Collecting Delaware Books

Arden's Frank Stephens

Contents

Frank Stephens

Here are two articles about Frank Stephens, one of the founders of Arden, Delaware.

Frank Stephens, Poet with Many Causes

In 1879, reformer Henry George (1839-1897) published Progress and Poverty, which sold millions of copies around the world. His book revived an old idea: that a single tax on land (and not other property) should be the sole source of government revenue. Single-tax communities were founded in Australia, Europe, Canada, and the United States. Arden, Delaware, was one such community, though state and federal laws prevented a full implementation of the theory.

Radical reform did not come quietly. The Philadelphia Single Tax Society targeted Delaware in 1895, sending workers in military uniforms with knapsacks full of leaflets. Their leader was Frank Stephens (1859-1935). Rabble rousing has never pleased Delawareans, and they jailed many of the workers. It is said that there were 37 members of the "Dover Jail Single Tax Club" at one time.

Single tax workers even had protest songs. The following words were sung to the tune Tramp, Tramp, Tramp, the Boys Are Marching .

By and By

 0! We want the earth again,
 For the landless sons on men We know how to get it back and keep it there.
 Get the landlord off our backs
 With our little Single Tax.
And there's lots of fun ahead for Delaware.

 Tax! Tax! Tax!
 We'll tax the landlords Cheer up, Comrades, tax them high,
 Till at last they all disgorge,
 Then hurrah for Henry George,
And we'll save the whole creation by and by.

 0! The wage of them that toil
 Shall not be the idler's spoil,
Let the landlord hustle round and earn his share.
 When you feel his grip relax,
 That's our little Single Tax.
0! There's lots of fun ahead for Delaware.

 0! We'll tramp the railroad ties
 Till we see the wages rise,
And we'll whoop it up for freedom everywhere.
 With our knapsacks on our backs,
 With our little Single Tax.
0! There's lots of fun ahead for Delaware.

This and seven other songs are recorded in Some Songs by Frank Stephens, published as a memorial to Stephens by the Arden Press in 1935. It appeared in both orange and beige boards and includes 135 pages. The publisher's note says "if each does his part," presumably selling copies of the book, that more volumes of Stephens writings will appear. None has, except for a slightly expanded version of Some Songs in the 1950s.

Tributes to Stephens are interspersed with his poetry. Most notable among these eulogizers are Delaware literary figure Christopher L. Ward and America's most enduring social protester Scott Nearing. Nearing's tribute introduces a chapter of Stephens' pacifist poetry such as the following.

Onward, Christian Soldiers

When Norman William's trumpet rang
To shoreward turn the pirate gang,
From whose rude loins our forebears sprang,
 They killed some men.

So when their grandsons understood
The Moslems prayed what way they would
They sailed, fast sworn on Holy Rood,
 And killed again.

When later sons at Runnymede
Wrung the great chart from kingly greed,
To follow up that worthy deed
 They killed some more.

When Ironsides on Naseby Field
Made the false Papist host to yield,
His faith with brother's blood he sealed
 Just as before. When pilgrim fathers took to flight
To live by pure religion's light
Finding no white men here to fight,
 They killed the Red.

And when their sons at Lexington
Had Freedom's glorious war begun
They chased their foes till peace was won
 And left them dead.
 And when our nation's soul to save,
We sought to free the chattel slave,
We pushed each other to the grave-
 A countless horde.

And then to set the Cubans free
We blew the Spaniards under sea
and slew the Filipinos, we
 To serve the Lord.

And now that Europe's gone to work
French, German, Briton, Slav, and Turk,
Bomb, bullet, bayonet, dum-dum, dirk,
 It's peace that's willed So if, when days foretold are passed,
The Prince of Peace appears at last
We'll all stand wonderstruck, aghast,
 If no one's killed.

Single tax and antiwar sentiments came nowhere near exhausting his social consciousness. Poems in the book praise the Chautauqua movement and condemn medical research using animals. But many lighter poems are included. His sentiment often overruns his sense of meter, and the rhymes are sometimes contrived, but the poetry is easy to read.

Stephens was a sculptor with talent. He and architect Will Price are sometimes regarded as the founders of Arden. He was widely but not universally revered in the community, and was often referred to as "Patro," which is Esperanto (another of his causes) for "father."

Stephens is a fascinating character, and there are many insights into the man in Some Songs.

Forgotten Writings of
Arden's Frank Stephens
by Jerry Shields

Frank Stephens (1859-1935) was talented in so many areas that it is easy to overlook his productions as a writer. But, though better known as a sculptor, orator, political crusader and above all, as chief founder and guiding spirit of northeast Delaware's Arden communities, he also penned many interesting poems, song lyrics, plays and prose pieces.

Only a small number of these ever got into print, and those which did are now scarce. Copies of Grubb's Corner his lyrics for the little operetta about Arden he had set to music by Gilbert and Sullivan are quite rare, while a thin book titled Some Songs (1935) issued soon after his death and containing a selection of his verses can be found in only a few of Delaware libraries and book collections.

Not much is widely known about the first half of Stephens' life. Born in Philadelphia, he set out to be a sculptor. During the early 1880s he married artist Thomas Eakins' youngest sister Caroline, who died in 1889 after giving birth to their third child.

At some point, Stephens became acquainted with the theories of Henry George, a Philadelphia-born newspaper editor, author and social critic. In 1879 George had published a landmark book, Progress and Poverty, arguing that, as capitalist nations create greater opportunities for prosperity, they also drive up the cost of living without sharing much of the wealth produced, thereby widening the gap between rich and poor.

George's solution was to have governments institute a single tax a levy on land commensurate with its actual value. Whatever improvements a person might make to land being used would not be taxable, but the land tax itself would be placed in a general fund and used only for public works. This, George felt, would hold land values down, stabilizing the economy and leading to a more equitable distribution of wealth, which in turn would help create healthier, happier communities.

Many Americans, including Stephens, found this notion attractive. The ideas expressed in Progress and Poverty were so popular by 1886 that George, then residing in New York City, ran for mayor in that year's election and nearly won. In 1895 he was planning another run for the office in the election of 1897. Frank Stephens came from Philadelphia to work as a volunteer in George's campaign.

Preparing for the mayoralty race, George's strategists decided to run Single-Tax candidates in the 1896 Presidential-year elections. Since their manpower and financial resources were limited, they chose to focus their efforts on a single state. Delaware was picked because of its small size and population. Soon Frank Stephens and a band of fellow volunteers most clad in uniforms resembling those of the U. S. Army and wearing armbands that read "TAX" descended on the state capital of Dover to hand out literature and proselytize for George's ideas. About three dozen of them, in a land where the rights of political free speech had not yet been tested and protected by the courts, were soon thrown into the local jail. Stephens was the second volunteer arrested.

They were freed not long after word of their arrests was spread by the nation's newspapers, but they did not manage to convince many Delawareans. When the results of the 1896 election were in, Single-Taxers had managed to capture only about three percent of the vote in the First State. Months later, they were back trying to persuade delegates to a state constitutional convention to make the single tax a part of Delaware law. Again they failed. Meanwhile Henry George, who had almost won the mayor's office of New York in 1886, died in his second try at it four days before Election Day, 1897.

His death, while it was a hard blow to the cause, did not completely discourage those of his disciples who still believed in George's visions of a better world and had the desire to keep it going. Frank Stephens was one of these. Spending time in a Dover jail and losing badly in the election and the constitutional convention had only intensified his determination to prove that George's theories had merit. If the Single-Taxers couldn't have all of Delaware, they could at least have a small piece of it to start a community and try to put their late mentor's ideas into practice.

In 1900, Stephens and a friend, architect Will Price, bought a 162-acre farm in northeastern New Castle County. They used what money they could raise plus a loan from Philadelphia industrialist Joseph Fels. Although his family-owned factory made Fels-Naphtha soap, Fels was also an active believer in George's theories.

The aim of Stephens and Price was to create a model community on these wooded acres bordering Naaman's Creek in the area long known as Grubb's Corner. Deciding to give it a more euphonious name, Stephens chose "Arden," having in mind Arden Forest, the setting for Shakespeare's play As You Like It. In making that choice, the sculptor was evidently recalling the words of the good Duke Senior in that play, who, after long banishment in the forest by his evil brother, reminds his companions of their blessings:

Now, my co-mates and brothers in exile,
Hath not old custom made this life more sweet
Than that of painted pomp? Are not these woods
More free from peril than the envious court?
. . . . . . . . . . . .
Sweet are the uses of adversity
. . . . . . . .
And this our life, exempt from public haunt,
Finds tongues in trees, books in the running brooks,
Sermons in stones, and good in everything ....

Shakespeare, Stephens believed, had words for nearly every situation. In training young minds and older ones as well to appreciate both the beauties of language and the facets of human nature, one might accomplish the best results by having them read the plays of the Bard, or act them out, until these became a part of themselves. One of the first things Stephens did, after building a cottage for himself and his family at Arden, was to construct a simple theater nearby where these plays and others could be performed.

Stephens and Price had not come to Arden to live in seclusion. Their aim was to create a community truly democratic and largely self-supporting, based partly on George's ideas of single-tax collective ownership and partly on the Pre-Raphaelite ideas of English thinker-poet-artisan William Morris, who advocated personal creativity and simple but comfortable living. To keep the beautiful woods which had attracted him and Stephens to the area from being spoiled, Will Price laid out the Village of Arden in such a way that about half the land would remain perpetually wooded community property.

Arden was never intended as just a haven for followers of Henry George. Anyone was invited to come and live there so long as the community did not become overcrowded. Stephens made a sign for the entry which read, "You are welcome hither" (a line from King Lear) and refused to handpick applicants on the basis of race, religion, ethnic background or political leanings. At first he tried to interest local farmers in coming to Arden and cultivating plots, but found no takers. Except for Christopher Ward, a Wilmington attorney then living on a nearby farm, most locals regarded Stephens and Price with suspicion and hostility, considering them political radicals in a conservative area. Ward was politically conservative too, but he was also a gifted amateur actor, as was Stephens, and the two found much to talk about. Soon after Stephens moved to Arden, Ward walked over, welcomed him to the neighborhood, and began a chat which blossomed into a friendship ending only with Stephens' death 35 years later.

Many who did come to settle at Arden were leftists of various stripes, and even anarchists. Most of these did not agree with George's ideas, wanting either no government or more control by a worker-run state, but they relished the freedom of thought and action which Arden provided. Also they could live there cheaply and peacefully without being shunned or persecuted by their immediate neighbors. They could belong, and did.

Not that everything was always completely harmonious at Arden. People argued from time to time. But Frank Stephens saw to it that there were plenty of cooperative activities for work and play, and that both could be done quite happily most of the time. Plays and festivals were frequent, though audiences were usually small or nonexistent mainly because everyone young and old was given a role to play and encouraged to join in. Many villagers called Stephens "Patro" a word meaning "Father" in Esperanto, an easy-to-learn synthetic language he encouraged everyone to master and use. Most also learned arts and crafts of various kinds, so they could produce objects to sell to the outside world.

For three decades after its founding, Arden, under the quiet, benevolent leadership of Frank Stephens, throve so much so that, in 1922, the neighboring Harvey farm was bought and the adjacent community of Ardentown established along similar lines as Arden, with residents owning their houses but not the land on which these were built. This land, community-owned, was leased to individual householders for 99-year periods, who paid the land-tax on it, and no other, annually.

The Depression following the stock-market crash of 1929 hit Arden hard, as it did most American communities. Most people, limited to bare necessities, could no longer afford the hand-crafted items many Ardenites had been making and selling. But the villagers, who had not been living extravagantly, simply tightened their belts a few more notches, cooperated even more than they had been doing, and made it through the 1930s.

Most did, that is. Frank Stephens did not. One day in 1935, after reading Uncle Remus stories the previous evening to a campfire group at Gilpin's Point, Maryland (another Georgian community he had helped start), he died at age 75, much mourned by the villagers and other friends he had made.

Soon after his death the Arden Press published a selection of his poems (along with elegies by several friends) under the title Some Songs. A Publisher's Note at the end of this volume states that another reason for the book's existence, besides helping to immortalize some of the author's verse writings, is to have Arden-dwellers sell it and raise money "sufficient to make possible the bringing out of subsequent volumes."

"These poems," the note continues, "form but a fraction of the writings of Frank Stephens." After mentioning the operetta Grubb's Corner as well as a pageant Stephens wrote in 1934 to celebrate the history of the University of Delaware, and an earlier pageant "telling the history of the building of the state of Delaware," the note refers to "a children's pageant begun last year," then adds:

"But few know of the last work on which he labored a beautiful cycle of nine playlets in Shakespearean form, each centering about particular guests of those invited to the Capulets' ball. Five of these delightful playlets were completed others partially so. And then there is a wealth of more serious material his many lectures on travel, Shakespeare, art his voluminous writings on economic subjects, etc. This should all be made available...."

Some Songs never sold well enough to realize the publisher's dream of bringing these other works into print. But they still exist, having come with other Stephens papers to the Historical Society of Delaware shortly after their author's death. A recent trip there revealed that the nine playlets, five complete and the rest unfinished, are in the Stephens collection at the society, along with numerous other papers on a variety of subjects. One particularly exciting find is the Stephens' autobiography which has never yet been published.

Arden still goes on, as do neighboring Ardentown and Ardencroft (a third Georgian community founded in the area during 1950). Their residents are no longer pariahs. Many people from the surrounding region flock to the Arden Fair and other village-sponsored events each year, and their numbers are growing. Arden is still the best example of participatory democracy to be found in America, with the possible exception of certain town meetings in a few ancient communities of New England.

If Arden lasts another four years, it will be a century old a very advanced age for a Utopian community. Not many Delawareans know that the very first Utopian community founded by Europeans in America was started in 1663 at Lewes, Delaware, by another visionary a Dutch colonizer named Peter Cornelis Plockhoy. Like Frank Stephens, Plockhoy was certainly decades and probably centuries ahead of his time. The two men, though separated by hundreds of years, had much in common. Plockhoy's peaceful settlement, sad to say, did not last much longer than a year not through any fault of its own but because an armed force under orders from the Duke of York went down in 1664 and destroyed it "to the very nail."

Stephens' Arden has been much more fortunate. If it has not won over the rest of Delaware and the nation to this point in time, it has at least survived and flourished as a shining example of what can happen when communities take a creative, cooperative approach in controlling their own destiny. Many artists, writers, thinkers and other productive people have made their homes there. Others have stayed a while and moved on. For many years, newspaperman Bill Frank kept memories of early Arden alive through frequent columns about the community and its residents. More recently Harry Themal has continued this tradition.

But it would be nice and a great way to celebrate Arden's 100th birthday if the still-existing writings of its "Patro" Frank Stephens could be brought out, dusted off, and published in a collected or selected edition. Modern readers could learn much from this man who left such an indelible mark on one little corner of our state.

Back to Articles List

Back to home page


Contact John P. Reid