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Utopian Dreams in Anaheim: The Polish Commune of 1876

Few of them had ever turned a spade or milked a cow, but that mattered little to the band of Polish aristocrats and aesthetes steaming across the Atlantic in 1876, bound for America and, ultimately, the Southern California village of Anaheim. There they would live off the land, a free land, far from the reach of Poland’s Russian and Prussian occupiers, in harmony with nature and in harmony with each other. At day these ten colonists would tend to their crops and at night to the arts – literature, music, drama, painting – and both would flourish under the California sun.

What is it about Anaheim that inspires utopian dreams?

In 1857 German immigrants purchased 1,165 acres of bunchgrass and prickly pear cactus on Rancho San Juan Cajon de Santa Ana and resolved to coax a cooperative wine-making colony from the ground – then a dry, open plain, treeless save for one massive sycamore. Their quasi-utopian venture succeeded, but only with the help of Los Angeles civil engineer George Hansen, countless local Indian and Mexican laborers, and an irrigation ditch that sipped from the nearby Santa Ana River, which the settlers honored in the town’s name: Annaheim.

Nearly a century later, Annaheim had been become Anaheim, citriculture had replaced viticulture, and a pioneering producer of animated films purchased 160 acres of orange and walnut trees on the outskirts of town with the idea of constructing “The Happiest Place on Earth” there. Disneyland opened in 1955, a utopia to some and a dystopia to others.

Helena Modjeska
Colonist Helena Modrzejewska was one of Europe's most celebrated stage actresses. (Image from her "Memories and Impressions of Helena Modjeska," 1910.)

But neither enterprise drank so freely from the well of pre-Marxist, utopian socialist thought the commune these ten Polish exiles hoped to establish just east of Anaheim. Modeling their colony after Massachusetts’ Brook Farm, the 1840s experiment in communal living that counted novelist Nathaniel Hawthorne as a founder and socialist Charles Fourier as its intellectual godfather, the Poles bound themselves to each other and to their communitarian ideals through formal, written statutes.

Henryk Sienkiewicz
Twenty-nine years after the Poles' experiment in communal living, Henryk Sienkiewicz won the Nobel Prize in Literature. (Image from Sienkiewicz's "Portrait of America: Letters," 1959.)

Like Brook Farm, the Polish colony drew from the ranks of the cultural elite. Among its members were Helena Modrzejewska, one of Europe’s most celebrated actresses, and Henryk Sienkiewicz, a novelist who would later win the Nobel Prize in Literature. (Two more notable artists, the painters Stanisław Witkiewicz and Józef Chełmoński, bowed out shortly before the colonists left for California.) They were led by Modrzejewska’s husband Karol Bozenta Chłapowski, a self-styled count and liberal revolutionary who, after leaving a life of privilege to join the 1863 Polish uprising against the Russians, spent 20 months in a Berlin prison.

Visions of California first came to these idealists on a cold Warsaw night in the winter of 1875. Modrzejewska was already considering contemplating taking her career abroad, and, as snow flurried outside the actress’s parlor, her friends playfully entertained the notion of accompanying her to America. Drawing upon the exaggerated claims they’d read in the Union Pacific and Southern Pacific’s promotional circulars, and upon journalist Julian Horain’s glowing reports in the Polish Gazette, they rhapsodized about Southern California’s perpetual summerland: wild berries, overgrown fruits, rabbits and partridges for the taking.

By the spring of 1876, casual talk of a journey abroad had grown into elaborate plans for a utopian commune. Their expectations for California, shaped by booster literature, were already unrealistic. But as they drafted their bylaws, pooled their resources, and dispatched an advance party to scout potential sites in Southern California, the soon-to-be emigrants slipped into fantastical reveries, fueled by a romantic yearning for a return to nature, and for the exotic. Modrzejewska recalled those heady days in her memoirs, published in 1910:

Reports from their advance party, which comprised Sienkiewicz the writer and agronomist Julian Sypniewski, only inflated the group’s wild hopes for their California commune; the pair toured Southern California in early spring, after late-winter rains, and their letters described a land of “green meadows, blue hills, and orange-blossoms.” They chose Anaheim, then a town of some 800 people and 15 saloons, as the site for the commune – not only because the town’s German viticulturists had proven that a cooperative agricultural colony could work, but also because they would make good neighbors for the Polish emigrants, who spoke German but not English.

Karol Bozenta Chłapowski and Julian Sypniewski
Chłapowski, who financed the venture, and Sypniewski, its lone agricultural expert, had been friends since the 1863 Polish uprising. (Image from "Memories and Impressions of Helena Modjeska," 1910.)

Echoing Modrzejewska, Sienkiewicz extolled the charms of a simple California life in a letter back home:

Back in Warsaw, the colonists outfitted themselves for life on the frontier, buying heavy rugs, telescopes, medicine boxes, and surgical equipment. They purchased weapons, too: brass knuckles, rifles, six revolvers. Somewhat paradoxically, they also seemed to expect a life of domestic comfort, packing up their books, their jewelry, and their entire wardrobes. One colonist alone filled two massive trunks with his library of a thousand bound volumes.

In July, the colonists steamed across the Atlantic. After a long trip that included (for some members) stops in New York and at Philadelphia’s Centennial Exhibition, a railroad crossing of the Isthmus of Panama, and a sojourn in San Francisco, the ten Poles arrived at their 20-acre farm in Anaheim and commenced their experiment in communal living in October 1876.

Unfortunately, they were almost comically unsuited to the task, blinded by their romantic notions of pastoral life to the hard realities of agricultural work. (Only Sypniewski had any background in agriculture, and he was unfamiliar with Southern California’s unique climatic and soil conditions.) Modrzejewska, who once reveled in the notion of tent-living, was immediately disappointed by their rented wooden house, adorned with a few Italian cypresses and a picket fence. Chłapowski and Modrzejewska shared one bedroom; their son slept on a sofa. Two of the men slept in the barn. The farmstead’s “only redeeming point,” she later recalled, “was the view of the mountains of the Sierra Madre to the north, and of the Santa Ana Range in the east.”

Polish farmhouse in Anaheim
Most of the commune's members lived in this humble house; two men slept in a nearby barn. According to some sources, the colonists gave their experiment the name of Anno Luni, Latin for "Year Month." Photo courtesy of the ​Anaheim Public Library photograph collection on Anaheim local history (accession number P6965.)

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And yet, for a while, the amateur farmers threw themselves into their work. The men tended to their vines and orange trees, while Modrzejewska cooked in the kitchen, assisted by an indolent maid. They washed their laundry by hand. They also tried to realize their hopes of cultivating the arts. After a day toiling in the fields, Sienkiewicz would read his latest short story by the light of a kerosene lamp, and Modrzejewska’s son Dolcio would recite Chopin on the piano – “to see if his fingers did not get stiff from the hoe,” his mother wrote. But disillusionment soon bred conflict, the Santa Ana winds gnawed at their nerves, and within a few weeks the once-idealistic colonists had become a bitter, broken bunch.

Later accounts of the commune, written after Sienkiewicz achieved fame for his 1895 opus “Quo Vadis,” exaggerated the scale of the both the experiment itself and its inevitable failure. Nevertheless, Modrzejewska’s own memoirs paint a pathetic picture:

Despite the colonists’ ineptitude, what ultimately doomed their experiment in utopian living was money. “The most alarming feature of this bucolic fancy,” Modrzejewska wrote, “was the rapid disappearance of cash and the absolute absence of even a shadow of income.” By late November, the commune had spent some $15,000 – a small fortune in those days, and most of it Chłapowski’s, who had initially proposed the idea of a commune.

With the treasury depleted, the commune began to dissolve. First Modrzejewska traveled to San Francisco to learn English and then resume her career on the stage under a simplified name: Helena Modjeska. Sienkiewicz also departed, writing a few of his “Charcoal Sketches” in Los Angeles’ Pico House hotel before returning to Europe. Chłapowski camped for some time in the canyons of the Santa Ana Mountains, where he purchased a cabin that later became the couple’s home. (The canyon still bears Modjeska’s name to this day.)

The farm, meanwhile, now 47.7 acres, reverted to its original owner in the spring of 1878. It long ago succumbed to suburban sprawl. Today, two haggard commercial boulevards meet there. A Wienerschnitzel stands opposite a Taco Bell; next to it, a seedy motel. A couple miles away, Disneyland beckons with its utopian slogan. But at State College and Lincoln, once home to a band of wide-eyed Polish emigrants, no monument marks the site of Anaheim’s failed utopia.

Further Reading & Research

Ellen K. Lee Collection on Helena Modjeska and Orange County. Special Collections and Archives, University of California, Irvine Libraries.

Giergielewicz, Mieczysław. Henryk Sienkiewicz. New York: Twayne, 1968.

Helena Modjeska Collection. Special Collections and Archives, University of California, Irvine Libraries.

Holmgren, Beth. Starring Madame Modjeska: On Tour in Poland and America. Bloomington, IN: Indiana University Press, 2012.

Modjeska, Helena. Memories and Impressions of Helena Modjeska. New York: Macmillan, 1910.

Sienkiewicz, Henryk. Portrait of America: Letters. New York: Columbia University Press, 1959.

Sontag, Susan. In America: A Novel. New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2000. [Local historian Ellen K. Lee criticized this novel, loosely based on Modjeska's life, for using sources without attribution and for exaggerating the facts of Anaheim experiment. The ensuing controversy made national headlines.] 

Modjeska in Modjeska Canyon
After the commune's failure, Modrzejewska returned to the stage and simplified her name to Modjeska. She and her husband later settled in a canyon in the Santa Ana Mountains, calling their home Arden. Modjeska's name still graces the canyon to this day. Image courtesy of the Orange County Archives.