During the period before the Second World War, two influential experiments in community landholding were established in the United States: one in Tennessee and the
other in North Carolina. Arthur E. Morgan was the godfather of both.
Born in 1878 near Cincinnati, Morgan’s family moved to St. Cloud, Minnesota soon after his birth, where Morgan was raised. His father was a self-taught engineer. Returning to Minnesota in 1900 to work with his father, he learned engineering from the ground up. He developed a special interest in dams and eventually traveled to Europe to investigate dam construction techniques on the other side of the Atlantic. He was in England soon after the first Garden City was founded at Letchworth. Given Morgan’s later attempts to create communities in America that incorporated key features of the English Garden Cities, there is reason to believe that he may have encountered Ebenezer Howard’s ideas during this trip.
In 1913, Morgan was hired by Dayton, Ohio to build five dams after a flood had devastated the city. Winning local fame as a man of action and ideas, who was also an able administrator, he came to the attention of Antioch College, a dying institution located 18 miles south of Dayton in Yellow Springs, Ohio. Elected to the board of trustees, he was later appointed president of the college. During his 15-year presidency, Morgan instituted what came to be known as the Antioch Plan, where the college’s students were required to do four hours of local work for every four hours spent in the classroom. He also published numerous articles about progressive education, community development, and new towns in popular periodicals like The Atlantic Monthly.
Morgan came to the attention of President Franklin Roosevelt, who was looking for someone to lead the newly created Tennessee Valley Authority (TVA). In 1933, he was appointed by Roosevelt to be one of TVA’s three co-chairmen, but his tenure at TVA was stormy and short-lived. After three years, he was dismissed by FDR. While still at the helm of TVA, however, Morgan seized the opportunity to realize his vision of the ideal community. He oversaw the construction of Norris, Tennessee, a planned community to house workers who were building TVA’s first dam to control flooding and to generate electricity. The land at Norris was owned by TVA and leased for residential and commercial development. No worker paid more than 25 percent of his or her salary for housing. The town’s businesses were operated as nonprofit cooperatives, located on land that was leased from TVA. This leased-land arrangement lasted until 1948, when the TVA was forced by an act of the U.S. Congress to sell the land underlying Norris, Tennessee to private investors.
Toward the end of his tenure at TVA, Morgan made a second effort to establish a planned community on leased land. He had been approached by a wealthy textile manufacturer from Chicago who offered to bankroll one or more of Morgan’s utopian ideas for social improvement. In 1938, Morgan sent his son, Griscom, to western North Carolina to look for land. Using money from the Chicago donor, he was able to purchase 1200 acres in a mountain valley about 40 miles north of Ashville. Morgan then formed a nonprofit corporation to develop a leased-land community that he named Celo. In addition to houses and farming and a few cooperative enterprises, Celo developed a boarding school based on Morgan’s ideas of progressive education. Both the community and the school exist today, still organized along lines laid down by Morgan over 70 years ago.
After leaving the Tennessee Valley Authority, Morgan returned to Yellow Springs, Ohio. Two years later, in 1940, he founded Community Service, Inc. (CSI) as a vehicle for spreading his ideas about community development and small-scale, locally controlled enterprises. Among many other initiatives, CSI developed a correspondence course on the small community. Beginning in 1943, CSI also published a nationally distributed newsletter that was mostly a showcase for Morgan’s essays and experiments promoting small-scale community enterprise.
That same year, a young conscientious objector named Bob Swann, imprisoned in the federal penitentiary in Ashland, Kentucky, took Morgan’s correspondence course on the small community. He was so impressed with Morgan’s ideas that he began writing to him while in prison. Two years after Swann’s release, Morgan offered him a job with Community Service, Inc. Swann moved his family to Yellow Springs. His wife, Marjorie Swann, a civil rights activist who had been actively involved with the Congress of Racial Equality (CORE) in Chicago, also found work at CSI.
Bob did not remain long at CSI, resigning soon after his family’s move to Yellow Springs to begin what was to become a life-long vocation as an itinerant carpenter and house designer. Nevertheless the lessons he learned from Arthur Morgan were to be applied by Swann again and again in future years as he helped to create leased-land communities modeled on those that Morgan had established at Norris and Celo.
1878: Arthur Morgan is born in Cincinnati, Ohio. Family soon moves to St. Cloud, Minnesota.
1910: Morgan Engineering Company is established. Morgan develops a national reputation as a brilliant flood-control engineer.
1913-1915: Morgan oversees the construction of earthen dams to control flooding around Dayton, Ohio.
1920: Morgan is appointed president of Antioch College in Yellow Springs, Ohio, a position he retains until 1936.
1933: Franklin Roosevelt appoints Morgan to become one of three co-chairs of the Tennessee Valley Authority (TVA). Norris, Tennessee is founded by the Tennessee Valley Authority (TVA) to house workers building Norris Dam on the Clinch River. The city’s design is based on principles borrowed from the English Garden Cities, including public ownership of the underlying land.
1936: Completion of Norris Dam.
1938: Morgan sends his son, Griscom, to western North Carolina to look for land. Using money from the Chicago donor, he is able to purchase 1200 acres in a mountain valley about 40 miles north of Ashville.
1939: Celo Community is established on the land purchased by Arthur Morgan, a land trust that eventually grows to 40 homesteads.
1940: Morgan founds Community Service Inc. in Yellow Springs and the Fellowship for Intentional Community.
1942: Publication of The Small Community. Bob Swann begins his sentence at the Federal Correctional Institution in Ashland, Kentucky.
1943: Swann and other imprisoned Conscientious Objectors take a correspondence course on “The Small Community,” designed by Arthur Morgan. Community Service Inc. begins publication of a nationally distributed newsletter.
1946: Bob and Majorie Swann move with their young family to Yellow Springs, Ohio, where Bob has been offered a job at Community Service Inc. Marjorie Swann becomes friends with Coretta Scott, an undergraduate at Antioch College, through a CORE-affiliated organization.
1948: An act of the U.S. Congress forces Norris, Tennessee to be sold by TVA at public auction. It is purchased for $2.1 million by a Philadelphia investment group, which then sells individual homes to their residents.
1960: The Vale, an intentional community started in Yellow Springs by Griscom and Jane Morgan, is incorporated. In 1980, the land underlying the homes at The Vale is donated to the Community Service Inc. Land Trust.
1962: The Arthur Morgan School is founded at Celo Community by Arthur Morgan’s daughter-in-law, Elizabeth, and his son Ernest.
1964: Griscom Morgan becomes the president of Community Service Inc. upon the retirement of his father, Arthur Morgan.
1970: Jane Morgan becomes CSI’s director, holding this position until 1997.
1975: Death of Arthur Morgan.
- George L. Hicks, Experimental Americans: Celo and Utopian Community in the Twentieth Century (Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 2001).
- Thomas K. McCraw, Morgan vs. Lilienthal: The Feud within the TVA (Loyola University Press, 1970).
- Stephanie Mills, On Gandhi’s Path: Bob Swann’s Work for Peace and Community Economics (Gabriola Island, BC: New Society Publishers, 2010).
- Arthur E. Morgan, The Small Community (Yellow Springs OH: Community Services, 1942).
- Arthur E. Morgan, Dams and Other Disasters: A Century of the Army Corps of Engineers in Civil Works (Boston: Sargent, 1971).
- Bob Swann, “Yellow Springs, Ohio-Arthur Morgan,” Chapter Six in Peace, Civil Rights, and the Search for Community: An Autobiography Great Barrington, MA: Schumacher Society for a New Economics, 2001). Available at:
- Roy Talbert, Jr., FDR’s Utopian: Arthur Morgan of the TVA (University of Mississippi Press, 1987).