The community of Burley was one of several utopian experiments that had an opportunity to root and briefly flourish in the frontier of Washington in the late 1800s/early 1900s. The story of Burley isn’t quite as filled with controversy and drama as the other collective communities such as the Puget Sound Co-Operative Colony, Equality, Freeland, and Home. Perhaps that makes the place worth a second look.
Burley was founded in 1898 by the Co-Operative Brotherhood, an offshoot of Eugene Debs’ Social Democracy of America. Although the Brotherhood had around 1200 members, only one-tenth of them actually resided in the colony, located at the northern tip of Henderson Bay in Kitsap County, between Gig Harbor and Port Orchard.
In an article for the Oct. 1902 issue of The Arena, W.E. Copeland included this description of Burley:
“About one hundred and twenty men, women and children are resident at Burley, all working except the children under fourteen. Here is a village, with no saloon, no sectarian church, no money, and no competitive stores, managed by the people themselves through a board of directors. Here is the beginning of a new civilization, free from the evils of old …”
“In Burley no wages are paid; the tools, the machines, the lands, the improvements, the cattle and horses, and the wealth produced belong to whole Brotherhood. Each family is allowed a house, not to be alienated while the family remains at Burley. Here is no anxiety about rent, about work for to-morrow, about sickness or old age, about the fate of the family when the breadwinner dies.”
“The property is held in trust by a board of twelve trustees, three of whom are elected annually by a vote of the whole membership. The work done is farming and manufacturing lumber, shingles, and cigars. Every one works who is able.”
Yes, you read that right. Cigars. Not only that, Burley had the largest cigar factory in the state and even had their own label and box. The tobacco was imported Kentucky Burley, hence the name of the community. It seems strange that a settlement with no saloons or gambling dens would not only produce cigars, but name the town after a tobacco. The other utopian collectives would gently chide Burley for this industry.
Burley also had a high quality print shop, and produced a newspaper. The Co-operator existed from 1898-1906. The following article, possibly written the same W.E. Copeland mentioned above, appeared in the issue for Sept. 29, 1900:
BURLEY AND ITS LOCATION
“Burley is the present headquarters of The Co-operative Brotherhood. It is a town not greatly different in appearance than villages of its size elsewhere, but the visitor on investigation bent will find that in this case it is true that appearances are deceitful. There are no diversities of interests in Burley such as are common in other places. The land and houses are collective property, and the industries are operated collectively for the common benefit. Burley is a prefiguration of the industrial community of the future. There are no grog shops in Burley, no low dance halls nor gambling dens to corrupt the morals of our youth. We have no prohibition law, nor do we need one. There is no demand for liquor, and there is no profit system to support its sale. The inhabitants of Burley lead healthy, natural lives, and do not crave the excitement which comes from stimulants.”
“Located on the west side of the sound, about fourteen miles from Tacoma, Burley is far enough removed from the busy marts of trade and the influences of the competitive system to secure the uninterrupted working out of its co-operative ideals, and at the same time it is near enough to the outside world to avoid the isolation that would prove undesirable in many ways. The town is most beautifully situated so far as natural conditions go. Located in a valley of surpassing richness, through which meanders a delightful stream of water, abounding in pools filled at all seasons with trout, it is an ideal place for a home. To the east and west of the valley rise bold hills, crowned with the eternal green of firs, and far away to the west beyond the hills rise the snowcapped Olympics, while to the east rise the cascades, with old Rainier standing as a giant sentinel over all. To the south stretches away the waters of the sound, that inland sea which has been aptly termed the Mediterranean of America, and which good judges have termed the most beautiful body of water on the globe. Here, amid the beauties of unsurpassed natural scenery, we have laid the foundation for a new civilization. We are working out our destiny as the pioneers of a new industrial system, and our children are growing up close to nature, leading simple, natural lives, and learning that lesson which is so essential for them to know– that the welfare of the individual is inseparably bound up in that of the community.”
But as it turned out, Burley could not economically sustain itself and eventually disbanded as an organized unit in 1912-1913. Burley continues to be on the map today. Chris Henry of the Kitsap Sun recently wrote a profile of the town and described the present-day area: “Today, Burley is a busy little bump in the road …”
An excellent history of Burley, and other Washington State collective settlements, can be found in Charles Pierce LeWarne’s Utopias on Puget Sound 1885-1915.
According to Brian Herbert in Dreamer of Dune : The Biography of Frank Herbert, the grandfather of the author of Dune was an early resident of Burley. Otto Herbert brought his family to area in 1905, at first settling just outside of the Brotherhood land, but eventually moving within the borders. Frank Herbert was born in Tacoma in 1920 and spent much of his childhood visiting Burley.
This map is from Plat book of Kitsap County, Washington, containing maps of villages, cities and townships of the County, including map of the State of Washington (1909) and shows downtown Burley, called “Circle City” by the residents as the buildings were arranged in a semicircle near an artesian well.