If you’ve ever taken a drive south along I-94, you might remember seeing a roadside sign in Sturtevant - near Racine - that advertised the "University of Lawsonomy." Or you might have seen the painted sign on a barn that says “Study Natural Law.”
The "law" in question is Lawsonomy: a utopian movement that began in 1929 by Alfred Lawson, a British immigrant who, before he started the eponymous Lawsonomy, founded two Wisconsin airplane manufacturers, and is credited as the inventor of the first passenger airliner.
But Lawson also had ideas about things other than aviation. Lawsonomy advocated for vegetarianism, its own brand of physics, and economic reform. During the Great Depression it had thousands of followers, but its popularity diminished after World War II as the economy recovered. In 1943 Lawson started a university in Des Moines and adapted his message to include science and religion. The school officially closed in 1952. But there were still adherents to the philosophy - including the late Merle Hayden, the man behind the Sturtevant sign.
Milwaukee area filmmakers Ryan Sarnowski and Susan Kerns have brought Lawsonomy’s and Hayden’s stories to the screen in a new documentary. Using archival photos, films, and audio tapes collected by Hayden, Manlife tells the story of Alfred Lawson's attempts to make history and Hayden’s unrelenting quest to better humanity through Lawson's teachings.
Sarnowski says that the documentary stemmed from the first time he truly noticed the sign along I-94 when he was pulled over by the State Highway patrol in front of the Lawsonomy farm.
"I think it was having to pause and really start to contemplate what that place was, who would be living out there, that really piqued my curiosity and led me on a pursuit to find those answers - and that led us to Merle Hayden."
After connecting with and being "lectured" by Hayden for over four hours on an alternative view of American history through Lawsonomy, Sarnowski thought, "we probably should get a camera, I think we have a story."
Although Hayden is not the last Lawsonomist, Kerns notes that he was likely the only remaining person that was really devoting his life to actively trying to involve new people in the organization - a mission he held since he was 18 years old.
"The reason we felt comfortable sort of talking about Merle as the last crusader was because he really has carried the torch of this organization," she says.
"He definitely never faltered or never wavered," adds Sarnowski. "In a way it's stubborn, there's a negative to that, but in a way it's admirable to have such a dedicated belief."
Sarnowski and Kerns spent eight years chronicling Hayden, his devotion to Lawsonomy, and his work in preserving its textual and visual materials. While it was overwhelming to be presented with so much material as a filmmaker, Sarnowski says his goal was to tell the story in an engaging and coherent fashion.
Having spent so much time with Hayden, Kerns says she admired his lifelong dedication and the fact that money was never a driving force in his or other Lawsonians' lives. Their primary goal was to better humanity for future generations, despite human behavior and history repeating itself.
"He continued to see things play out in American politics and American history and that was very frustrating to him because he could see the cycles and the patterns," Kerns explains. "I don't want to speak for him, but I do think that he sort of felt like we're farther away from it now than maybe we used to be."
Manlife will continue to spread the history and message of Lawsonomy along with Hayden's life story. Just last month Merle Hayden passed away at age 96, and this summer will be the first Experimental Aircraft Association (EAA)’s annual Oshkosh air show in four decades where he will not be in attendance to talk about Lawsonomy.
However Hayden himself will be celebrated on July 24th with a screening of Manlife at the EAA Airshow. Sarnowski says that Hayden would have been so pleased to see people watch the documentary at an annual event that was so important to him.
As the film is starting to be seen by audiences across the Midwest, Sarnowski hopes "that this film, while it may not spark a resurgence in Lawsonian religion or Lawsonomy, that it will just kind of get people to get back to that spirit of wonder and curiosity and to try to embrace things more, even if they don't fall fully in line with your beliefs."
To find out more about Manlife you can also find an article about the film by our film contributor Duane Dudek in next month’s Milwaukee Magazine.