Utopia For Hire: New Harmony, Indiana
ANNETTE ON THE ROAD A Town in the Midwest That Hosts Dreams of a Perfect World, and Settles for What it Can Get (Psst . . . One of these stories is available to Free Readers)
Philadelphia’s intellectual elite was outraged. Two rich Brits had filched the city's top scientists, loaded them on a barge they called “A Boatload of Knowledge”, and spirited them off to a heavily forested and remote corner of the West, near where Indiana, Illinois, and Kentucky meet.
There, the two men would install the scientists in a ready-made town they had purchased. This town, Harmonie (Harmony), had been built almost ten years earlier by a German religious cult, the Harmonists, who had moved to the frontier from Pennsylvania. Now the Harmonists were moving back, and they had a town to sell.
You Can’t Make This Stuff Up.
It’s Harmony, So Long As You Do As You’re Told
I'm on the road, and learning fast. I’m going to do a quick riff. The Harmonists were pretty typical of cults, then (in the early 19th century), and now. They were waiting for Jesus’s imminent return to Earth. Any day now, they said, he’d be back, and then they’d have a thousand years of bliss. To prepare, they embraced simple living and equality for everyone. Everyone, that is, except for their dictatorial leader, George Rapp. Rapp was more equal than everyone else. He built himself a massive two-story mansion.
Harmonist families, on the other hand, each got an IKEA Schmuckenhousen pre-fab home which they had to assemble from ready-made parts.
Single? You lived in communal boardinghouses. Single and a woman? You made the communal meals, and did the laundry.
The Harmonists had sworn off sex. That's because there would be no reason for more children after Christ’s return (any day now!), and because they wanted to be “pure” for his arrival, Instead, they poured all their energies into work, producing everything from wine to lemons (in greenhouses).
After nearly 10 years, though, Jesus had not yet returned, and George Rapp had realized that Harmonie was a bit too remote from sinful people. That’s because it was sinners who bought the Harmonists’ wine. It cost a lot to ship to the East Coast from Indiana by riverboat.
Rapp, in a blinding bit of prophecy, realized that the Harmonists would make a lot more money if they moved back to Pennsylvania. About this time, he also made a typical cult leader mistake of giving his followers TMI. He predicted that Jesus would return, not just sometime very soon, but on September 15, 1829.
The date came. The date went. No Jesus.
So, Rupp sold the entire town of Harmonie and all its land to Scotsman William Maclure and Welshman Robert Owen for four times what the Harmonists had paid for it. He and his surprisingly loyal flock moved back to Pennsylvania where they started a new town called Economy. Economy? Makes sense, since this seems to be what interested Rapp most. Especially his own.
You may be surprised to learn that the community continued after that, all the way until 1906. You may not be surprised to learn that, under Rapp’s dictatorial leadership, people who broke out from his clutches often described their lives under his rule as “slavery”, and sued him for a share of the loot. If the word “cult” had been available to them, they would have used it.
Honestly, there were lots of groups like the Harmonists hanging around America in the 19th century, and some of them are still with us. Millenialism (the belief that Christ will return in believers’ lifetimes, and will bring a thousand-year reign of peace to Earth) was very popular. It still is.
But my big subject today isn’t the hard to spell millenialism, or religion. It’s the Town Formerly Known as Harmonie, which was now called New Harmony by its British owners.
Annette and Hoosen Arrive in New Harmony
Yes, Nonnies, we are on the road! I even sent you an extra Nonnie post yesterday, in case you missed it. 😀
“This looks less dilapidated than most Midwestern towns,” said Hoosen as we drove through New Harmony, Indiana. We had already passed the usual gas station, liquor store (Ice Cold Beer!) and scary dollar store, with its inedible food and cheap crap from China, all marking small towns across America in 2022 from Maine to California. That’s what happens when you outsource the national economy based on utopian beliefs. But I digress.
New Harmony looks like a chocolate box village, as Brits say, a pretty small town whose picture would look nice on a box of chocolates . . . OK, maybe this reference makes no sense to anyone not British, but you get my drift.
We soon came upon street after street of impressive restored old houses.
We started with lunch at the one local eatery that was open for lunch and offered fresh food that wasn’t just BIG PORTIONS. (Brits: That’s American code for Crappy Food, and Lots of It. I think a book could be written about American history called Portion Obsession.)
I asked the lovely tatted/pierced girl behind the counter, why live in New Harmony? What’s the draw?
“It’s utopia!” she said cheerfully, without apparent irony.
Utopia. The name given to a perfect society by Sir Thomas More in his book of that name in 1516.
“Come on. No, it’s not.” I said. “Utopias never last. Everyone falls out with each other. They do here, too. Admit it.”
She smiled in the way of someone who needs to keep up the story so the tourists will keep buying sandwiches and salads and quiches.
Honestly, I kept thinking of The Prisoner, the weird 1960s TV show about a decorative but weird little village, where everyone is equal and nobody is, where a former secret agent is trapped. They traveled around in golf carts.
Oh, look! There are lots of golf carts in New Harmony. You can even hire one for an hour, or a day, at the Visitor Center. And look! There are people painting at easels everywhere in the picturesque downtown. Artists. Artists everywhere. It’s The Prisoner! Aieeeeeee!
The downtown is lovely, but it’s solidly late Victorian, turn of the century. The prosperity that built downtown was a mystery to me, although I did hear the word “factory” and resolved to look up New Harmony in Wikipedia later.
But we were here for a much older story. A story that started, in fact, in Scotland.
Note to Free Readers:
Hope you enjoyed this intro to New Harmony! Look, I don't want to bump you, and you don't want to leave. I mean, you have a choice: You can flounce off, going “How very dare you ask for a modest sum to read even more great work from a PhDed historian who wants to share her education. and earns less than she would flipping burgers.” But, c'mon, don’t. Instead, become a Nonnie at Non-Boring History with a paid subscription. Join our definitely-not-a-cult led by a seriously-non-rich historian, because real historians are seldom rich, and make lousy cult leaders. It's less than $5 a MONTH to stay, and definitely better value than a bad coffee served by a grumpy hipster. Here's a free trial week…Tempt…Tempt…