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Links to Related Sites:

The Emma Goldman Archive

The Pitzer College Anarchy Archives

The Francisco Ferrer Collection - Mandeville Special Collections Library at the University of California, San Diego

The Stelton Modern School Archive at Rutger's University

Modern School Texts from:


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The University at Albany History Department

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Francesco Ferrer ý Guardia

Francisco Ferrer

   The 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


Emma Goldman

Emma Goldman

  New York City 

    An international 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. 
Alexander Berkman

Alexander Berkman

   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 became principal.

    Labour 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.

Harry 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.

William Thurston Brown

     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 in 1917.

      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

Alexis Ferm, 1958

school facilities, Nellie took over the schooling of children, and sought to impose some discipline.

      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.

~The 1920s~

     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

Dorm and Living House, 1915

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.

      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

Staff, c. 1920

Jim and Nelie Dick

(Front Row, Third and Forth from left)

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.

       In 1940, the school suffered yet another blow when the Federal Government built a military training

Camp Kilmer c. 1960

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. 

Elizabeth Ferm

     In 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 school.

~The End~

     Between 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 Project.

      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. 


This 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.


Further Reading/Study on The Modern School and the Anarchist Movement in the late 19th and early 20th centuries.

Avrich, Paul -  -The Modern School Movement.  1980.  Princeton University Press.
-Anarchist Portraits.  1988.  Princeton University Press
Boyd, Carolyn P.


-The Anarchists and Education in Spain, 1868-1909.  The Journal of Modern History Vol. 48, Issue 4, On Demand Supplement.  December, 1976, pg. 125-170.
Durant, Will and Ariel -Will and Ariel Durant: A Dual Autobiography.  1977.  Simon and Shuster.
Joll, James -The Anarchists.  Second Edition, 1979.  Eyre and Spottiswoode.



~This page last updated Fri, 3 May 2002~