My friend Mircea visited last weekend, and one of the things we talked about was the history of communes in the (present day) US. I told him the story of William Wilson Talcott, which I'd stumbled across when I noticed a postcard of Heaven City from the nearby town of Mukwonago on eBay. I'd heard that Heaven City, the site now of a restaurant, motel and bar (formerly a "gentleman's club," had originated as a commune, but didn't know much about the back story. Wikipedia filled in some of the details.
The story, in brief, is that there was a man named William Wilson Talcott, who was born in Valparaiso, IN, in 1878. His father was a teacher turned newspaper man, who later moved the family to Greater Chicago, where he worked at a publishing house. Young Talcott was a gifted athlete, and in his senior year in high school quarterbacked the Englewood football team to a county championship. He subsequently matriculated at the University of Michigan in literary studies, and joined the varsity football team, where he played some quarterback even in his freshman year. In his sophomore year, he started 6 of 10 games at QB, playing LB the other way (as was the rule, then), when Michigan won its first Western Conference (as the so-called Big Ten was then known) championship, with an undefeated season. That was in 1898, when fight song "The Victors" was penned. The next year, he declined to play on the varsity squad, leading his class squad instead, and as a senior he was in effect an assistant coach for the varsity.
He graduated and took a teaching position in Chicago in 1901, reporting a few years later to his fraternity that he was now principal at the high school in Bessemer, MI. In 1904, he married Shirley J. Patterson in Jackson, MI, and the couple appears to have set up house just across the border in Hurley, WI, which at the time would have been still a booming logging town. He and a brother then purchased a newspaper serving the Chicago environs of Englewood, and he moved there with his wife. They renamed the paper to The Englewood Economist, and increased its circulation substantially, but the brother moved to Kansas City to work in the newspaper business there, and several years later they sold out to new owners, as Talcott had accepted a post as the business director for The Chicago Daily Tribune's Paris edition, which served the expatriate community over there. That was in 1918, and he stayed in that position until 1920, when he and his wife returned once again to the Chicago area.
Repatriated, he wrote some editorials expressing his avid support for the League of Nations, and his disappointment in Harding's attitude toward that project. Somehow, his wife Shirley, among other well-heeled Chicago matrons, became entangled with a 'cult' led by self-styled 'Dr.' Albert J. Moore. Moore (the papers reported) promised to make their homes 'divorce-proof' by way of certain incantations, meditative practices, and the adoption of spiritual healing based on 'free love.' Talcott discovered that his wife was among those who made large donations to Moore, whom many regarded as a fakir (her initial contribution being $7k). Talcott's sister found all of this very shocking, and begged him to detach his wife from Moore's ardent fellowship. Talcott then led what the newspapers styled "the revolt of the husbands," dragging Moore into court.
Shirley would not be separated from her guru, and apparently threatened to expose Talcott for some indiscretion that he had committed some six years before Talcott dragged Moore into court in August of 1922. By then, Moore no longer was involved in newspapers. A year before, he had decided to take a job as lead promoter for Chicago's largest ice cream manufacturers, Hydrox. Whether that was because it would have gone hard on him as a news man to be the subject of the news, or whether he thought his financial interests best served by the move, or some combination, I don't know. Talcott did manage to obtain a judgement against Moore, but it was for only $100 plus costs. Moore immediately resumed his meetings and his scammings, and Shirley still refused to sever her ties with the spiritual adviser. Despondent, Talcott leaped off a pleasure steamer headed from Lincoln Park to Navy Pier, from the upper deck, late in August of 1922, his pockets weighed down with rocks and coal, and a bundle full of other weights (apparently) tied to his hands. He washed up near the downtown several days later, with a note in his pocket on which he had written the threat reportedly made against him by his wife, with two of the words obscured.
She had him cremated, and folded herself and her two children into Moore's community after posting bail for him over yet another charge, which was later dropped. When things got too hot for Moore to remain in Chicago, he split for Harvard, IL with his most loyal adherents, and founded a commune there on a 160-acre farm. Later, things once again got hot for Moore, when a 15-year-old girl who had been lured to the commune on the promise of marriage to a 50-year-old cult member who happened already to be married beat him to death in a boxing match that was apparently part of the means by which the love philosopher handled domestic disagreements. The Heaven City cult members pulled up stakes and removed to a 350-plus acre farm just outside of the Town of Mukwonago in Wisconsin. There, they raised bees and farmed.
They had so many overnight visitors that they built cabins and expanded the community building to include a restaurant that served, among other things, the farm-raised produce. A generous dinner cost only $1, with the catch that those who partook would also have to listen to Albert Moore's spiritual meanderings, and perhaps be induced to join the cult and hand over their worldly wealth for the good of the commune. Naturally, the offer drew good custom during the Depression years, situated as it was near the railroad crossing, but there was another aspect of the business. The titillation of the 'love cult' drew businessmen from the Chicago area who found the excuse of a work-related trip to Milwaukee an opportunity to bring their secretaries and other love interests to the no-tell motel there established (really the first motel as opposed to hotel in Wisconsin), Heaven City being only 25 miles or so as the crow flies away from downtown Milwaukee and easily accessed by heading west on National Avenue/County ES. There was even a landing strip for the light planes of the day.
World War II spelled the end of the commune per se, as the young men were mostly conscripted, but the restaurant and motel/gentlemen's club persisted. Plans to expand the air strip to accommodate larger planes had to be scrapped, too, when the town began to expand into outlying subdivisions. In 1963, Moore died, but it was not until 1978, at the age of 95 or so, that Mrs. Talcott, who had been Moore's own secretary, passed away, and the property was sold. You can visit the present-day owner in the back building, behind the hotel (now mostly a rental complex) atop the bar, beside the restaurant. The Heaven City restaurant is well maintained and serves good food, too. He's happy to tell you what he knows about the place, and wishes he'd kept more of what he then considered the junk left behind by the love cult folks at the time he purchased the place. He's got some interesting memorabilia, a couple of small historical displays, and a lot of automobiliana and motorycle stuff there. Mircea and I talked to him for 45 minutes or so, I suppose, when we visited.
I said that it would be an interesting project for someone to do a video series on American communes, and he agreed. I know there's some relatively strong scholarship on the subject. The day after he left, my RSS feed served up to me a Kickstarter project on the 60s/70s commune known as The Farm, in Tennessee, promoted by a couple of people who had spent a significant portion of their childhood there. Mrs. Talcott continued to the end of her life to remember and defend Albert J. Moore as a great man. If she ever spoke to the threat she made to her husband, I can't find where it's recorded. It's certainly interesting to speculate whether a c. 1916 indiscretion which she threatened to disclose if he persisted in suing her mentor in 1922 was of a sexual nature (I think it's probable), and whether that caused her to embrace Moore's 'free love' cult, and if so how much of that embrace was a function of her acceptance and how much of revenge, or how to possibly tease those matters apart. For that matter, did Talcott accept the Paris job to get away from the associations of that event, whatever it was?
I wonder, too, how closely F. Scott Fitzgerald might have followed this story, and whether there are any references in his letters. If critics can seriously regard Willie Lomax of Arthur Miller's Death of a Salesman, and Miller can have become so important a figure in American literature on the strength of such works to have wed Marilyn Monroe, consort of Kennedies, at a time when Grace Kelly could become the Princess of Monaco, then certainly in the Aristotelian sense the story of William Wilson Talcott fits more perfectly with the idea of tragedy. In the bright autumn of Michigan's 1898 football triumph, it's hard to believe that William Talcott had any inkling that he would be someday writing ad copy touting eating ice cream in cold weather as a way to toughen one's body to the rigors of winter, or being blackmailed by his wife, involved in a free-love society, or looking espousing worldwide Progressivism while being unable to extricate himself personally from societal demands of conduct, or leaping off a pleasure steamer to drown himself on an August day in Lake Michigan, his straw boater floating where he leapt.
His paper endured, though, becoming The Southtown Economist, later The Daily Southtown, and finally The SouthtownStar.