The group moving west consisted of Russian Jews, all under 30, who had lived in the United States for less than five years. Poor, but not poor in spirit, these immigrants wanted to leave their economic situation behind and build a life that would bring them stability and also inspire other Jews. Led by Benjamin Brown, Clarion, Utah was part of the Jewish “Back to the Soil Movement” that founded over 40 agricultural settlements in America, Argentina, Canada, and Israel.
The “Back to the Soil Movement” was created in an effort to convince the world to move away from anti-Semitic views, build Jew’s confidence in themselves, and facilitate acceptance between Jews and Christians by establishing themselves as an agrarian society. Because of these visionary beliefs and the overt call to action for Jewish people, Utah’s settlement was named “Clarion.”
After 12 men went early to begin work on their 6,000 acre piece of land, the rest of the colony came over in waves of about fifty people. Peak population for Clarion reached about 155 residents within the first few years. But, despite the rising population, the colony faced years of continually failing crops.. Lack of water, bad weather, and no previous farming experience combined to create fruitless growing seasons and failed crops. Ultimately, only 1,500 of the 6,000 purchased acres were developed. Even today, much of the soil near Clarion is undependable and unused because of the lack of access to water. Despite these challenges, the Jewish colony’s vision pushed them on. It wasn’t until 1916 that the Clarion Colony finally fell apart. The Salt Lake City Jewish community helped stranded Jews from the colony by purchasing train tickets for those who wanted to return to the East Coast.
Clarion today is a ghost town. All that remains of Jewish utopia are some crumbling foundation stones and the headstone of Aaron Binder on whose tomb both Hebrew and English is inscribed. Benjamin Brown, the leader of the migrant party, was one of the few people that stayed in Clarion even after it’s collapse. He continued to farm and later organized the Utah Poultry Association. Although the colony failed, many of the descendants of colony members look back to those memories, journals, and stories with respect and reverence. The sacrifice of the Clarion colony members proved to many Jews that getting closer to soil helped them get closer to God.
The Clarion colony was just a small part of the Jewish history of Utah. Utah is now home to over 3,500 Jews. The Jewish legacy in Utah is over 200 years old and is widely varied. A Jewish daguerreotypist traveled with John C. Fremont in 1820 and was one of the first recorded explorers to enter Utah. Later, Simon Bamberger became the fourth governor of Utah in 1917. Clarion, despite its short life compared to the stable history of Jews in Utah, deserves to have it’s story told and it’s people celebrated for their sacrifice, faith, and vision.