Mar/Apr 2000

For More Details
New Harmony is located at the intersection of Indiana Routes 66 and 69. From Interstate 64 in Indiana, take the Exit 4 (Griffin exit) south on Highway 69 to Highway 66 west. For more information, call (812) 682-4482.

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In search of Harmony

By Joe Zentner

The town features a number of lovely public gardens /Historic New Harmony photo
Published in 1516, the book “Utopia” described an ideal society where all is ordered for the good of mankind. Utopia became the generic term for ideal states.

As a Utopian concept, New Harmony, Ind., is unique. In southwestern Indiana, two separate groups of people practiced certain ideals that flourished among 19th-century visionaries.

George Rapp was 56 years old when he came to Indiana from Pennsylvania. Originally from Germany, he had become convinced in his native land that the Promised Land could be achieved through fruitful labor. In 1814, Rapp and his followers came to Indiana Territory to prepare a place for the second coming of Christ and the establishment of the Kingdom of God on earth.

Here in the wilderness they laid out a village. The Harmonists built homes, mills and churches; they also planted formal gardens, fields and orchards. By 1824, the Harmonists were selling goods to 22 states and 10 countries. Cultural amenities rivaled those found in European cities.

Industriousness made the community thrive. But religious communalism does not thrive on prosperity, or so Father Rapp concluded. Detecting signs of restlessness among his flock, Rapp decided what was needed was to sell everything and start over again, somewhere else. He feared, however, that his opinion alone might not convince people to move.

About that time, fortuitously, the angel Gabriel "appeared" and agreed with him. Gabriel left giant-sized footprints on a limestone slab as "proof" that he had visited Harmonie.

The striking Athenium/Visitors Center shows a film about New Harmony. /Historic New Harmony photo
So Rapp sold the land for $135,000 to Robert Owen, a businessman from New Lanark, Scotland. Owen also had a Utopian dream, but the Utopia that he had in mind was social and intellectual, not theological. Owen came to Indiana in 1825 to begin his experiment in "New Harmony."

The 800 believers in a New World Order found the first summer quite pleasant. The Harmonists’ crops provided ample food; life seemed good.

In the fall of 1825, Owen brought into the community some of the most gifted people of the day from Philadelphia. Their pioneering contributions to education, geology, trade schools and women’s suffrage would eventually have national impact.

But at New Harmony, matters were deteriorating. Some people protested the absence of religious worship; others were unhappy with the scheme calling for communal care of children. Moreover, all the livestock had been slaughtered and the community, in violation of Owen’s plan, was purchasing food from the outside. Rent by disagreements, both personal and ideological, the Owenite experiment in communal living collapsed. By the 1860s, New Harmony was just another farming community

Then, in 1940, Kenneth Owen, Robert’s descendant, brought his bride to see his birthplace. She was captivated; the fascinating fragments of New Harmony’s past suggested to her that the town’s physical form and spirit could be restored.

Restoration of the entire town ensued. Preservationists intended for New Harmony to become a place where people could develop an appreciation of America’s heritage.

What to see and do

Surrounded by a split rail fence, the Double Log Cabin, built around 1775, is an example of the type of housing in the area before the Harmonists settled New Harmony /Historic New Harmony photo
Like a magnet, this small spot on the map attracted two early reformers. Today, New Harmony continues to enchant.

A stop inside the visitor center to view a film, “The New Harmony Experience,” prepares visitors for their journey into the past. Then you may walk the quiet streets with or without a guide.

Several homes invite viewing. In the Salomon Wolf House, one can view a diorama of "Harmonie" as it appeared in 1824. In the 1830 Owen House, decorative arts from the Owenite period are displayed. Father Rapp’s house was destroyed by fire in 1844, but in the yard is the limestone slab with two footprints that, Rapp claimed, were made by Gabriel. Thrall’s Opera House is located nearby.

A rounded dome of pine shingles, the Roofless Church is the work of architect Philip Johnson. In Paul Tillich Park, the noted German theologian is interred in a grove of red Norwegian pine trees. A path leads to the gravesite.

On a visit to New Harmony, one can learn about two 19th-century communal groups that sought Utopia in the hills of southwestern Indiana, and discover a distinctive small town, where the simple wooden structures of the Harmonists blend with modern architecture on quiet, tree-lined streets.

New Harmony’s accomplishments include one of America’s first kindergartens, trade schools, drama clubs, feminist organizations and free public libraries.

For many visitors, the ultimate pleasure of New Harmony is to wander its broad streets and ponder the successes and failures of those earnest early residents. New Harmony is a memorial to the past, bearing the imprint of spirits that moved minds and sought perfection.

Joe Zentner is a contributor from North Carolina.

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