When Melissa Flower, a theater director, visited New Harmony, Indiana, for the first time earlier this year, she thought she’d stepped through the looking glass. “I felt like I was in Alice in Wonderland,” she says. “When people, including me, come here, they talk about it like it’s a magical place.”
The small town, located near Indiana’s southernmost tip, is not unlike many American towns. It has a main street lined with historic brick buildings, some painted in lively colors like San Francisco’s Victorians. There are trees and flowers everywhere, and plaques reminding you that it’s a historic site. And then there’s the hedge labyrinth and roofless church—hints that this isn’t just any ordinary rural community. New Harmony is a hotbed for utopians.
From the early 19th century until today, New Harmony has attracted people who go against society’s grain. First, religious separatists who dedicated their lives to God and preparations for the second coming of Christ, then secular reformers who believed a society based on equality and intellectual pursuits would lead to a better world for everyone. While these experimental communities failed, some of their utopian philosophies are still very much alive among New Harmony’s present-day artistic patrons.
But like many small towns, New Harmony is also experiencing depopulation. Flower came to the community not as a tourist, but to scout the area with the goal of recruiting performing artists to live and work there. The question remains: Can New Harmony thrive while retaining a connection to its utopian roots?
New Harmony’s story begins in Germany, with a religious group called the Harmony Society, or the Rappites. Led by Johann Georg Rapp, the Harmonists believed that the second coming of Christ would occur during their lifetimes. They practiced a branch of Christianity known as perfectionism—the same belief system that inspired the Oneida Community of John Humphrey Noyes—and aspired to lead a morally upstanding, sin-free life that would eventually grant them entry to Christ’s kingdom.
“The religious separatists who want to create a more perfect society, led by a charismatic leader, that’s the Rappites,” says Susannah Koerber, chief curator and research officer of the Indiana State Museum and Historic Sites.
Seeking freedom from religious persecution in Lutheran Germany, the Harmonists arrived in Pennsylvania in 1803. They bought 3,000 acres of land outside of Pittsburgh and named their colony Harmony. In 1805, they established the Harmony Society by signing articles of association that formally established their group in the U.S. and outlined the community’s rules, like holding all property in common and guaranteeing a lifetime of care to members.
By 1814, the Harmonists grew to 700 members and had constructed 130 buildings, including factories, an inn, a tannery, a brewery, schools, a labyrinth, houses, and more. They were hardworking, industrious, and skilled in manufacturing, construction, and agriculture. Their textiles and woolens were highly sought-after goods. The Harmonists were also economically successful as a group.
“Even though the Rappites are separating themselves in society, they’re eager to learn new technology, new production techniques,” Koerber explains. “They’re interested in becoming self-sufficient, prosperous communities.”
While the Harmonists’ village was successful, outsiders were suspicious, so Rapp decided to relocate his group farther west—to 3,500 acres in southern Indiana alongside the Wabash River—where he had room to grow and his followers could live without hostile neighbors.
Rapp methodically planned this village, which he named “New Harmony.” First, he sent a small group of highly skilled farmers and craftsmen to establish crops, lay the grid for the village, and construct buildings. The land was mostly swamp, which they drained after many of the initial settlers died from malaria. The community members replaced their first log cabins with timber-framed brick buildings. In 1815, the remaining Pennsylvania Harmonists moved to New Harmony. By 1819, the community had expanded to 20,000 acres, was composed of over 150 buildings, and had earned money from its wool carding and spinning factory, brewery, distillery, vineyards, and winery. They constructed homes for families and a Community House dormitory for young single people. They also built a hedge labyrinth—as they did in all three of their villages in the U.S.—to symbolize their difficult spiritual journey.
“They milled all the wood and formed all the bricks—they were just so forward thinking,” says Meagan Patterson, a New Harmony resident and site manager for the Indiana State Museum and Historic Sites. “The quality of their work is why these buildings are still standing.”
But the Harmonists still ran into problems with their neighbors. Meanwhile, they were far away from both markets for their goods and like-minded groups, including other German immigrants and religious separatists. (The Harmonists were in conversation with other groups, like the Shakers, and even used the Shakers’ formula for brick wash on their buildings in New Harmony.) Rapp had another prophecy related to the second coming of Christ and decided to move back to Pennsylvania in 1824—just 21 years after arriving in Indiana—for another fresh start.
The Indiana village was no longer needed. The Harmonists decided to cash out.
A ‘BOATLOAD OF KNOWLEDGE’ ARRIVES
In 1825, Rapp sold the entire town of New Harmony to Robert Owen, a Scottish utopian socialist and industrialist, and William Maclure, a geologist and philanthropist. Along the banks of the Wabash River, they decided to enact a grand social experiment.
Owen had been campaigning around the United Kingdom for social reforms that included better conditions for workers, limits on child labor, fair pay, and universal education for people of all ages and social classes. But he struggled to convince politicians and fellow factory owners to adopt his worldview.
“When I think of the Owenites, I think of Charles Dickens,” Koerber says. “All the bleakness of Dickens and the horrible conditions and the children. The Owenites see rapid industrialization and are saying, ‘This is not right, this is not how people should live and we’re going to build a society where labor is fairly compensated, where no one is going without, and everyone has a clear purpose.’ They’re educated, well fed, and housed. They’re trying to combat the evils of industrialization.”
New Harmony under the Rappites was about religious servitude and faith; under the Owenites, the town worshipped knowledge and equality. While both the Rappites and Owenites pursued more intentional, idealized lives, they went about it in completely different ways. The Rappites believed they needed to live perfectly in order to achieve salvation, and that it needed to be done outside of mainstream society, which was filled with irredeemable immorality. The Owenites wanted to change society, but they needed to form radical communities to demonstrate the new world they envisioned.
“Their idea is, society is changing so fast, so how do we adapt? How can we create a model that does not seem so heartless, that does not just accept these poor conditions so everyone can live a better life and create a better society for all people?” Koerber says.
Maclure and Owen needed to recruit members for their new “Community of Equality,” and they opened it to anyone who wanted to join. By April of 1825, the town had between 700 and 800 residents. To jumpstart New Harmony’s intellectual heart, Maclure organized something called “The Boatload of Knowledge.” On a ship named the Philanthropist, a group of European and American geologists, entomologists, naturalists, zoologists, artists, and teachers took the month-long journey down the Ohio River from Pittsburgh to New Harmony. They arrived in January 1826.
While Owen and Maclure had grand visions for a society based on communalism, kindness, education, and equality, the community’s day-to-day life was a mess. Unlike the Rappites, with their meticulous town planning and wide array of practical skills, the Owenites weren’t able to sustain themselves. The group argued about divisions of labor, disputes about money arose, and personal conflicts erupted. Housing and food ran short.
“Robert Owen is giving all these speeches to ‘come join us,” Koerber says. “They get a pretty motley crew, and the Boatload of Knowledge, but they’re not going to be able to plant the crops.”
In 1827, Owen formally dissolved his experiment. But “the influence of New Harmony doesn’t go away just because the utopian society doesn’t work out,” Koerber says.
Many of the scientists Maclure enticed to New Harmony remained and continued to conduct their research. Though Maclure departed New Harmony in 1827 due to health issues, he created a trust that eventually established the Working Men’s Institute, a library and education center for anyone, but especially laborers, to learn about the sciences, nature, and history.
Owen’s children settled in New Harmony and established their careers there. Robert Dale Owen became a politician and advocated for universal education, women’s suffrage, and abolitionism at the state level. He also became a congressional representative and introduced the bill that established the Smithsonian Institution. David Dale Owen conducted some of the first geological surveys of Indiana. (He even picked the red sandstone for the Smithsonian’s building in Washington, D.C.) Jane Dale Owen established girls’ schools. Richard Dale Owen become a science professor at the University of Indiana and at Purdue.
New Harmony’s reputation for knowledge, learning, and free thinking held through the 19th century, but the town remained relatively small. (The population grew to 1,200 during the time of the Owenites, declined, then rose to around 1,400 in the 1940s when oil was discovered nearby.) The Owenite influence began to wane around the time of the Civil War, but people connected to the Owen family and New Harmony’s mission kept the town going.
In the early 20th century, Mary Emily Fauntleroy, a descendant of the man who married Jane Dale Owen, became one of the leading historic preservationists for the town and ushered in a renaissance, buying and renovating many buildings. She then advocated for the state of Indiana to become the steward of those buildings, which it did for some of the most notable structures, like a “community house” the Harmonists built.
Then, in the 1950s, Jane Blaffer Owen—a Houston-based arts patron, activist, and philanthropist who married a descendant of Robert Owen—set New Harmony on its current trajectory.
“She embraced it with a passion,” Koerber says. “She was wealthy, she supported historic preservation, established a foundation, and encouraged the arts to move in. She paid attention to the economic health of the community, too.”
Like the Rappites, Jane Blaffer Owen was interested in the spiritual. She commissioned Philip Johnson to design the Roofless Church—an open-air cathedral that encourages contemplation—and Richard Meier to design the Atheneum, a visitors center for New Harmony, which is celebrating its 40th anniversary this year. She filled the city with artwork, commissioning pieces from sculptors like Don Gummer, the husband of Meryl Streep.
In 1966, New Harmony was listed on the National Register of Historic Places. Today the tight-knit community has about 750 residents. “Everyone is so friendly and welcoming,” says Meagan Patterson, who moved to New harmony just five months ago. “Everyone is family.”
The future of New Harmony as a community—versus a historic time capsule—remains uncertain. Many of the residents are older, and the town is struggling to attract new people. Another descendant of Robert Owen, Abigail Owen, has taken on the role of cultural ambassador and is recruiting artists, performers, and young people by establishing residencies and hosting festivals. To Flower, who is in talks with a number of theater companies she hopes to bring to New Harmony, the town’s roots make it ideal for this type of work.
“It was built up as a place to think and to learn,” she says. “For artists, if you want a place to perform or work as a dancer or writer, you’ll find the spaces there. And it’s a community that loves art and artists… A lot of times, artists looking for a retreat just want to breathe good air.”
New Harmony’s continued dedication to its utopian pursuits will hopefully ensure it has a long life.
“Small towns usually fall apart because nobody cares anymore,” Flower says. “But here, people continue to fill it with love.”
Season 1 of Nice Try! may be over—but we have something special planned! Join us on Tuesday, August 6, at the 92nd Street Y in New York City for a bonus live taping of our hit podcast. Host Avery Trufelman will be in conversation with Caity Weaver of the New York Times as they explore humanity’s perpetual search for utopian living. Tickets start at $35 and can be purchased at 92y.org/curbed.