, in that it was the first and only time
such a colony has been founded around a school.
Moreover, the school featured more diverse
groupings of people than are usually found,
bringing together immigrants and natives, intellectuals
and blue-collar workers in one setting.
The first residents lived a Spartan existence
while they built homes. The first homes
had no electricity, heat or plumbing.
None-the-less, by 1919 approximately 100 families
owned land in the colony, 20-30 of which lived
there year-round. The primitive conditions
did, however, lead to an initially high turnover
in principals. The school went through
four in it's first year.
Bobby and Deedee Hutchinson, while not objecting
to the conditions, harboured dreams of starting
their own school, and did just that, opening
a similar school in Stony Ford, New York.
Henry Schnittkind, a Harvard PhD. left because
his wife could not adjust to the living conditions
at Stelton. Abe Grosner was brought from
a Modern School in Philadelphia to serve as
acting Principal until the arrival of William
Thruston Brown in the Spring of 1916.
Brown was a minister and a socialist who had
long experience directing Modern Schools.
Brown shepherded the school for about a year
before leaving to work on other projects.
Jim and Nellie Dick arrived and took the helm
The school soon acquired 30-40 boarding students
in addition to those who lived in the colony with
their families and the day students who commuted
to school each morning. The farmhouse was
converted into a dormitory to house these boarding
students. One of the first things the Dicks
did upon their arrival was to improve the condition
of the "Living House." A certain
division of duties arose. While "Big
Jim" dealt with improving the
school facilities, Nellie took over
the schooling of children, and sought to impose
The Dicks departed in 1924 to open a new school
in Mohegan, New York, leaving the school
in the capable hands of Elizabeth and Alexis
Ferm. The Ferms had been co-principals
with the Dicks since mid-1920. While
Jim Dick had handled more academic subjects,
the Ferms set about promoting more creative
work and undertook the construction of several
workshops. These workshops led
to development of the The Voice of the Children,
a magazine written, produced and printed by
the children of the Stelton Modern School.
Amidst the glow of the "roaring '20s,"
the Leftist movements in the United States found
themselves in crisis. The changing needs of
the community, and the new political climate in
the country began to be felt at
Stelton. The parents of the
children became more polarized, and differing ideological
structures became more pronounced. Anarchists,
Socialists, Communists, Lovestoneites, Shackmanites
and other groups that came to be represented at
Stelton began to clamber for a more politicized
education at the school. Additionally, they
demanded that more attention be paid to academics,
and less to the workshops. The Ferms believed
that this ran counter to Ferrer's ideals of "Free
Education" upon which the school had been founded.
They left in 1925.
and Living House, 1915
From 1925 until 1928, the school fell upon
hard times. Infighting amongst the various
groups and a failure to come to any compromise
left its mark on both the education and the
school's infrastructure. In 1928, the
Dicks returned to try and set things in order.
They left again in 1933, replaced again by
the Ferms, who were thought the only ones other
than the Dicks who could keep things running.
While many of the problems left over from the
1925-28 period had been fixed, the school faced
a new challenge
after 1930 in the Great Depression. The 1930s
were very hard for the school. Many families
were unable to afford even the relatively small
tuition charges. Moreover, many were forced
to give up the ideals of an anarchist lifestyle
in order to face the very real hardships of the
depression. More had become disillusioned
after the infighting of the 20s.
Enrollment dropped throughout
the 1930s. By 1938, only 30 students were
left at the school. The school, which had
never held a large bank account, was now faced with
increasing financial difficulty. In order
to make ends meet, the Living House was sold
as a private residence, and the boarding students
were cared for by the remaining residents.
and Nelie Dick
Row, Third and Forth from left)
In 1940, the school suffered yet another blow when
the Federal Government built a military training
ground, Camp Kilmer, bordering the
school. The presence of the camp, only feet
away, changed the colony environment substantially.
While the solders were mostly well behaved, several
negative encounters left residents feeling unsafe
and insecure. Additionally, as colonists left,
new families not involved with the school or community
moved into the area The sheer quantity of additional
people in the area altered what had been until that
time, a small and quiet community, and colony life
became increasingly untenable.
Kilmer c. 1960
1944, Elizabeth Ferm died. After her
death, Alexis stayed on to run the school for
four more years before retiring to a flat-tax
colony in Fairhope, Alabama. He
died in 1971 at age 101. With the end
of World War II, more residents began moving
into the area formerly owned by the colony
as the surrounding farms were sold off to developers.
Longtime English teacher Anna Schwartz took
over as the last principal of the Modern School.
But by the early 1950s there were only 14 students
left. In the conservative post-war period
there was little interest in alternate forms
of education and much less interest in alternative
communities. Declining enrollment, fewer
and fewer colonists and increasing problems
with money and running the school in an area
that was no longer rural and isolated led to
the inevitable decision in 1953 to close the
1955 and 1958 the Trustees of the school met
to sell off the remaining property and divest
the school's assets. An annual stipend
was given to Alexis Ferm, now in retirement.
The political and social upheaval in the late
1960s found renewed interest in both anarchism
and leftist political thought, and the rational
education movement. In the early 1970s
the "free school" movement attempted
to replicate many of the pedagogical ideas
of the rational education movement and the
Stelton Modern School. Many of these
free schools survive today. The Modern
School Association reconvened and The Friends
of the Modern School began holding annual reunions
of former students, teachers, colonists, their
children, and others. They meet annually
to reminisce and discuss politics and education.
In 1996, Rutgers University Archives unveiled
the Modern School collection to house school
documents and memorabilia as a part of the
Twentieth Century Utopian Communities Archives
The Friends of the Modern School have also
recently begun work on a project to install
a park and memorial on the site of the former
school. This project has been hampered
by continued suburban development in the area,
but revised proposals are underway to save
the remaining undeveloped portions and some
of the historical buildings still left on the
site. More information on this project
will forthcoming as it moves forward.
website owes many thanks and
much appreciation to the extensive
scholarship of Paul Avrich,
Carolyn P. Boyd, James
Joll and Fernanda Perrone; to
whom the author is greatly indebted.
Reading/Study on The
Modern School and
the Anarchist Movement
in the late 19th and
early 20th centuries.
Modern School Movement.
1980. Princeton University
Princeton University Press
and Education in Spain,
The Journal of
Modern History Vol.
48, Issue 4, On Demand
Ariel Durant: A Dual Autobiography.
1977. Simon and Shuster.
Second Edition, 1979.
Eyre and Spottiswoode.
page last updated
Fri, 3 May 2002~