logo Click BACK to return to basecamp
Lost Teachers
Search Info
White beveled edge

Neda Dispatch

Meet Neda

Neda Archive

New Harmony, Indiana

Cool Links
The Robert Owen Museum

Utopian Communities 1800-1890



Intellectuals and Ice Cream in the Perfect Society

An orange house and some mint chip ice cream... what more could I ask for?
What would your perfect society look like? Stop and think about it. If you had some land and wanted to make a town of your own, what would it be like? Would it look like New Harmony, Indiana? Oh yes, I thought to myself, as we drove into New Harmony and I saw the symbol of my ideal world. There it was, hidden from a distance but impossible to miss: an all-orange house! I don't mean any sort of dull or faded orange either. This house was just screaming orange, brighter than those pumpkin costumes you may have seen on Halloween. In fact the house did have a pumpkin feel to it as a pair of very vividly painted green wicker chairs nicely complemented the orange out front. In my town, bright colors would be everywhere and each street would be a rainbow of fun. But what would my town-or your perfect town -- feel like? Sure, they might live in pumpkin houses, but what would the people believe in? And what values would be important to them?

What would Utopia be like? The next question might be, what does Utopia mean? Well, just what we have been talking about-utopia is the idea of living in a community of seemingly perfect conditions.


Never too Old-Always on the lookout for free food, Irene and I went trick-or-treating on Halloween!

In the 1800s, New Harmony took a shot at being a utopia. The town was actually the site of two experimental societies, each based on quite different ideas. The first was based on religion and was started by a group called the Harmonists under the leadership of George Rapp. The Harmonists had left Germany in 1804 and originally settled in Pennsylvania. They believed that they should practice celibacy and live communally while they waited for the second coming of Christ, which they thought was close at hand. Looking to separate themselves from the distractions of urban life, they moved to the banks of the Wabash River in 1814 and founded the town of Harmonie, Indiana. Working hard, they were able to make a good living for themselves making products that were shipped on the river and sold all over the country and world.

The quaint town of New Harmony
In 1824, the Harmonists were feeling a bit restless and wanted to get back to their former colony in Pennsylvania. So they sold their land to a man named Robert Owen and moved away. Owen was the owner of a cotton mill in Scotland and the founder of the second communal experiment here: this one based on social reform and education. Owen already had started putting some of his ideas into place back at his mill with such reforms as shorter working hours and restrictions on child labor. He believed that children should be surrounded by books and music and flowers in order to grow into adults of good character. Not such a bad idea, if you ask me.

Owen was excited by the opportunity to have an area to test out his ideas for a new social system based on equality and intellectualism. Owen reorganized the little community and changed its name from Harmonie to the present-day New Harmony. To help build his new utopia Owen partnered up with William Maclure, a businessman with many connections to scientists and educators. Maclure brought a group of these people to help create New Harmony in what is now called the Boatload of Knowledge.

If you were going to take a boatful of people to start your perfect community, whom would you bring? The New Harmony group included men and women of great intellect, from teachers to geologists.

Owen succeeded in bringing great minds to his new community as one thousand settlers responded to his appeal. But New Harmony itself did not grow to be the ideal community that he envisioned. Most of the settlers argued about the government and were unable to complete even the most basic tasks needed to run a community. Owen's experiment fell apart after two years.

Neda relaxes after her search for harmony in the labyrinth
Today there are still reminders in New Harmony of both of these communal societies and the values on which they were founded. One of the places I was looking forward to visiting was the Labyrinth. During the Harmonist era there was a temple and garden maze that was considered a place to relax after a long day of work. Now there are two labyrinths-one made of hedges and one sketched onto a slab of polished granite. It is a single path labyrinth, meaning there are no trick turns or dead ends. There is just one path you follow from beginning to end, representing patterns and order that are all around us. The journey through the labyrinth may symbolize life's path or the search for God and harmony. It is a time to meditate and relax. I read somewhere that it is recommended to walk barefoot to get the most out of the experience. I actually think this suggestion was intended for the smooth granite maze, but I decided that, despite the rough gravel path, it would work well in the hedges as well. I enjoy walking barefoot and know that it makes me more aware of my surroundings than when shoes are involved. With the soles of my feet exposed, my steps are more deliberate, which I figure is right in line with the whole idea of the labyrinth. Although I did not discover the meaning of life, the walk was still quite enjoyable.

The Roofless Church
Another interesting site in New Harmony is the Roofless Church. Built about 40 years ago, it is not a remnant of the utopian or harmonist societies, but is based on ideas of religious freedom. The church is an open-air plaza with places to sit and meditate and worship. It is unlike any other church I have been in. It is founded on the thought that only one roof-the sky-can embrace all of humanity.

After leaving the church, Irene and I went downtown and admired how quaint the whole area is. New Harmony's website boasts that there are no malls, no fast food chains, no traffic jams, and no multiplex movie theaters around. Yes, the town did have a great peaceful feel to it.

Okay, wait... stop the story. "This can not be Utopia unless there is ice cream," I declare. Luckily, an ice cream parlor was in plain view and Irene and I started salivating in the fabulous 80 degree November weather. When I saw the sign on the door that the shop was closed on Wednesdays, I was quite upset. What kind of ideal society was this? Before I could become too outraged, Irene got directions to another ice cream place which fortunately was open for business. I got a scoop of mint chocolate chip-my favorite.

We had found examples of the religious life. We had found ice cream. Now Irene and I walked around looking for examples of the Owen-Maclure experiment. Since education was seen as a way to correct social problems, it was an important foundation of the New Harmony utopia. Maclure was especially intent on providing instruction for the working class and thus founded the Workingmen's Institute. It is still a place of learning as it now houses a museum, art gallery and the oldest library in Indiana.

The Workingmen's Institute-still a place to learn!
The effects of the Owen experiment have long outlived its short official existence. New Harmony became known as an intellectual hot spot and was frequently visited by artists, explorers, scientists and scholars from around the world. For example, New Harmony attracted such cool activists as Frances Wright, a women's rights advocate and the first American woman to speak publicly against slavery.

New Harmony was the site of the first kindergarten, the first trade school, the first free library, first women's club and the first community-supported public school in the United States.

New Harmony still prides itself on its community experiments and its attempts at Utopia. It is a little town whose citizens have had a big impact on our country in such fields as architecture, public education and women's suffrage. The experiments may have "failed" but New Harmony lives on! And if they keep building bright orange houses and serving good ice cream, I predict a great future is in store.


Please email me at: neda@ustrek.org


Links to Other Dispatches

Rebecca - Public school's best friend
Teddy - Those radical, shakin' Quakers!
Daphne - Standing up for the mentally ill
Rebecca - A simple walk 'round Walden Pond
Teddy - Intellectuals plow into a farming commune
Kevin - Class struggle takes center stage
Neda - Looking for Utopia - and mint chocolate chip ice cream
MAD - Homeless shouldn't mean hopeless