Nestled in the foothills of the Allegheny Mountains near Basye in Shenandoah Co. is a little-known community called “Bird Haven.” Amateur ornithologists as well as historians might be interested in Bird Haven.
Situated in the George Washington National Forest near the Alum Springs Hotel, the community became known as a bird sanctuary and as the home of an early American experiment in communal living called “The Shenandoah Community Workers.”
According to a 1927 article in “Nature Magazine,” the region had been occupied since the 1600s by a group of Pennsylvania Dutch. For years, they struggled unsuccessfully to farm. In the early 1900s, the farmers, encouraged by a wealthy local female landowner, put farming aside and pooled their skills to find an alternative use for the “bull” or yellow pines that grew in the area.
“For three hundred years running at cross purposes, Nature had brought only poverty,” the article explains. “Now they would adapt themselves to her. And in the carrying out of that idea, the organization of the Shenandoah Community Workers was begun.”
The men built a woodworking shop and began to carve natural products from the abundant pine including nature toys, bird houses and feeders, bowls and trays. Production later expanded to include furniture, books and fireplace equipment. Eventually, women produced rugs, quilts and jams. They marketed their products by advertising in national magazines, through mailings and by developing a product catalogue. The community shared the income.
The concept of communal work exemplified by The Shenandoah Community Workers soon caught the attention of philanthropists and craftsmen around the country. Workers from outside the area came to Basye to work. In the late 1920s, as many as 60 people lived in the community.
Several well-known organizations and artists including the Audubon Society offered pictures and designs for use as patterns for puzzles, wooden animals or games. Philadelphia manufacturer William Bernard Clark, grandson of the unnamed “wealthy woman” who helped start the movement, became the community’s most ardent benefactor. In the early 1920s, he bought several hundred acres of land in the area, built a large Victorian house for his personal use, remodeled other buildings for workshops, and helped manage and finance the business.
The enterprise thrived as a mail-order business. Relatively unknown in the immediate area, the workers found their best markets in large cities such as Chicago, Washington, D.C., and Philadelphia. Eventually the volume of mail prompted the establishment of a small post office, a substation of the Mount Jackson Post Office.
To create space for the post office, also used by local residents, the Workers built an extension to the original workshop. With this addition, buildings in the community included the original Display House with the workshop on the second and third floors, five houses, several barns, a lathing house, a blacksmith shop, a puzzle house, the toy or furniture shop and a communal well. Many of these buildings still exist.
According to a former secretary, the Shenadoah Community Workers and Clark continued to operate the cooperative until the 1940s, when production stopped sometime during World War II.
Sometime after 2000, John Dart, a construction worker, found piles of crafts, books, machinery and a display case abandoned in the Display House. John contacted his mother, a volunteer at Plains District Memorial Museum, and with the approval of the owner of the property, donated items that are now on display.
Bird Haven’s current owner is the granddaughter of a couple who once operated the Alum Springs Hotel. According to property manager Richard Green, plans for the 500-acre farm include the development of a “symbiotically optimized sustainable” organic farm and market. This means that every aspect of the farm will be used in some way to feed, fertilize or produce crops, poultry and livestock or to maintain the buildings and land itself. Restoration of the existing buildings is underway for farm use including a market and classrooms for a future “hands- on” educational program that will be open to the public.