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The father of Oregon's nursery industry and his “Free Love” cult

Former devout Quaker Henderson Luelling developed some odd beliefs in late middle age, founded a cult called “Harmonial Brotherhood,” and led his followers into the Central American wilderness. It did not go well.

This portrait of Henderson Luelling was published in 1911, but probably was made much earlier — most likely five or 10 years after his undertaking of the ill-starred journey to create a free-love Utopia in Honduras in 1860.

You may have heard of Henderson Luelling — the Quaker nurseryman  who founded an Oregon industry when he brought a wagon full of tiny trees out on the Oregon Trail, back in 1847. His story was recently memorialized in a children’s book that won the “Oregon Reads” award for the state sesquicentennial: “Apples to Oregon,” by Deborah Hopkins.

On the trail to Oregon, many of Luelling’s fellow emigrants thought he was crazy. The care he lavished on the trees (even at the expense of his wife and nine children) was, by anyone’s lights, obsessive. But history vindicated Luelling when the few hundred surviving tree slips made him a wealthy man upon his arrival in the Willamette Valley.

But those comrades of the trail who suspected his sanity were probably not entirely wrong — a point that would be confirmed a dozen later, just before the Civil War, when Luelling led another little group of pilgrims into the wilderness, with a completely different goal in mind:

Free love.

Now, you may think “free love” meant something different in 1860 than what it means today. And indeed, the term today conjures visions of swingers, “swappers” and dreadful paperback books with titles like “The Lust Lords” and “Sisters in Sin”; that much, at least, is new. But the core concept of “Free Love” was the same then as it is today.

The “free love” thing is far from new. Over the years, especially in the American West, at least half a dozen generations have produced at least one “daring” philosopher who calls for a throwing-off of the age-old yoke of marriage and family and urges his or her followers to revert to the mythic “noble savage” life of naked and unashamed people gathering freely and openly, men and women, living and eating and sleeping together with no rules, no judgment and no squabbles over paternity.

This political cartoon, by Thomas Nast, ran in Harper’s Weekly in 1871. It nicely illustrates society’s attitude toward those who advocated “free love” — in this case, Victoria Woodhull. The woman is depicted struggling under the heavy burden of a drunken husband and several children, but saying, “Get thee behind me, Mrs. Satan; I’d rather travel the hardest path of matrimony than follow your footsteps.”

Such appears to have been the vision that came to Henderson Luelling around the age of 55. By this time, he had moved to California, leaving his brother Seth with the Oregon nursery he’d founded in Milwaukie. In the Golden State, he’d started a prosperous fruit farm, which was worth plenty of money.

He’d also started his very own free-love cult — “The Harmonial Brotherhood.” Luelling’s group made free love the centerpiece of a strict regimen of self-denial that included an all-vegetarian, stimulant-free diet, cold-water “hydropathy” for any medical need, and a Utopian all-property-in-common social structure.

The Brotherhood had grown and gained adherents, but there were problems for Luelling’s happy band. The biggest of these was the inconvenient fact that California society just wasn’t hospitable to their vision of the world. Luelling decided he needed to lead his flock into a wilderness somewhere, where they might create a whole new society, a society founded on their own principles. In such a place, the Brotherhood could demonstrate the soundness of its philosophy without interference and judgment from a prim, preachy, overdressed mainstream society.

So Luelling sold his beautiful farm and, taking all the money, invested it in a schooner — the Santiago. Its destination: Honduras.

Realizing belatedly what he was up to, Luelling’s wife rushed to court to swear out a “writ de lunatico inquirendo.” What the old man had in mind would leave her and their children — all but the two boys who were going with him — homeless, penniless and dependent on charity. The courts were very sympathetic, and soon there were cops looking for Luelling. He quickly went into hiding, waiting until the schooner had sailed out to the Golden Gate before stealthily paddling out into the bay under cover of darkness to join his fellow travelers aboard ship.

Those fellow travelers, according to an article from the San Francisco Times, were quite a group. Luelling wasn’t the only one of them who had to board the ship by stealth and by night. One fellow passenger had skipped on some bills and was running from the law; another couple was delayed trying (unsuccessfully) to force their teen-age daughter to come on the trip. Still others just didn’t want to undertake the walk of shame up the gangplank of the Santiago in broad daylight. After all — what would the neighbors think?

Once on board, the Free Lovers immediately got busy creating great merriment for the professional crew of sailors aboard the schooner — who, upon their return, became the love cult’s rather merciless biographers with the help of the reporter from the San Francisco Times.

The journey appears to have been dogged with several major issues. The first was a question of leadership. Luelling was the group’s leader, but another fellow — referred to in the newspaper as “Dr. T,” a onetime circus performer who was now a preacher and spiritualist (hence the “Dr.” title) — thought he himself ought to be the alpha, and lost no time in initiating a remarkably unbrotherly and unharmonious feud with Luelling over who got to be top banana.

The second issue, and the one that generated the most drama aboard ship among these ostensible vegetarians, was a quest for meat.

The power of belief is a force that can move mountains, but many of those mountains are imaginary, and when that power fetches up against a more grounded force, things can get interesting. In this case, the cult members' firm belief in the goodness and healthfulness of their “harmonious diet” was now slowly being ground down by the animal cravings of their starving bodies, which they were trying to force to subsist on coarse-ground whole-wheat flour and little else. Consequently, there was, according to the article, “much secret eating of salt pork, and drinking of coffee and tea which were also forbidden.” And when that sort of dietary cheating was discovered, there were accusations and recriminations, salted liberally with that particular viciousness that springs from secret envy.

This charming children’s book won the Oregon Reads award for the 2009 Sesquicentennial. It spins the story of the Luelling family’s travels to Oregon in a wagon loaded with trees as an old-style tall tale. Of course, it ends with arrival at the Willamette Valley — long before Luelling’s free-love quest began.

The ship made landfall in Zihuatanejo a few weeks later, and the passengers hurried ashore to bathe in a stream. This they did in fine Noble Savage style, stripping and plunging in buck naked, the ladies moving about 50 yards upstream from the gents. Unfortunately, this Edenic party was interrupted at its upstream end by a group of local men, who immediately rose to the occasion, rushing to disrobe and join the skinny-dipping damsels frolicking in the water. A cry of alarm from one of the ladies brought one of the Harmonial Brotherhood men rushing up, and he drove the local interlopers off — and that might have brought an end to it had not “Dr. T” then belatedly arrived on the scene. Apparently forgetting that he was supposed to be rejecting such bourgeois hang-ups, Dr. T took offense at the rescuer’s having seen his wife naked, and threatened to “break every bone in his body” in defense of her honor.  (Presumably it was OK for Dr. T. to see the other naked ladies, though. Alpha-male privilege, perhaps.)

It wasn’t a great start. And it would not get better.

We’ll talk about the rest of the Santiago’s ill-fated journey — the scramble for meat, the scuffle over several dozen eggs that ripened into civil strife and nearly into bloodshed, the awful demonstration of the ineffectiveness of cold-water hydropathy as a cure for tropical fever, and the shamefaced return of the cult members to San Francisco — in next week’s column.

(Sources: Anderson, Heather Arndt. Portland: A Food Biography. New York: Rowman, 2014; “The Emigrant Free Lovers,” Sacramento Daily Union, 19 May 1860; Wrenn, Sara B. “Early Days and Ways in and around Milwaukie,” Oregon Folklore Studies, WPA Writer’s Project, 1939)