In the early 1900s, about 50 Russian-Jewish immigrants came South to share land in eastern Aiken County as an agricultural commune.
The community, known as Happyville, lasted only about three years from 1905 to 1908, and little remains except some decaying buildings and a dam on about 2,200 acres in Montmorenci where the settlers planted crops, harvested the land’s timber and dammed a creek to power a cotton gin.
But the story, largely forgotten, of the commune's residents' working together to make better lives for their families in a new place – a world away from the land they knew - lives on in a video filmmaker Joel Tauber produced for his multimedia exhibit “The Sharing Project.”
Tauber attended a closing reception Sunday afternoon and, before it began, talked about his work and the history and the state of sharing in America today.
Tauber starting thinking about sharing after his sons, Zeke and Ozzie, were born.
“In addition to being a professor, I'm also a father. And as a dad living here in America, I quickly realized that I was supposed to teach my kids to share,” said Tauber, an associate professor who teachers filmmaking and video art in the art department at Wake Forest University in Winston-Salem, North Carolina.
“I started thinking about sharing,” he continued, “and I was like, wait a second, this is actually a much more complicated and confusing task than I originally thought because our country, as wonderful as it is, perhaps we've become in many ways a bit of a selfish culture. If we're going to be teaching our kids to share and we really seem to value that - we do it in kindergarten - at what point, do we start teaching the opposite, and are we being consistent as a culture? I'm not sure that we are.”
To try to learn how American has become less sharing and more selfish, Tauber interviewed philosophers, psychologists, historians, anthropologists and experts in different fields from all over the country but still felt something was missing.
“I started to think about how there was a time in this country - 100 years ago, 200 years ago and a resurgence in the '60s - when there were socialist experiments,” Tauber said. “You look at the Great Deal. There was a lot more sharing happening. It wasn't a bad word. It was part of our culture.”
Tauber said he stumbled across an index of communes and thought talking to people who lived or had lived in a commune might give him a new perspective.
That's when Happyville became part of Tauber's quest to understand what had happened to sharing in America.
“I came across Happyville, and it really grabbed me,” Tauber said. “I'm a Jewish guy, and I had just moved from Los Angeles to North Carolina. It was the closest Jewish commune to me, and it was now gone and mostly forgotten.
“That seemed to be a poetic parallel or history to where we are now. We had forgotten about these socialist pasts, and the Jewish community that existed closest to where I was was gone.”
Tauber found an article about Happyville and, through a story in the Aiken Standard, he located a descendant of a commune resident and also Aiken resident Doris Baumgarten, a docent at the museum.
With Baumgarten's help, he found the location of Happyville in Montmorenci.
“No one really knew where it was,” Tauber said. “I started exploring the site. Things are so beautiful here. I love how everything grows, how everything is so lush.”
From his exploration of the property, an idea started to germinate, Tauber said, that is a theme in all of his creative work: we're all connected to each other, and we're all connected to the land.
“You really see that in the landscape here,” he said. “Everything is growing and decomposing and becoming something else. The buildings that were there – I'm almost positive they lived there - are going into he ground. I was standing on the dam they built – for sure. Zeke and I were digging there with special tools.”
Tauber said the lesson of sharing from Happyville comes from an attempt to reconnect with the land and what inspired the people who tried a social experiment in sharing in Aiken County more than 100 years ago.
“These 50 Russian Jews who didn't speak English, who didn't even know how to farm but learned how to do it really well - somehow I wanted to let those efforts inspire me and Zeke,” Tauber said. “I wanted people to contemplate what was once here and what was once part of our past and what we've forgotten perhaps. Then, I wanted to invite people to be active in that, to bring food, to offer it to other people, to share, to try to think about what that might mean today”.
In keeping with the exhibit's theme, visitors brought canned goods to the reception to share with the hungry in the community.
Lauren Virgo, the collections manager for the Aiken County Historical Museum, said the exhibit featuring Happyville, an agricultural community, and the food drive were a perfect fit.
“It seemed natural to us to invite people to bring canned items to be a part of the exhibit, to feel like they were contributing to it,” she said. “We'll ask the folks here today to take those canned goods with them and disburse them to people in need, and anything that remains, the museum will disburse to a nonprofit in the region.”
Tauber said “The Sharing Project” is about his “raising questions and not pretending to have all of the answers.”
“I think about art as a vehicle to create conversations and, potentially and hopefully, to create a bit of change,” he said. “In some ways, this gathering a food or this presentation becomes a portrait of where we are in a particular place and a particular moment. So what are we going to do? I think we need to have more conversations about this and what do we can do bout it. I'm trying to raise conversations in lots of different kinds of ways.”
“The Sharing Project” installation premiered in Berlin and traveled to Cal State Long Beach in California and Appalachian State University in North Carolina before coming to Aiken.
In addition to the exhibit, Tauber is working on a 30-minute movie that includes the Happyville story. It's working title is “To Share.”
“Happyville is a huge part of the film,” Tauber said. “It's a celebration of that landscape and a contemplation of sharing.”