Ralph Borsodi's Principles for Homesteaders
[Reprinted from Land & Liberty,
RALPH BORSODI (1886-1977) was the author of 13 books and 10 research
studies. He was also physically active, a productive homesteader and a
real doer who practised what he preached. He experimented and
implemented on many levels-from good nutrition, through building his
own home and garden; weaving his clothes and furnishings; organizing
experimental small communities, a School of Living for a new adult
education, and developing new social institutions-the Community Land
Trust and a non-inflationary currency, which he called Constants.
No one of today's specialty-labels encompass Ralph Borsodi. I am
pushed to use more general and abstract terms-decentralist, liberator
and human benefactor. This article will concentrate on his efforts to
implement the community-use of socially-created values in land as part
of his plan to encourage people to leave cities for more rural living.
Ralph Borsodi was never in public school, infrequently in private
schools, and did not attend college. (Yet St. Johns College of
Annapolis later conferred on him a Masters, and the University of New
Hampshire, a Doctorate.) He was educated mostly by wide readings in
libraries, and by his father, a publisher in New York City. Borsodi
Sr. wrote the introduction to Bolton Hall's A Little Land and Living,
which encouraged living on, and intensive production on, small plots
of land, and the public collection of site-values.
Ralph Borsodi, Jr. joined the Single Tax Party which grew out of
popular enthusiasm for Henry George and his two campaigns for the
mayoralty in New York in the 1880s. Borsodi mounted his soap box in
Union Square to exhort people to vote for the land-value tax. The
Party named Borsodi editor of The Single Taxer. In it he
discussed the need for a school to teach economics as George presented
it, placing land in a category separate from capital, showing how the
law of rent determined the law of wages, and how private use of land
values resulted in the disparity of wealth-poverty on the one hand and
riches on the other.
When still a young man, in 1910, Borsodi was sent by his father to
dispose of some Texas land holdings. What to do with several hundred
acres of land in the Houston area? He knew that this land was part of
a "great Savannah" -- in the path of progress. His errand
brought him both conflict and guilt. As people would come to this
area, the value of the Borsodi land would rise. What price should he
ask for it? Should be accept money which he had not earned? "Don't
be foolish, man," a local hotel-keeper advised him. "Hang on
to that land and who knows you might become a millioriaire!"
Troubled, Borsodi bought a small-town paper, The Rice City Banner,
wrote editorials, printed news, and discussed the land problem. After
a year, he made a decision. He would sell the land at a modest price
to a realtor. But Borsodi would go on to find ways to "solve"
the land problem. The realtor would not worry about unearned increment
from the land, and doubtless went on to pocket a large sum.
Borsodi returned to the East with a mission. Now, 1911, he saw
Megalopolis with new eyes. More than ever he was conscious of ground
space. On Manhattan's 22 square miles, two million people were rushing
to and fro, on, above and beneath its surface, needing space and
giving to land its fabulous value.
At that time New York City represented 20 billions of dollars worth
of wealth. Half of it was in land, most of the value concentrated in a
small core at the centre. A few blocks away was an ocean of squalor,
filth and poverty. Who had title to that land? Certainly not the two
million people working there. Probably a few large holders with
familiar names -- Rockefeller, Astor, Vanderbilt. Land bought and sold
for hundreds of thousands of dollars a front foot! Millions of tenants
paid rent each month with barely enough left over to keep body and
soul together. To Borsodi, New York was a devouring ugly monster.
His friendship deepened with Myrtle Mae Simpson, a Kansas farm girl.
They married in 1912, and Borsodi's father assigned them to a job in
Chicago. Chicago's Loop was even more concentrated, though with more
over-all sprawl, destitution, slums and ugliness than in New York.
Borsodi contacted Louis Post, editor of The Public, a journal devoted
to Henry George's principles. Borsodi used its columns to challenge
Socialist and Marxist ideas.
The Borsodis took other radical steps. Myrtle Mae's anemia, the
children's coughs, and Borsodi's rheumatism led them to investigate
natural therapies. They turned to whole foods. Explaining it as best
they could to the two boys, Ralph and Myrtle Mae gathered up the
loaves of white bread and boxes of white sugar and packaged cereals
and chucked it all into the garbage pail. In 1920 they left the city
and moved to 16 wooded acres in Rockland county. They built temporary
shelters and settled down to modern "homesteading".
They used rock to build shelters for chickens, rabbits, goats and a
pig; and for the first of a three-sectioned home for themselves. They
added a craft section for looms and weaving; a breeze-way for pool and
billiards. They planted, tilled, harvested and processed vegetables,
and in a few years berries and fruit. They were 80% self-maintaining
in food. They felled trees and cut wood for fireplaces and furnace.
They built a swimming pool and tennis court, and installed a linotype
in their basement -- Borsodi had things to say about the modern crisis
and what to do about it.
In 1928 Borsodi startled the world by publishing This Ugly
Civilization, America's first documented critique of
over-centralized industrialism. which was widely read during the
ensuing Great Depression. Because of it Borsodi was invited to Dayton,
Ohio, in 1932, to deal with their overwhelming unemployment. Borsodi
saw this as a way to extend "homesteading" as a social
movement, and a way to implement a trustee-ship, rental-form of
He proposed that families should return to the land: "Ring
Dayton with many small communities of from 30 to 50 families, each
producing their food and shelter on 2 to 5 acre plots. Let a Homestead
Association of families hold title to the land; let each family pay an
annual rental fee to their association rather than pay an outright
Persons involved agreed. Social agencies advanced money to buy 80
acres. Independence bonds were issued to provide loans to families for
buildings and equipment. Families applied, plots were assigned,
individuals instructed in gardening and building: construction was
begun. Suddenly the funds were exhausted.
To obtain more financial support, the only alternative seemed to he: "Borrow
from the Federal Government." Borsodi advised against it. "Government
money usually means government supervision and control. Government is
to protect persons and property from harm-not to build homes. Keep
Government out of business'" Borsodi concluded that if the
homesteaders chose government aid, he would withdraw and return to his
The homesteaders chose government funds. Borsodi withdrew, saying: "If
we in the U.S. are to get a proper balance between city and country,
and learn the proper function of government, we will need a new
education." Family and friends helped him plan and establish the
School of Living in 1936, near Suffern, New York. On its four-acre
homestead, the school was at the centre of 16 family homesteads, on a
40 acre plot called Bayard Lane Community. Here, too, Borsodi
initiated the group-title to land, with member-families paying an
annual rental rather than a fee for outright private ownership.
Affairs went well; sixteen lovely homesteads surrounding the School
of Living, where gardening, home-production and workshops in adult
education were continuous. Educators, authors, homesteaders, and
social-changers attended, from 1936 to 1945. After college degrees and
social work in Chicago's slums, I studied with, and assisted, the
Borsodis for the year 1939-1940.
One Bayard Lane homesteader, H.M., had good results with his
homestead flock of chickens. He envisioned a thriving business of
1,000 laying hens in a 3-storey chicken house. But his contract under
group-title to land prevented this. He would change the land-tenure
back to private ownership. He was determined and energetic. By a
narrow margin of votes, these homesteaders rejected group-tenure and
reverted to fee-simple.
Borsodi resorted to writing and travel. In 1939 he analyzed predatory
economics in Prosperity and Security. He described and
advocated modern homesteading in Agriculture in Modern Life.
Reluctantly he sold the School of Living building to a homesteader,
and in 1945 moved its library and activities to the Loomis homestead
in Ohio. He travelled to Mexico and India, studying and lecturing at a
Gandhian University in Ambala. There he examined the village-title to
land, wrote A Decentralist Manifesto, and began his magnum
opus, a curriculum for adult education --the definition and analysis
of Seventeen Major Problems of Living, along with alternative
(including decentralist) solutions.
Returned to the United States, now past 80 years, Borsodi had a new
opportunity to achieve his two most cherished ideas of land and money
reform. A younger friend, Robert Swann, was in Georgia -- hoping to
prevent the racial tension from erupting into violence. Swann was
appalled by the poverty, the helplessness and the illiteracy of both
blacks and whites. "What these people need is an economic base,"
he decided, and turned to Borsodi for guidance.
"What shall we do?" he asked.
"Get the families on the land!" Borsodi replied.
For weeks Borsodi and Swann worked on what in 1966 was registered in
Luxembourg as The International Independence Institute (I.I.I.) -- to
teach and help establish the trusteeship of land. I.I.I. is a
quasi-public cooperative corporation, in which individuals become
members and in which they may invest funds. The I.I.I. secures land,
by purchase or gift, and then declares the land in trust, never to be
sold again. The I.I.I. is taking land, now, and making it available to
users for an annual rental to the Trust. It does not wait until voters
in a country, state or nation are persuaded to use the
socially-created value of land for the community in lieu of taxes. It
proceeds to secure land and turn it as a "gift to mankind"
for users who contract to use it ecologically.
The history and goals of this effort are described in a book, The
Community Land Trust, A New Land Tenure for America. Some 100
community land trusts, with impartial, non-land-holding trustees from
the communities in which they exist, are now operating. The first
Community Land Trust, New Communities, Inc. (Atlanta, Ga.), took 5,000
acres out of the speculative market into a community trust.
In almost every region of the U.S. -- in Maine, in the mid-Atlantic,
in the Great Lakes Region, Oregon, California, and even in Washington,
D.C. -- urban trusts are assisting people to learn and practise the
concept that land is the common heritage of all people, that freedom
and security require that land be not a commodity for buying, selling