By William W. Abbott
Begun as a ministry in the 1850’s to help the poorest of poor in East London, the Salvation Army came to the United States in 1880. As a small part of its overall mission of the salvation of souls ,the Salvation Army developed three farm colonies in the United States: Fort Romie (California), Fort Amity (Colorado) and Fort Herrick (Ohio). Fort Romie, located two miles south-southwest from Soledad, Monterey County, was the first of these colonies. The objective was to relocate impoverished city dwelling to rural locations where they could enjoy a healthy physical and spiritual lifestyle as farmers. The Army’s battle cry was to return the landless man to the manless land.
In 1897, former Monterey county supervisor Charles Romie sold 520 acres of land to the Salvation Army for $26,000.00. Money was raised nationally to support the development of the farms, and the ministry went to work to organize the future colonists and complete the groundwork for a successful experiment. Future colonists were required to sign a number of pledges, including one to not bring “opium, morphine, wine, spirits or objectionable drugs” to the colony (explaining perhaps the absence of attorneys as colonists.) Adherence to a particular faith or religious practice was not however, a requirement.
The land was surveyed and divided into 10 acre plots, and the Army sponsored improvements included 30 homes (at a cost of $110 to $250 and built by the owners), a clubhouse, library, and social hall. Business improvements included a creamery and two-story cooperative store. One of the colony supporters was Claus Spreckels, German immigrant and founder of the Spreckels Sugar Company who donated $1,000.00 and looked to the future farmers as suppliers for his sugar factory. Significant capital, equipment and farming expertise were donated by others.
Eighteen families were selected from the Bay Area. In exchange for a turn key agricultural operation, the colonists were expected to remain until the plot was paid for. The Salvation Army, provided oversight and guidance. As many other colonies, city dwellers adapted poorly, and faced with an incredible drought which decimated the crop potential, many returned to the Bay Area leaving the Salvation Army in debt. The Salvation Army pressed on however. The Army resurveyed the area as a town-site, and arranged for and installed significant irrigation works drawing from the Arroyo Seco River. The ministry then recruited experienced farmers, and offered liberal terms to encourage settlement. The second wave of colonists included Scandinavian, Finn, German, Swiss, Dutch and Italian settlers, a classic early California paella. By 1910, the settlers had paid off their debts, and the Salvation Army concluded its oversight and exited the colony. To replace the Salvation Army as the community social and economic core, the residents went on to form Grange #358.
Over time, the Army’s "dry" clauses in the deeds proved problematic for lenders who were prohibited from making loans on property subject to revisionary clauses. Eventually, the Army caved in, and without repealing the original limitation, agreed to subordinate the restriction to a bonafide mortgage.
Compared to other Salvation Army colonies, Fort Romie faired better, and when compared to other California colonies, has to be measured a success largely because it did not end in object failure. While the Army did not develop more colonies in the United States, it actively promoted colonies in India, Canada, Australia and South Africa.
For additional information including photographs of Fort Romie, try http://www.mchsmuseum.com/fortromie.html, The Poor and the Land: Being a Report on the Salvation Army Colonies in the United States and at Hadleigh, England by H. Rider Haggard and The Salvation Army Farm Colonies by Clark C. Spence.
William W. Abbott is a partner at Abbott & Kindermann, LLP. For questions relating to this article or any other California land use, real estate, environmental and/or planning issues contact Abbott & Kindermann, LLP at (916) 456-9595.