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Special Report

The Book Farm

Letters arrived in early 1936 from Houston, Milwaukee, Nashville, Montreal, and Brooklyn. An unemployed teacher from Toronto pointed out he was “handy with a saw,” and a librarian from Jamaica Plain, Massachusetts, who raised miniature schnauzers and “shared the family passion for card indexes and filing cabinets” described herself as a “sound sleeper and blessed with excellent digestion.” Yet another librarian explained she could “chop wood, paint a picture … knit and darn.” Others wrote with offers of land in places like South Carolina and Virginia or to express regret that they were not able to join the community but hoped to track its progress.

Heartman was surprised by the number of respondents. He wrote a blanket reply as a circular addressed to the “Utopia Correspondents” and provided details about what he had in mind. What he wanted to do, he wrote, was gather “a group of congenial souls for the purpose of solving the ever increasing economic problem and bring about more time for leisure.” Heartman believed that the economic conditions of the country were too unstable, and the individual was helpless against such forces. He explained:

The only way out, as I see it, is to turn our back to the present needlessly complicated social and economic structure and retire to a farm of say 500 acres (larger later on) which could support as many families or single persons as could conveniently be assembled there. Here a group might set up a small community which would give individual freedom and at the same time make food and shelter possible without too great an effort and certainly without the tremendous complications in which everybody is today involved and without being for one moment sure what will happen next.

Heartman corresponded directly with individuals and later offered descriptions of the latest developments. He purchased property outside of Hattiesburg from the Federal Land Bank. Situated about one hundred miles north of New Orleans, four hundred pleasant acres of hills and forest would become home to what he dubbed The Book Farm. The land was equipped with living quarters for the Heartmans, several buildings, a brook and a swimming hole, pecan trees, and its own power plant. One hundred acres were already under cultivation by tenant farmers.

In May of 1936, Heartman wrote to Sherwood Eddy, a missionary and one of the organizers of the Christian Socialist Delta Cooperative Farms, about his Mississippi project:

What you are doing for tenant-farmers and share-croppers and in time down and outers I would like to do for the intellectuals. The writers. The artists. Now theirs is an entirely different problem because of temperament, emotional condition, and in most cases inability to do heavy physical work and so on. Still the problem of social security is the same, perhaps more so for the intellectual suffer[s] more.

He reported that interest fizzled after sending out the mass reply, owing perhaps to the expense of the required initial $1000 investment. Heartman preferred that the project remained quiet and grew slowly and carefully because “intellectuals are in the habit of making a mess of things and nothing would hurt the movement more then to introduce it with the sound of trumpets and then have to admit failure.” His aim in writing Eddy, at least partly, was to offer the opportunity for collaboration between their cooperative efforts, each having valued skills and knowledge that might enhance the lifestyle of the other. Heartman’s intellectuals could provide “lectures, libraries, and all the other things which are so necessary after the physical needs are attended to.”

If Eddy was keen on the trade-off, he would have to wait. And wait. And wait, as no intellectuals ever showed up at the Book Farm to live in leisurely bliss with the Heartmans. Charles and Martha tended a garden, maintained the power plant, and hired various folks to help out around the property while Heartman continued his book business through catalogue sales, auctions, and producing bibliographies, reprints, and other works under the the Book Farm imprint. They kept chickens, collected pecans, and tried to stay warm in the surprisingly cold winters and cool in the muggy Mississippi heat.

The Heartmans visited New Orleans every couple of months, Charles more often to scout books. Money was tight, yet he continued buying books, insisting he would make it all back at the next big sale. He was cranky and odd and picky with his food. When waitresses at one restaurant refused to wait on him, he yelled at one for not knowing what “weiner schnitzel meant or how to serve it properly.” Dinner invitations waned, one wife admitting she worried too much about cooking for his taste. Heartman dropped hints around the holidays for invitations, but no one responded. He walked the grounds naked when others were in sight and tended to run off the hired help with his dictatorial management style. Martha learned to drive a car, went to the movies, and helped him with the book business.

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