They held a town pageant in Arden, Delaware, on September 5, 1910: a medieval procession with performers dressed as knights, troubadours, pages, and squires. One Ardenite, an anarchist shoemaker named George Brown, played a beggar. This annoyed some of the other players, because no such role had actually been written. But Brown decided to add it to the program anyway, so he dressed in rags, caked himself with mud, and invaded the proceedings, taunting the other characters and demanding alms from the audience. Many "onlookers needed assurance," The Single Tax Review reported, that Brown "was only 'part of the show.'"
This was a pattern: Brown liked to talk, and not everyone liked to listen to him. According to the novelist Upton Sinclair, who lived at the time in a little Arden house that his neighbors had dubbed the Jungalow, Brown insisted on "discussing sex questions" at the Arden Economic Club. When the club asked him to cut it out, Brown declared his free-speech right to continue and kept talking until he'd broken up the meeting. He broke up the next meeting too, and finally, Sinclair wrote, "declared it his intention to break up all future meetings."
At this point some of the locals wanted to have him arrested for disturbing the peace. But that required outside help, because the town of Arden did not have a police force.
In fact, the town of Arden didn't have a government at all. Not, at least, in the usual sense of the word.
I should back up and explain a few things. Arden's origins go back to the Delaware Invasion of 1895 and '96, when the Single Tax movement tried to take over the state. The Single Taxers were followers of Henry George, a 19th century economist who argued that government should be financed solely by a tax on land values. No income tax, no sales tax, no tax on the improvements to a property—just one tax on land. The campaigners crisscrossed the state in armbands, knapsacks, and Union Army uniforms, delivering streetcorner speeches and singing Single Tax songs ("Get the landlords off your backs/With our little Single Tax/And there's lots of fun ahead for Delaware!"). More than a few got tossed in jail for their efforts.
The invasion was a flop. A disaster, really. Not only did their gubernatorial candidate get only 2.4 percent of the vote, but within a year the movement's foes would insert a provision into the state constitution that made a George-style tax impossible.
Unable to achieve their ideas at the ballot box, a group of Georgists decided to take another approach. In 1900 they acquired some farmland outside Wilmington, created what amounted to a community land trust, leased out plots to anyone who wanted to move in, levied rents based on the value of the unimproved land, and used the rent money to pay for public goods. In other words, they set up a private town and enacted the Single Tax program contractually. And with that double experiment in communalism and privatization, Arden was born.
I just called Arden a "town," but for its first few years it was essentially a summer resort. (Or a summer camp—many of the part-time residents slept in tents.) But by the end of the decade, particularly after the founders made some tweaks to the lease agreement in 1908, a year-round community had formed. It was a largely lower-middle-class crowd, with a high number of artists and craftsmen; it attracted not just Georgists but other sorts of nonconformists, from socialists to vegetarians. And anarchists, like our sexually explicit friend George Brown, who kept a cottage there with his common-law wife.
The Ardenfolk had institutions—the trustees who set the rents had a certain degree of power, and there were regular town meetings too—but they weren't a municipality and they didn't have any police. So in July 1911, aggravated by the shoemaker's antics, a group left the town limits, found the appropriate authorities, and swore out a warrant for Brown's arrest.
Not everyone in the colony liked this idea. "They did not want any 'laws or lawing in Arden,'" The New York Times reported, because "once the pernicious things came in there would be no getting rid of them." But the warrant was issued, and Brown ended up spending five days in the workhouse.
He soon got his revenge. While incarcerated, Brown claimed, he had an epiphany that "the Law is supreme and must be obeyed." And so he swore out a warrant of his own against Sinclair and 10 other Ardenites for violating Delaware's blue laws. The Arden 11 wound up serving 18 hours behind bars for the crime of playing baseball, playing tennis, and selling ice cream on a Sunday.
After the prisoners' sentences were completed, the town celebrated with a circus. The performance included an arrest of its own: A clown dressed as a cop entered the audience, grabbed a surprised Sinclair, and marched him away from the show.
"I've spent more time debating things in the grocery store than I did buying that house," says Denise Nordheimer. "It was an impulse buy."
We're sitting in the Buzz Ware Village Center, where the Arden Community Planning Committee has been mulling such matters as a community garden and a bridge. The year is 2017, and everyone involved in the George Brown caper of 1911 is long dead. Yet Arden is still here, a little shire surrounded by an otherwise ordinary suburban landscape. It's a maze of narrow roads, abundant forests, and houses that look nothing like each other, some of them sporting engagingly unusual pieces of art in their yards. The place did eventually acquire a municipal government, but it took until 1967 for that to happen, and the change didn't represent a major shift in how the town was run so much as a convenient shell when dealing with the state and county authorities.
The place has even spawned two spinoffs, the neighboring villages of Ardentown and Ardencroft. Both are run on the same general principles. The three communities, known collectively as The Ardens, have a combined population of about 1,000 people. Nordheimer, an attorney, has been one of them for about a decade now.
In 2007 she and her family owned a home in Wilmington. Life was perfect, she says—"everything was just the way I wanted it"—except they lived on a busy street and her 7-year-old daughter was too nervous to ride a bike. "We just realized that she needed more physical independence and she was never going to get it at that house," says Nordheimer. "We always needed to supervise her."
"We have to move," she told her husband. "She's not learning to ride her bicycle."
Photo Credit: Courtesy Arden Craft Shop Museum and the Arden Archives. Property Arden Craft Shop Museum.