Book Review: Co-Operative Dreams A History of the Kaweah Colony by Jay O’Connell

Kaweah Colony

If you’ve never seen a tree so wide you can drive your truck through it, then you need to come to the Sequoia National Park.  The Kaweah River surges down from the Sierra Nevada, through the Big Trees, forming the Delta where big agriculture lives in Tulare County.

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The huge forests that attract thousands of tourists world-wide today, might have been wiped from the map before their secret was discovered were it not for the drama that unfolded in the mountains in the 1880s.

I met author, Jay O’Connell, in the Pizza Factory in Three Rivers on the day Sally Pace and I made ad sales calls for the Kiwanis Magazine, “What’s Happening in the Foothills.”  I went home, and sure enough, I had his book, Cooperative Dreams A History of the Kaweah Colony, in my library, but to my loss, had never taken the time to read it.

Early tent colony where first Kaweah Colony residents settled.
Early tent colony where first Kaweah Colony residents settled.

“Three key issues of the nineteenth-century California history are illustrated by events at Kaweah.” The issues prominent in the 1880s, when the Kaweah Colony formed were: “land and its acquisition; labor and the organization of it; and conservation.  … They are personified by three major characters in the drama of the Kaweah.” Charles Keller found the land, and knew it would be perfect to start the perfect cooperative colony.  Burnette Haskell, son of none other than Eddie Haskell (not from Leave It To Beaver, but very much like him in personality) gave voice to the organized labor movement so prominent in those years.  Finally, Visalia’s own “Father of the Sequoia National Park,” George W. Stewart championed conservation so effectively that the results surprised even him.

More permanent dwellings afforded little protection from the winter weather.
More permanent dwellings afforded little protection from the winter weather.

What I didn’t know was that there was such a mysterious aura around the often-told story.  For fifty years even historians did not know how the park came to be included in a bill that originally reserved only a small portion of the trees for posterity.  Even more amazing was the reason for including the magnificent trees in the preservation act.

O’Connell gently unfurls the story, introducing each character, using primary sources including letters, newspaper articles, and interviews of survivors of the colonies conducted in the 1940s by Tulare County historical expert, Joe Doctor, to authenticate his narrative.

As a student of local history, I found this fascinating, but California’s history, its dream belongs to the world as did the settlers that came in the 1800s.

6 thoughts on “Book Review: Co-Operative Dreams A History of the Kaweah Colony by Jay O’Connell”

    1. They are the biggest trees in the world. Had the government not intervened in 1890, we might never have know they had ever been. The fact that the legislation preserved them had been a mystery for many decades after the bill passed making them part of a National Park.

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