“Turning off the Haverstraw Road, almost opposite the house of Senator Royal S. Copeland, into a dirt avenue, one is faced by a waste-land of scrub oak and sassafras with a lonely shack near the entrance.”
This is how a visitor described the Bayard Lane community, a small “Utopia” homestead project, made up of a plucky group of self sufficient, self-sustaining colonists in 1936. Beyond the initial appearance, lay the successful homestead project. The brainchild of Ralph Borsodi, nationally known author, economist and philosopher. It was his vision to develop a domestic lifestyle that was productive, independent and economically practical for the New York City commuter.
Authoring several books on economics, Borsodi’s work, This Ugly Civilization, published in 1929, brought him national attention. Four years later, his best selling book, Flight from the City appeared as the country was mired in the depths of the Depression. Firing the imagination of struggling families, many with low paying inner city jobs, and an aimless future, the book described a way to seek out a good agrarian lifestyle and graphically detailed his own family’s experiences and accomplishments at homesteading in Suffern.
In 1935, Borsodi launched Bayard Lane, a small experimental cooperative community on a rolling unimproved tract of forty acres at the foot of the Ramapo Mountains. The property was acquired by the Independence Foundation Inc., a nonprofit cooperative and self-governing group of which Harold Rugg, Beveridge C. Dunlop, W. Van Alan Clark, Mrs. Elizabeth Macdonald, Mrs. William Sargent Ladd and Dr. Warren Wilson.
They divided the estate into on and two acre homesteads occupied by individual families. The homes were owned individually, the land cooperatively. The Foundation indentured the land to the homeowner through a corporation representing them.
Fourteen families who knew Borsodi or who had heard of his project were willing to try the experiment after those interested in the idea had been “philosophically initiated the previous January” The New York Times reported. Ground was broken for the first house (Marquart residence, #14 Bayard Lane) on June 23, 1935. Using the Ernest Flagg method of construction, they built attractive, economical, sturdy homes of native fieldstone. Each house had all the modern conveniences of the day. It was said, they “will be standing at least a hundred years after they are paid for.
Homes could be constructed by various building craft guilds under a special arrangement with the Independence Foundation. A professional staff would provide architects, estimates, record keeping and construction. The benefits to the homeowners were considerable. They could do as much of the work themselves, calling in help whenever needed. The Foundation would also offer loan contracts. To prevent substandard, unattractive buildings, construction plans were reviewed by a committee
The School of Living, was literally and figuratively the centerpiece of Borsodi’s experiment in homesteading, headquartered at #21 Bayard Lane in 1038. Dedicated on Independence Day to the “economic independence of the American people,” the School of Living was to develop research and promote the Borsodi philosophy of balance and healthy living in which the home and the land were productive instruments. The school taught the essentials of do-it-yourself agrarianism, including caning, poultry raising, animal husbandry, masonry, carpentry, use of tools and household equipment.
Borsodi’s “Bayard Lane Utopia” appeared to be a great idea on paper, and initially it appeared to be successful and was prominently featured in a variety of national publications. But as the United States entered the Second World War, the economy shifted and society began to change. A new wave of patriotism swept the country, leading Bayard Lane residents to distance themselves from Borsodi’s self-sufficient principles and cooperative living. Eventually, Borsodi resigned from the Foundation, and in time, many of the original families living in this small enclave moved away.
Today, the area retains its historic charm and character. In 1992, two historical markers were erected to recount the legacy left by the nearly forgotten experimental community whose new style of country living received national attention in the 1930’s and gave hope and inspiration to struggling families of the Depression.