New Harmony, Indiana: Utopia In The Wilderness
Visitors come to New Harmony, Indiana from all over the world to learn about the utopia inspired by George Rapp.
Although we think of communes as a product of the free-spirited 1960s, Indiana was the home of two ambitious, though short-lived experiments in communal living much earlier. Few places in the Midwest can claim such a distinctive history.
It was 1814 when Father George Rapp and his society settled what is now known as New Harmony, on the banks of the Wabash River. Rapp was a Lutheran dissenter from Pennsylvania. He and his industrious followers built 150 sturdy structures their very first year in Indiana. In their day, the Harmonists were nearly as famous as the Shakers. Their communal dormitories were certainly unlike anything else in the backwoods and no doubt raised a few eyebrows.
Skilled craftsmen and good farmers contributed to the economic success of the Harmonists. Over ten years time, they carved a flourishing self-sufficient community out of the wilderness. The Harmonists were especially recognized for their frugality and productivity. In fact, their hard work brought them great wealth, but the dream was not to last.
In 1824 the Harmonists and George Rapp sold the entire town, lock, stock, and barrel as the saying goes, to a Welsh-born social reformer named Robert Owen. History tells us Rapp believed he could rekindle the spirit of his followers if they moved and started another town.
The new owner, Robert Owen, saw himself rather as a prophet of a new society based on common property. Under Owen's leadership, scientists, educators, and scholars gathered in New Harmony to think deep thoughts. The colony established the first kindergarten in the United States, the first trade school, and the first free public school system. This second group contributed much of the cultural and intellectual aspects of New Harmony.
Today, the visitor to New Harmony can experience the legacy left by these two unique groups of people. Restoration efforts began in earnest in 1960 and continue today. Great care has been taken to restore buildings and grounds to their original state. Still a rural, small town, New Harmony's historic properties are not fenced or set off from the town, but interspersed among homes and businesses.
Most people begin their tour of New Harmony with a stop at The Atheneum, which serves as a Visitors' Center. Guided tours begin there. With a visitor's guide and map, you can also walk around town at your own pace in a self-guided tour.
The Atheneum, built in 1979, is in striking contrast to most of this village. The ultra-modern building rises from a meadow near the riverbank and has garnered awards for its architectural design. The shining white structure contains exhibit areas, conference facilities, and a display of books and publications about New Harmony, as well as a scale model of the 1824 town. Be sure you watch the orientation film for good background information.
One of my favorite places in New Harmony is the Roofless Church. At first, you wouldn't recognize this structure as a house of worship, at least not as we typically know one. This Interdenominational church commemorates New Harmony's religious heritage. The concept of rooflessness unites earth and sky, yet the rectangular brick walls recall the egalitarian spirit of the Harmonists. In the center is a sculpture called "Descent of the Holy Spirit." There's a definite feeling of serenity about the roofless church, as you ponder the silence, broken only by the soothing sound of birds. It's easy to understand how people find solace there.
About two blocks down Main Street from the Roofless Church is Dormitory number 2. The dormitory, dating from 1822, is a fine example of Harmonist architecture. Put to use by both Harmonists and Owenites, it was first living accommodations for single people, then later the location of a school. Several private residences are available for touring, including the David Lenz House, the Salomon Wolf House, and the John Beal House.
The Harmonist Cemetery has no markers, in keeping with their practice of complete equality. It's the site of approximate 230 burials and is also the site of two Woodland Indian Burial Mounds.
New Harmony is home to two labyrinths, something definitely not found in most small Indiana towns! One, a shrubbery maze inspired by the Harmonists' original one, lies south of town. The maze is meant to represent the twists and turns and choices that confront each of us in our passage through life. The other is a faithful re-creation of the floor labyrinth at Chartres Cathedral outside Paris.
When you're ready for a break from history, head to the Red Geranium restaurant, one of the most popular eateries in the region. Try one of their homemade, oven-fresh bakery specialties, including Shaker lemon pie. Both this restaurant and the New Harmony Inn were built by Jane Blaffer Owen, wife of an Owen descendant.
Allow a full day to explore New Harmony and its many buildings. If you want to learn more about these early experiments in Utopian living, the Red Geranium Bookstore on Church Street has a selection. The village is located in southwestern Indiana at the intersection of Indiana Highway 66 and 69.