Fountaingrove’s Altruria community was a utopian dream in 1890s

The Santa Rosa community was founded on altruistic ideals supported by a political system called “ethical socialism.” The idea had grown from the work of French philosopher Auguste Comte.|

Altruria was once a fictional place that briefly became real in the 1890s, northeast of Santa Rosa. The name came from a popular book, “A Traveler from Altruria,” by William Dean Howell.

The imaginary Altruria was founded on altruistic ideals supported by a political system called “ethical socialism.” The idea had grown from the work of French philosopher Auguste Comte, who coined the term from the Latin “alter,: meaning “other.” The central concept of Comte’s “altruism” is “living for the sake of others.”

Many found Dean’s Altruria a compelling place. The story’s appearance, initially in Cosmopolitan magazine, inspired the establishment of Altrurian Clubs in California and elsewhere.

As a charter member of the Berkeley Altrurian Club, Unitarian minister Edward Payne called for establishing a community based on Altrurian principles (Payne later became the husband of Jack London’s editor and agent, Netta Eames). In the fall of 1894, the group purchased 185 acres near Fountaingrove, another experimental community. Forty Altrurians from all over the state soon arrived and began living in tents, shacks and an old mill. They started putting up a hotel and planned to develop several businesses.

Though a post office for Altruria was established the following April, difficulties had already set in, including disagreements, financial problems, illness and the death of a child. By June, all but fourteen members had left. Those who stayed continued to publish the club newspaper, the Altrurian, and provided a central hub for the Altrurian Clubs elsewhere. A year later, they sold the property to Dr. W.P. Burke, who turned the hotel into a sanitarium. One Utopian scholar called Altruria a success because it “died with the same transcendent faith with which it was born.”

It would be easy to dismiss Altruria as a short-lived, utopian dream. After all, the news reminds us daily of the darker side of the human spirit. But if we’re willing to grant honorary citizenship to anyone who acts selflessly, then Altruria is alive and well in Sonoma County.

According to the Volunteer Center, nearly 40% of county residents volunteer on a regular basis — 10% more than the average community in California. We devote twenty million hours a year to unpaid work that benefits others, from food banks to creek restoration to serving on advisory commissions. In fact, Sonoma County ranks No. 1 in California for volunteerism. Those of us who suffered the loss of our homes and belongings in recent disasters know first-hand how incredibly generous our neighbors can be.

Yes, this is the darkest time of the year. It’s also traditionally the season to acknowledge our human desire for community and cooperation, our deep impulse to help others even at the expense of ourselves. A time to celebrate the better angels of our nature.

Long live Altruria!

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