The odd story of the Spirit Fruit Society and the origins of Overbrook

The following article appeared in the Wellesley Townsman on January 22, 2015.

Frederick Reed  Source: Report of the Harvard College Class of 1881 (1906)

Frederick Reed
Source: Harvard College Class of 1881 Report (1906)

“We receive socialists, anarchists, believers in free love — in short, all classes of people are welcome to come here and enjoy the freedom of our colony at Overbrook.” — Frederick Reed (1909)

It’s without a doubt one of the most bizarre stories in Wellesley history. A former schoolteacher, compelled by the belief that destiny governs life and that society should not impose any restraints on individuals, establishes a colony in the northwest corner of town where followers can do whatever the spirits please.

A cult? In Wellesley? If that sounds unfathomable to you, just imagine what the town’s residents thought a century ago!

But before we get to that part of the story, let’s first examine how this colony came to be.

Our protagonist is Frederick Reed, a Harvard-trained educator who arrived in Wellesley in 1898 to construct his own country estate — which he named Overbrook — within a wooded section of what was part of the Stevens farm, north of the old Worcester Turnpike (now Route 9) near the Natick border. Having just relocated from Washington, D.C. to accept a position as headmaster at Boston Latin School, Reed really wasn’t all that different from any of the other city dwellers who chose Wellesley as a place to establish their summer retreats.

Well, maybe that was true only until 1904. By that year, he had adopted a new life philosophy, greatly influenced by the writings of Jacob Beilhart, the unofficial leader of the Spirit Fruit Society, a commune located outside Chicago that had already attracted a few hundred members. Simply put, the primary tenet of Spirit Fruitism was to reject materialism and promote the idea that individuals should do whatever the spirits dictate. For too long, society had imposed unwanted pressure at the expense of peace and happiness. If instead, one acted solely through the manifestations of the universal will — so long as each person could take responsibility for his or her actions, thereby recognizing the possible negative consequences that might result from these impulses — he or she would obtain eternal bliss.

Not surprisingly, these rather unorthodox views were severely frowned upon by Reed’s colleagues. The 45-year-old schoolteacher therefore “voluntarily” resigned from his position at Boston Latin and completely withdrew from society, taking up permanent residence at his Overbrook estate. Here he spent most of the time improving his home, working the land, tending his gardens, feeding and milking the farm animals, and just doing whatever pleased him.

But Frederick Reed and his wife weren’t alone for long, as random strangers who had heard about his acceptance of Beilhart’s philosophy started showing up uninvited at the 70-acre estate. Unable to turn them away — after all, the spirits almost always told him to let them in — a small commune began to form at Overbrook. And within a short time, its population grew to unreal levels: nearly one hundred visitors at its peak.

So who were these uninvited guests? Mostly they were businessmen from Boston looking for an escape from the city. (A stop on the Boston & Worcester trolley line approximately a quarter mile from the main house made this colony easily accessible.) Other members included adventurous housemaids and even a few young socialites from Boston who had abandoned their families to live at Overbrook. Often these men and women came alone, but some arrived with guests — although not necessarily their wives or husbands….

And what was life like at the Overbrook colony? Well, probably exactly what you would expect at any hedonistic community. People lounged around, slept a lot, read, had deep conversations, strolled among the scenic grounds, lay along the banks of what is now Reeds Pond, and, yes, engaged quite openly in sexual activity.

Of course, it was the sexual behavior that took place at Overbrook — which included homosexuality as the Spirit Fruit Society was among the vanguard of gay rights supporters — that put fear in the hearts of the conservative and strait-laced Wellesley citizenry. This was especially the case within the administration and faculty of Wellesley College, who were deeply afraid that their students would visit Overbrook and become corrupted by the “evils” perpetrated by the reportedly fanatical cult members.

Unfortunately for College officials, their worst fears came true as several students — including Reed’s niece — did indeed visit Overbrook after hearing rumors of what was going on there.

This sparked a worldwide media frenzy. Newspapers from as far away as New Zealand wrote about the “Home of Spontaneous Love” and the potential corruption of the entire College’s student body.

Despite all that negative attention — as well as an investigation by Wellesley Police Chief Harry Kingsbury — the Overbrook colony remained open.

In 1914, however, Reed had a second spiritual awakening — this one on the opposite side of the spectrum — that would result in the closure of Overbrook. Quite simply, the colony’s leader realized, as he would explain years later, that “reform, especially social reform, is not to be brought about through withdrawing one’s self from society or suffering the martyrdom of ostracism, forced or voluntary. Rather it is secured through remaining among one’s fellows and working from the inside.”

With that newfound mindset, Frederick Reed closed the doors to his home and moved to Southern California, where he would soon re-enter academia and even assist in the volunteer efforts associated with World War I.

As for the Overbrook estate, concurrent with his relocation to the West Coast, Reed subdivided his property and laid out a number of streets that he named after some of its natural features, including Woodside, Edgemoor, Highledge, and Overbrook. (The one exception: Upson Road, a reference to his wife’s maiden name.) But the subdivision never really blossomed, as only a handful of small cottages and bungalows were constructed there over the next several decades.

Could that have been because the area was too distant from the center of the town? Or perhaps there were better lots available elsewhere? Well, sure. But maybe the real reason was that the memory of Frederick Reed and the Spirit Fruit Society was far too fresh in everyone’s minds and that a long enough period of time needed to elapse before the aura connected with the property could finally disappear.

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