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New Harmony: The town of two centuries


On its 200th birthday, dive deep into New Harmony's utopian past and plan your perfect weekend getaway in one of Indiana's most historic small towns.


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New Harmony is a town defined by its past and present, from the historic district to the bustling restaurants and locally owned shops on Main Street. /Photo by Matt Bloom

The sun is shining on New Harmony, a community settled along the Wabash River, 200 miles from Indianapolis and 200 feet from Illinois. Tourists cruise down Main Street on golf carts, past Chris' Pharmacy and Pop's Grill. Locals wave and holler "Good afternoon!" to their friends walking across the street. The talk of the town is the community ribeye dinner tonight at Ribeyre Gymnasium, where everybody who is anybody will show up.

Of the 910 residents, some mention the century-old architecture on Church Street; others talk about the time Meryl Streep visited Church Park to see the sculpture her husband Don Gummer made for her. There's a silent but welcoming pride among locals as they pass out flyers promoting New Harmony's jam-packed bicentennial event calendar. 2014 marks the 200th anniversary of the first Harmonists' arrival in Southern Indiana, and everyone is invited to the celebration.

Today people find their own modern utopia in New Harmony, an escape from the hectic outside world. The town is governed by a five-person town council. Members of the New Harmony Town Plan and Historic Preservation Commission monitor the care and research of buildings constructed by the original founders. It's a place where writers and artists can come to work in peace, and tourists can relax for a long weekend. It's a place where history is never forgotten.

The Indiana Territory, which included land in present day Illinois, Michigan, Wisconsin and Minnesota, was established in 1800. The population was less than 6,000 and included only three American settlements; Vincennes, Kaskaskia and Clark's Grant dotted the largely undeveloped landscape. Disputes about Native American settlements and slavery legislation rocked the territory's political landscape, and conflicts between the United States government and Native American forces regularly took place during the War of 1812. In 1814, two years before Indiana became a state, the Harmonists arrived.

Led by a radical religious leader, George Rapp, the 500 colonists settled on the bank of the Wabash River. For two decades, it was the only utopian community west of the Appalachians. Celibate Harmonists lived as brothers and sisters and awaited the return of Christ. Everything belonged to the community except hope chests that sat at the ends of their beds. Life was simple, spiritual and structured.

~~~

While the streets of New Harmony are lined with quaint shops and friendly faces today, 200 years later, the landscape looked drastically different.

Prior to its induction as a state, the Indiana Territory was an untamed wilderness populated by indigenous people. In 1814, the history of Indiana was already beginning to form.

New Harmony would not exist today if it weren't for George Rapp, a devout member of Germany's Evangelical Lutheran Church. In Germany, Rapp was known for passionately preaching his radical ideals. He said he was a prophet of God, a belief that earned him his own followers and getting him into legal trouble.

Born Johann Georg Rapp in 1757, he grew up in the German town of Iptingen, just outside Wuerttemberg. Rapp's childhood was anything but peaceful. The Protestant Reformation, economic turmoil, famine, diseases and high mortality rates left Germany in shambles.

In these trying times, the people of Wuerttemberg turned to religion. For Rapp and his family, that was the Lutheran church.

Due to the chaos consuming the country, Lutheran services at the time were rigid, focused entirely around ritual. As Donald Pitzer, author of "New Harmony: Then and Now," says, this would reflect on Rapp later in life as a leader in the Harmonist Society, the first group to inhabit what is now New Harmony.

As Rapp grew older, he began to preach his own Lutheran beliefs and gained a community of devoted followers. He believed Christ was coming any day, and if people followed him, they would be well prepared for Christ's return.

"There was a lot of longing for Christ to come back," Pitzer says. "People were looking for God anywhere."

In 1791, Rapp was arrested for holding services at his home, and many of his followers were fined subsequently. Out of fear and government harassment, Rapp decided the time had come to look for a new territory in which to settle his growing congregation.

He set his sights across the Atlantic Ocean, in the U.S.

Rapp moved to Philadelphia in the early 1800s. After several hundred of his followers joined him, he established a community in Butler County. They called it Harmonie and declared themselves the Harmonie Society, with Rapp as their spiritual adviser and overseer of all things economic and agricultural.

Soon after, Rapp and the other members of the community discovered the Pennsylvania soil would not be suitable to grow grapes, their crop of choice. Rapp began to consider land in Kentucky and Southern Indiana that would lend itself better to the fruit.

The War of 1812 was also a deciding factor in the Harmonists migration from the state. As Pitzer explains, the Harmonists were devout pacifists and deeply unsettled by the outbreak of war in their area. "They'd rather pay a fine than serve in the army," he says.

A move needed to happen fast. So, Rapp made government purchases and worked with other landowners to secure 7,000 acres of land in Illinois and Indiana. Since this was to be the new home for him and his fellow Harmonists, he named the territory New Harmonie.

When describing Rapp's leadership style, Pitzer refers to him as the consummate administrator. "He was always there, always available," he says.

Rapp oversaw everything that went on in New Harmonie, from its economic activity to its agriculture. And when it came to people, he only asked for five things: pacifism, perfectionism, pietism, post-millenialism and communalism.

It was pacifism that drove the Harmonists from their setup in Pennsylvania. They believed in peace on earth for all mankind, and that did not involve bloodshed or war.

Regarding perfectionism, Rapp called for his followers to live celibate lives. Rapp refused to marry anyone within the town's borders and prohibited procreation. As for the children already living in New Harmonie, they would be raised by a man and a woman who would address each other as "brother" and "sister." "They had to perfect themselves in all ways in order to be ready for Christ's coming," Pitzer says. "He wanted them to be like Adam before he sinned."

They would continue striving for perfection, under Rapp's command, by committing to pietism--delving deeper into their religious studies and working toward a communal society. Everything in the town -- all that was created, all that was earned -- was given back to the community to share among residents.

In further preparation for Christ's return, Pitzer says the Harmonists also focused on what would now be classified as post-millenialism. "Things had to get better and better in some ways for Christ to come back," Pitzer says.

Rapp's intense involvement with the community paid off in its beginning stages. Over the course of 10 years in New Harmonie, they erected 180 buildings and established themselves as an economic powerhouse. Rapp had expanded his share of land from 7,000 to 30,000 acres, spilling over into Illinois.

Things seemed to be going smoothly for the Harmoniststs--until Rapp went a little too far. As years passed

As years passed and Christ failed to present himself, people grew anxious. As his people's frustrations grew, Rapp's dictatorial grip on them tightened. Pitzer says a major factor in Rapp's downfall was his overbearing nature.

"He would read through people's mail, keep secrets from the community. He was totally convinced he was right," Pitzer explains.

When people in the community demanded rights to marriage and a family, Rapp refused them. People began fleeing New Harmonie in search of more freedom.

Eventually, as Rapp saw his community dwindling, he had to let go of his final and greatest hope for New Harmonie: that his remaining followers from Germany would gather more people to come to Indiana to live in his utopia.

No one was coming. Everyone had given up. And now, so would he.

~~~

In January of 1825, Rapp sold his town for $150,000--which, today, would equal more than $3 million. The new landowner was Robert Dale Owen, a wealthy industrialist and social reformer from Scotland. He and his son, William, had sailed the previous year to the United States in search of a place to test a radical social experiment. They purchased the town and tweaked its name to "New Harmony."

Owen made his fortune in textile mills after finishing school at the age of ten. After his education, he lost all belief in the prevailing forms of religion and developed a personal creed describing man's character as "self-determined."

But Owen was not an atheist; he was a deist. He believed the existence of a Creator was formed by the observation and study of the natural world. He called God an "incomprehensible power."

Owen's community would in most ways become the opposite of the religious community that preceded it. The world watched as New Harmony became the promised land of Owenism: the new center of enlightenment.

Owen declared in his book, "The New Moral World," that his community was "an organization to rationally educate and employ all, through a new organization of society which will give a new existence to man by surrounding him with superior circumstances only." Owen wrote out the principles for his philosophy in the form of his "fundamental laws of human nature."

He had his plan. Now, all he needed was people.

After acquiring the town, Owen passionately pursued his vision of establishing a "New Moral World." In his mind, a social, intellectual environment of happiness and prosperity through education and communal living was all he needed. He drew an idealized map of his utopia: a fortressed town, built by local workers with local resources.

Owen tirelessly recruited residents for New Harmony. He left the settlement soon after purchasing it to tour the East Coast, coaxing scientists and artists to move to New Harmony. He gathered a cohort of thought leaders on his vessel, the Philanthropist, which many also referred to as the Boatload of Knowledge. Once he had recruited enough people, he sailed west.

Educators that arrived via the Boatload of Knowledge like William Maclure, the "father of American geology" and Thomas Say, the "father of American zoology," helped develop the town's educational institutions. The idea of equal education for both sexes was put into practice in New Harmony; this enforced Owen's idea of free, equal and universal schools.

New Harmony became one of the greatest scientific centers in America in the early-to-mid 17th century. Women in New Harmony were given a voice and allowed to vote in local legislative assemblies. The town's doctrine of equal political rights for all, without regard to sex or color, gave power to abolitionist idealists like Francis Wright. When emancipation came to the forefront of American politics, Owen voiced his community's opinion to President Lincoln.

Never had a community of New Harmony's size redefined the way civilization was organized in such a short time. Owen was pleased, but resentment within the community began to grow. Within two years of its establishment, New Harmony began its swift decline.

With Owen away on recruitment trips, economic stability faltered and the community lacked organization. Although he envisioned a classless society of cooperative individuals, two distinctive groups formed. The countryfolk preferred not to work all the time and were freeloaders. They wanted to eat with their fingers and dance jigs. People who arrived on the Boatload of Knowledge were educators; they owned fine silverware and wanted to dance the cotillion. The growing divide between residents proved detrimental to Owen's social experiment.

The following year, the Owenites drafted another constitution in effort to organize the communities' acquisition of knowledge, cooperation and structure. But many colonists remained unhappy with New Harmony's credit system. Under the constitution, members of the town would provide services to the community in exchange for credit. Those who didn't want to work purchased credit with cash, allowing Owenites to purchase basic goods for their homes. S

Soon, people were displeased with the inequalities of credit between working and non-working Owenites. Overpopulation and lack of management led to New Harmony's failure.

In an editorial published in the The New Harmony Gazette on March 28, 1827, Robert and William Owen recognized the failure of New Harmony.

"We have yet to learn that the character of a person educated among the surroundings of the old world, can be entirely changed." Owen wrote. "The experiment, to ascertain at once whether a mixed and unassorted population could successfully govern their own affairs as a community, was a bold and hazardous attempt, and, we think, a premature one."

Questions were raised about what would follow the decline of the Owenite community. Who was to pay debt? Would people leave? Stay? What about the children? The jobs?

Owen urged members interested in furthering the experiment to stay. As for those only interested in money, they were politely asked to leave. Many broke away and formed smaller communities of their own near New Harmony. But some stayed, and hundreds of Owenite ancestors still live in New Harmony and within the surrounding region.

"New Harmony cannot be numbered among the colonies of the social system, but there is progress, and the day is not far distant when it will join the ranks of the faithful," Owen said in his farewell address to the colonies before returning home."When I return I hope to find you progressing in harmony together."

Life in New Harmony never really slowed down. It remained a community devoted to arts, education and the value of hard work. It had its fair share of leaders, most good but a few bad during the century following the decline of Owen's social experiment.

Today, it's possible to mistake New Harmony for another friendly small Southern Indiana town. But hints of Rapp's and Owen's communities linger. The Working Men's Institute contains hundreds of years of books, documents and photographs. Harmonist cabins dot the north side of town, where visitors tour and learn about the Rappites and their religious lifestyle. The peaceful roofless church invites all into a sanctuary unlike any other in the world.

On Saturday afternoons locals and tourists grab lunch at Pop's Grill. Memorabilia from NASCAR races and historical pictures hang around the restaurant; customers sip phosphates, the restaurant's signature fizzy soda drinks.

Above the sundae-making station, there are dollar bills tacked in rows, all signed by customers. People from as close as Evansville and as far as Saudi Arabia have taken part in he restaurant's tradition. Some read a simple "Hello!" scrawled in black ink. Others ask for prayers for loved ones.

Brenda Hottell, wife of Pop's owner Harry Hottell, opens the diner's cash register and slips out an unmarked dollar bill. She uncaps a sharpie marker and slaps the marker and bill both on the counter, asking customers to leave their mark. Next to her are three pennies, each one with a cross punched through its center. She gives them to customers as a testament to her faith. Her hope is to cultivate a better community, just like the Harmonists that came before her.

"Jesus makes good cents," she says, smiling.

A WEEKEND IN NEW HARMONY

DAY 1

Arrive no later than 10 a.m. at the Atheneum

401 N. Arthur St.

No better place to start your trip than at New Harmony's visitor center, where you'll get a taste of the town. After registering for a tour of the town's historic section, you'll be briefed on its utopian past, including a model of the town circa the early 1800s. And while you're taking in all the history, be sure to appreciate the building's one-of-a-kind design by famed architect Richard Meier he worked on the Barcelona Museum of Contemporary Art and L.A.'s Getty Center).

Take a tour around Historic New Harmony

10 a.m.

Wear good walking shoes--you're going to need them! There are a ton of buildings from the years of Rapp and Owen still intact and functioning for public events. Look out for the Granary, which holds many local weddings and social gatherings, and the Opera House, where you'll see a display of beautifully preserved costumes from past shows.

Lunch at Pop's Grill

12 p.m.

516 Main St.

After all that walking, it's time to sit down to some lunch. Check out the family-friendly Pop's Grill. The 50s-style diner features Route 66-themed decorations and traditional American cooking. Don't leave without trying one of their ice cream concoctions (we recommend the banana split).

Working Men's Institute Museum & Library

1 p.m.

407 Tavern St.

Continue your New Harmony education at the Working Men's Institute, the oldest continually operating library in the Hoosier state. Check out the library's collection downstairs, but focus most of your time upstairs in the museum, which houses rare books, a horse skeleton and stuffed birds. The most striking exhibit? The stuffed two-headed calf.

New Harmony Gallery of Contemporary Art

2:30 p.m.

506 Main St.

Head back down to Main Street and take a walk through this gallery, dedicated to displaying the work of young and mid-career artists. You'll be sure to see some one-of-a-kind contemporary art, and if you're lucky, you might catch a reception for one of the artists on display.

Shopping at the antique stores along Main Street

3:30 p.m.

Hit the streets and shop 'til you drop. New Harmony has plenty of antique shops to choose from, offering distinct, charming pieces. Don't miss Firehouse Antiques and its delightful home furnishings, including vintage tablecloths and colorful dishes.

Dinner at the Red Geranium

5 p.m.

520 North St.

A trip to New Harmony is not complete without a meal at the Red Geranium. Known for its great food and elegant atmosphere, the Red Geranium is a major attraction in the town. Try the Black Angus filet mignon or Italian penne pasta for the true fine dining experience.

Concert at the Murphy Auditorium

6:30 p.m.

419 Tavern St.

Or a lecture, or a show, or any other fun event the auditorium is featuring. Right next door to the Working Men's Institute, this auditorium is a mecca for cultural events in Hew Harmony. In addition to musical acts and lecturers, Murphy Auditorium also showcases work from the University of Southern Indiana's New Harmony Theatre.

Sara's Harmony Way

8:30 p.m.

500 Church St.

Before turning in for the night, stop by for a drink at Sara's Harmony Way. This pristine little coffee shop turns into a bar at night, and it features a wide variety of Indiana wines and brewed beers. Want the full New Harmony experience? Then you have to order a Harmonist Lager, the first beer brewed in Indiana.

DAY 2

Breakfast at the Main Cafe

9 a.m.

520 N. Main St.

Start your second day with breakfast at the Main Cafe, New Harmony's quintessential mom and pop breakfast/brunch spot. A plate of fresh scrambled eggs and toast is fast and inexpensive.

Rent a golf cart

10 a.m.

504 North St. (New Harmony Inn) and 401 Arthur St. (New Harmony Golf Cart Company)

The self-titled "golf cart capital of Indiana," New Harmony has more than 200 licensed golf carts. Rent one at the New Harmony Inn on North Street or the New Harmony Golf Car Company at the Atheneum. Rates range from $15 to $20 an hour.

The Roofless Church

10:30 a.m.

Zip across town to this architectural landmark. This interdenominational church, commemorating the town's religious heritage, was dedicated in 1960. The dome in the interior courtyard is built in the shape of an inverted rose bud and casts the shadow of a full-blown rose. This image ties the modern church facility to the founders of New Harmony, the Harmonie Society, whose symbol was a golden rose.

The Labyrinths

11:00 a.m.

Nurture your spirit by walking New Harmony's two labyrinths - including one of the oldest in North America. These sacred pathways help with meditation and relaxation, creating a sense of inner peace and calm.

Harmonist Labyrinth

Don't get lost in this maze located on Route 69 just south of town. The Harmonist Labyrinth was originally built around 1815 and renovated between the years of 1939-41. The hedges were planted according to a pattern established by the Harmony Society: a concentric circular design with only one path. A small stone building called a grotto is placed at the centre, an authentic restoration of The Harmonist grotto.

Cathedral Labyrinth

Dedicated in 1997 by Francois Legaux, Canon of The Cathedral of Chartres, the rose granite unicursal Labyrinth is a close replica of the 12th Century one in the Medieval Cathedral. Aligned with the walls of the Harmonist Cemetery and Native American Burial Mounds, the garden's plan also follows ancient sacred geometry used in the plans of European cathedrals.

Woody's Pizzeria

12 p.m.

518 Main St.

Located on Main Street, this restaurant is the perfect stop for your lunch in New Harmony. Try their loaded specialty with sausage, beef, pepperoni, green pepper, onion, tomato, black olives and mushrooms.

New Harmony Soap Company

1 p.m.

512 Main St.

Load up with the local soap company's Eucalyptus Spearmint Body Bar or Organic Almond Coconut Ginger Body Wash. A bar of soap or skin repair wash make for a perfect home brewed New Harmony souvenir. The owner's pet dachshund, Ginger, waddles around the store, welcoming adults and children to this one-of-a-kind shop.

Antique Doll Shoppe of New Harmony

1:30 p.m.

507 S. Main St.

Hundreds of antique dolls line the shelves of New Harmony's own version of "it's a small world." The shop attracts collectors from around the country, making it one of the most comprehensive collections of dolls in Indiana.

Bliss Artisan

2 p.m.

610 Church St.

Locals line up outside of the ice cream shop just for a scoop on summer evenings. Beat the crowd and hit up the place before the sunset rush. Try dark chocolate cherry almond crunch or a more traditional flavor like double vanilla. Everything is made in-house--all the way down to the waffle cones.

Wabash River and Harmonie State Park

3 p.m.

3451 Harmonie State Park Rd.

Cap off your New Harmony experience with a walk on the Wabash riverbanks. New paved pathways make the experience easy, and just wait for the views. Return your golf cart and buckle up in your car for a few minutes' drive south to Harmonie State Park. Bike, run or hike through the trails in the park's 3500 acres.

TIMELINE

August 1814--George Rapp moves his utopian society to the Indiana Territory, and New Harmony is established.

1816--Harmonists played a role in writing the Indiana state constitution. Frederick Rapp, son of George, was chosen as the town's delegate to the constitutional convention in Corydon.

1823--As well as an economic success, New Harmony was noted for its financial stability. The town loaned money from their Farmers Bank to the state to help save Indiana from bankruptcy.

1824--George Rapp wrote "Thoughts on the Destiny of Man," which is thought by historians to be the first book on religious philosophy printed in Indiana.

1825--Rapp sells New Harmony to Robert Dale Owen, and the age of Owen's utopian community begins.

1825--Pestalozzi school begins operation, which is thought to be the basis for modern-day Montessori schools. Students were offered a more hands-on education, where they focused on learning by doing.

1826--School of Industry begins operation, where students are taught based on an academic curriculum and learn a trade.

1826--What's known as the "Boatload of Knowledge" arrived in New Harmony, in which notable scientists and scholars came to study the area around the Wabash River and gain insight and inspiration from the town's community.

1827--Owen and his community leave New Harmony, but the legacy of the utopian communities lives on.

WHAT THEY BELIEVED

The way of life in New Harmony during the eras of George Rapp, and later Robert Owen, was significantly different. The leaders' thoughts and attitudes toward a range of subjects heavily influenced the activities of their community members. Here is what they believed.

Marriage/Sex

All members of the Harmonist community were told to abstain from carnal sexual relations. In Rapp's eyes, sin came into the world through sexual desire, even though marriage was a sacred institution.

Owen viewed sex and marriage as an important part of an individual's happiness. Birth control was studied and practiced and couples had the right to seek divorce in his community.

Economy

Rapp developed a successful community of capitalists in New Harmony, trading with 22 states and 9 foreign countries. But in their own community, Harmonists operated by sharing their wealth and material possessions. The Harmonists didn't have insurance, because the community was their insurance.

Owen organized his utopian experiment's economy with socialist principles. "Kindness" was a word Owen often used to describe his economic decisions.

Education

Assured that all children, boys and girls, had an education that would prepare them for the imminent return of Christ. At the age of 14, Harmonists were given apprenticeships that developed theirs skills to better serve the community.

Owen wanted to get children away from their parent's opinions and biases. He opened Community House No. 2, a Pestalozzian school that housed children from the age of 2 until they began working.

Conflict

Rapp and the Harmonists avoided conflict by paying the government, refusing participation in the militia and settling all community disputes through Rapp himself. Bloodshed was something the Harmonists believed Christ condemned.

Owen's vision was that war would soon become irrelevant. By applying oneself to education and true happiness, mankind would solve disputes through more reasonable, non-violent processes.

Religion

Life in New Harmonie was dictated by the imminent return of Christ himself. Rapp's strict religious ideas and values infiltrated every sector (economic, education, and personal life) of his community.

Owen was a deist, not an atheist. He called God an "incomprehensible power." His deist philosophy led him to seek education and happiness through his community as his homage to a benevolent ruler.