The Thin Place

Posted May 15th, 2009 at 1:12 pm (UTC-4)
1 comment

On the banks of the Wabash River that separates southern Indiana from Illinois, there’s a community of 915 people unlike any other small town in America. Different – and unforgettable, too.

Toll bridge
The easiest, though not cheapest, way into town is across the Wabash River on a toll bridge from Illinois. The toll is only a buck, however!

New Harmony, Indiana, is clean, safe, historic yet artistically spunky, free of chain fast-food restaurants and mammoth retail stores. It’s a peaceful place in the old-fashioned meaning of the term: restful, contemplative, even spiritual.

As a group of screenwriters who go there each year to write told the locals, they can feel their blood pressure dropping the minute they drive into town. Residents and some visitors, including seminary priests from Austria who journeyed to New Harmony last

New Harmony
That’s New Harmony in the distance, though the beautiful trees obscure much of it

year, call it “The Thin Place,” a rare spot on earth where heaven and earth come close together.

It isn’t heaven on earth, of course. New Harmony has its squabbles, especially between those who wish to preserve its remarkable historic character and those who grump that when they buy a house or a store or a lot, they should be able to do what they damn well please with it. But if clean air, verdant surroundings, a measured pace of life, and culturally and intellectually enriching colloquy are parts of your definition of heaven on earth, New Harmony comes pretty close.

David Lenz House
The 1819-22 David Lenz House is a typical example of Harmonist architecture. The walls inside its frame exterior are insulated with kiln-dried bricks

And a little bit of paradise was exactly what the town’s Christian founders sought when they arrived 195 years ago. They were convinced that the Rapture – an-end-of-the-world scenario in which Jesus returns to call deceased as well as living believers to his side – was at hand, and they wished to create a perfect society in which to welcome Him.

So the settlers created their utopia on the Wabash. The first of three quite different utopias, as it turned out, if you count New Harmony today as one of them.

The founders called themselves “Harmonists” and their town Harmonie. There were native Indians in the area – hence the name “Indiana” – but most had moved north and west, away from the onrushing white settlers in what was then the Northwest Territory, 10 years before Indiana became a state.

The Harmonists were German “pietists” – Lutheran separatists who sought to create a simple, strict, hardworking community free from the ceremonial flourishes and what they considered the mystical mumbo-jumbo of their faith. Logical pragmatists, they did not buy the notion, for instance, that an unknowing baby could receive faith and salvation with a few sprinkles from a baptismal font. Baptism should come later in life, they believed, as one’s conscious choice, an acceptance of Christ and the Holy Spirit.

Johann George Rapp
Johann Georg Rapp told a town official in Malbronn, Germany, “I am a prophet, and I am called to be one.” The official promptly had him arrested

The Harmonie Society, as it was called, was led by Johann Georg Rapp, a charismatic, though stern, taskmaster who considered himself a prophet and had the followers to prove it. In 1803, he led German pilgrims to western Pennsylvania, near what is now Pittsburgh, and founded a colony. These were not ragtag dreamers, scratched out a living. The first Harmonie prospered as a communal society in which property was held jointly, and the considerable profits from their vigorous labor on the land and in small craft shops were shared. Even married people lived, or were supposed to live, celibately as brothers and sisters in dormitories. Babies were born, assuredly, but Rapp asked his followers to give up whiskey, tobacco, and pleasures of the flesh as purifying measures in anticipation of Christ’s coming.

The Harmonists were standoffish German speakers who inspired envy among their less industrious English-speaking neighbors. And after 10 years in Pennsylvania, and Rapp’s vision of an even better life on the frontier, Rapp sold Harmonie, “lock, stock, and barrel,” as the saying goes, to local Mennonites – also Germanic but better assimilated into the overall culture – for 10 times what he had paid for the land.

And off they went, down the Ohio River and up the Wabash.

Rapp may well have chosen the location for another reason besides the fertility of its fields. Three years earlier, the area had been riven by a powerful earthquake, centered in New Madrid, Missouri, not terribly far away. (Indeed, one sees sensors, placed by seismologists, at various spots throughout still-tremor-prone New Harmony today). Some say Rapp considered the New Madrid cataclysm another sign from God that the end was near, and his followers might as well get as close to the action as possible.

Harmonie’s earliest cabins were called “blockhouses” because they were made of square timbers. The originals do not survive. These similar examples were imported from a nearby farm

In Harmonie, The Rappites’ pattern of sturdy settlement and curious abandonment repeated itself, almost to the day. They also stayed 10 years in Indiana, built cabins and dormitories and a big church, and prospered to the point that they were soon making rope, bolts of prized textiles, candles and other goods that they sold in 22 states and 10 foreign countries. Somehow as they bustled about, they found time to come together for prayer three times a day.

Then, no doubt to the surprise of their Indiana farmer neighbors, they up and moved again – back to Pennsylvania, founding yet a third town called Economy.

New Harmonie Photo
Although some things had changed between Harmonie’s founding and the taking of this photograph in 1892, it gives you a flavor of the old days

“Our [orientation] film says they left because it was tough to get their goods to eastern markets,” Linda Warum, a New Harmony town council member who conducts many tours of the community, told me. “I doubt that was the reason, since they knew that would be the case when they came here. Reading between the lines, I think they felt the town was simply done. These were builders for whom busy hands were happy hands. It doesn’t take the energy to run a town that it does to build it.”

Once again, the Harmonists preferred to sell every stick and stone in New Harmony for a tidy profit and go away.

And in their place came an entirely different sort of utopians: secularists rather than a religious bunch, driven to create human happiness in a communal cooperative based on high-minded ideas and ideals rather than the search for a closer walk with God.

Up the Wabash, to the neat and tidy town that Rapp and his followers had built for them, came what today’s townspeople call a “boatload of knowledge.” It was a barge, actually, carrying Robert Owen and a collection of his very smart friends: scientists, philosophers, educators bent on creating the nexus of a new moral world built upon equal education and social status.

Robert Owen
Robert Owen was a brilliant and daring social reformer who brought his ideas, and many idealistic followers, to the Indiana prairie

Owen was a socialist long before the word became fashionable and years before Marx and Lenin came along. Like Rapp, Owen was an immigrant – a Welshman who had prospered as an industrialist in neighboring Scotland. There, in his woolen mills and the company towns that housed his workers, he tested social experiments, including the free public education of children and Chautauqua-like learning opportunities for adults of both sexes.

The Chautauqua movement was a series of assemblies that met each summer for more than 50 years, spanning the turn of the 20th century. Named for the town in New York State where they were first held, away from the smoke and bustle and cares of the big city, Chautauquans sought to impart intellectual enlightenment, oratorical inspiration, artistic and musical enjoyment, spiritual enrichment, and physical rejuvenation. It was an idea that Robert Owen had tried in New Lanark, Scotland, almost a century earlier.

Owen believed that his ideas would flower even more profoundly in adventurous America, where radical ideas found nourishment. Owen met some Rappites, visited New Harmony, bought the place from Johann Rapp and his followers for $135,000, and invited other eminent thinkers to move there. Many, beginning with those aboard the “boatload of knowledge,” accepted.

Gardens were not hobbyists’ playgrounds in busy Harmonie. Their bounty was an important part of the economy

In New Harmony, Owen established a system of “time money” and “time stores,” classic utopian concepts in which citizens were issued local scrip instead of U.S. currency based upon their labors. The currency was then exchanged for goods at the colony’s stores.

But a problem developed almost at once. Unlike Rapp’s Harmonists, Owen’s brainy band had no unifying religious bond; they were individualists with headstrong ideas on how things should run. Rifts developed. So deep, in fact, that roughly half the town, south of Church Street, was occupied by Owen’s family and his disciples; and the neighborhood north of this main street by William Maclure and his followers.

Maclure was a Scottish-born philanthropist and naturalist from Philadelphia – a man so renowned that he was known as “the Father of Geology.” Maclure opened the “Working Men’s Institute,” in a building that still stands, in which common laborers were invited to borrow books and attend lectures aimed at elevating their lot in life. The institute is now the town library.

Robert Owen headed off in search of more intellectual settlers, leaving New Harmony’s management to one of his sons, 23-year-old William Dale Owen. In a piece of local fascination, it is noted that all four of Owen’s sons – Robert, William, David, and Richard – shared the middle name “Dale,” after their mother’s maiden name. Son Robert became a diplomat and U.S. congressman who introduced the legislation that established the Smithsonian Institution in Washington. William ran the local newspaper in addition to the town. David, a geologist for whom the granary was a laboratory, became the state, and then the nation’s official geologist. And Richard, also a geologist, became the first president of Purdue University, up the road in Indiana.

New Harmony was awash in accomplished thinkers, all right, but there weren’t many doers willing to break a sweat tilling the land or producing food and crafts. According to the Web site of the Robert Owen (the elder) Museum in Wales, “Settlers flocked to New Harmony, but most were unsuited to community life, and very few had the necessary skills to farm the land or run small industries. As the settlement became overcrowded the chaos developed. William had to write to his father urging him to send no more settlers.”

Geologist David Dale Owen used New Harmony’s first level for shops and workrooms and the second and third floors for his laboratory and lecture hall

The colony structure collapsed within three years, but many of the intelligentsia stayed put, preserving some of New Harmony’s remarkable early architecture, including the granary, Working Men’s Institute, and several cabins and houses.

Thus the town never fell to rack and ruin. Twice it flowered anew, first during a late-19th-century agricultural bonanza in which many Victorian-style downtown banks and mercantile stores appeared; and then during an oil boom in the 1930s and 1940s that attracted fresh out-of-state capital and talent. In that wave, in 1942, came Kenneth

Downtown New Harmony in 1942 looked a lot like any American small town, though perhaps a tad tidier

Dale Owen, a great-grandson of Richard Owen, the Purdue president. Kenneth Owen had been born in New Harmony but moved away. Upon the couple’s return there, Kenneth Dale’s wife Jane – wealthy from her family’s Esso Oil ties – fell in love with New Harmony and became its biggest investor and preservationist. Still living, she owns a company that runs a cozy inn, small conference center, and little restaurant.

And another entity helped return New Harmony to what some would say is a third utopian epoch. It is the Historic New Harmony Society, originally a private, nonprofit preservationist operation that is now a part of the University of Southern Indiana, based in nearby Evansville. Historic New Harmony has helped restore, or keep

This Harmonist labyrinth, re-created in 1939, is planted in accordance with a Harmony Society plan in concentric circles of privet hedge leading to a stone temple

ship-shape, such local landmarks as the opera house, a double log cabin, a foliage labyrinth on the site of one constructed by the Harmonists, as well as a remarkable, 1960-vintage “roofless church,” designed by noted architect Philip Johnson and funded by Jane Owen. Inside, where the sky is the roof and interdenominational, Easter morning, and wedding services are conducted, stands an unusual – covered – central altar in the shape of an inverted rose.

There’s also another labyrinth in town. This one, flat on the ground, is made of rose granite, not twigs and leaves. It’s identical to one at Chartres Cathedral in France.

Drawing from the Harmonists’ trademark, the golden rose, architect Philip Johnson created a dome in the shape of an inverted rosebud inside his Roofless Church

New Harmony also found donors for other structures, including an atheneum – a place where learned reading materials (and some less-weighty tourist brochures) are available. This shining-white building, which vaguely suggests the structure of a ship, was designed by acclaimed architect Richard Meier. It serves as the visitor center and vantage point for the townsite and the Wabash River Valley, and it’s the envy of small towns across the country. The atheneum is the most prominent modernist example in an

The New Harmony atheneum contains several levels of historic galleries containing artifacts and town models

otherwise historic town; sculptures that pop up in unexpected places and modern additions to traditional homes are others.

New Harmony has a few of the accouterments of any small town, including a kindergarten-through-12th grade school, a movie theater to go with the opera house, and a bandstand in Maclure Park. The town’s abundant supply of local musicians makes sure there are plenty of accessible performances there or under the granary’s 205 tons of oaken beams. One in each location takes place on American Independence Day, July 4th, following the annual parade of “floats.” I put the word in quotes because the vehicles are decorated golf carts! – about 50 of them. These carts are the preferred mode of transportation in town, even though there’s no golf course on which to ride them.

It wasn’t New Orleans’ Mardi Gras or New York City’s Thanksgiving Day parade, but New Harmony’s July 4th golf-cart procession was a hoot

The humming carts contribute to the sense of quietude. Kids walk or bike to school. Signposts direct visitors along numerous nature walks. Meditation is encouraged at the roofless church, in gardens, on or in the town labyrinths, and in New Harmony’s eight traditional churches that do have roofs. Johann Rapp might be pleased to learn that not a one of them is Lutheran.

“I live in paradise,” Linda Warum told me. “On Granary Street.”

Stephen de Staebler’s sculpture, “Pieta,” in a courtyard off the Roofless Church, epitomizes New Harmony’s modernist touches in a historic setting

Is it utopia, heaven on earth? Well, Carol and I didn’t see a black or brown face in town, and the only ones that local residents could think of belong to the family from India who run the local grocery-deli and live in a rented apartment. If devouring a double cheeseburger is your idea of ecstasy, the closest place to get one is on the west side of Evansville, 20 minutes away. And there aren’t many rock concerts or hangouts for young people or, come to think of it, all that many young people past high school age at all. They tend to go off to college and not come back.

Of course, that keeps the noise level down and contributes to New Harmony’s air of contemplation.

Former President Taft arrives in New Harmony for the town’s centennial

In 1914, upon the 100th anniversary of New Harmony’s founding, William Howard Taft, who had just left office as U.S. president, and other luminaries visited and spoke. “No town or city in the United States boasts a history of greater romantic or sociological interest,” the opening statement in the centennial program read. That may be a stretch, but perhaps not too long a one.

The year 2014, just five years away, will mark the bicentennial of this remarkable utopian experiment in the wilderness. By then, the Historic New Harmony Society should have plenty of ideas to work with, including those taken from a wall in the atheneum on which, beginning just this month, visitors have been encouraged to leave their thoughts about what makes a place “utopia.”

New Harmony is a sort of Tranquility Base – not on the moon, but here on earth

Carol and I were running around shooting and gabbing, and we forgot to scribble something on that wall. I doubt it would have been very original anyway, since it seemed to both of us that this serene and prosperous spot on the Wabash is about as close to utopia as you’re going find in today’s tumultuous world.


More About Utopia

This is Utopia? I don’t think so!

“Utopia” is a Greek word, used by Plato to describe an ideal, almost unreachable and unrealistically perfect state of communal living, especially for the ruling class. Subsequently in the European Renaissance of the 14th to 16th centuries, when dreamers reconnected with some of those ideals from ancient Greece, the French satirist Voltaire and others wrote of two kinds of idealized places – El Dorado, a “land of milk and honey” where streets were paved with gold, and a plainer Utopia in which humans are held in equal esteem and live free from worries. Both wonderlands, Voltaire realized, were unachievable. Later philosophers, including Marxists, stretched the concept to describe a utopian political system in which life’s fruits and benefits are shared but require a degree of regimentation and even totalitarianism, since too much individuality cannot not be tolerated if a utopia beneficial to all is to be achieved.

Utopian wistfulness reappeared in the 1960s, when communes returned to fashion and eastern mystics and songwriters wrote of the triumph of peace and love over cynical political power. Some say that the vegetarian and “green” environmental movements of today have utopian elements as well.

But before we drift too far off into idyllic reverie, we must remember the words of Clayton Cramer, the California author, historian, and software engineer: “Abandon all hopes of utopia,” he wrote. “There are people involved.”


Three Other U.S. Utopian Experiments

This is a ca. 1900 shot of the busy Amana Colonies

Amana Colonies. One of the most familiar of America’s utopian communal societies was the Amana Colonies settlement, begun in the 1850s in Iowa. Best-known today because tourists flock to Amana’s seven villages to enjoy the groaning board of homemade food still served family style, and because of the famous Amana refrigerators and other appliances that one of the society’s members began producing in the early 1930s. This settlement of dissident Lutherans, like Harmonie’s Rappists, was an outgrowth of religious persecution and an economic depression in Germany. These colonists, who called themselves “Inspirationists,” founded a communal farm and series of craft shops at a place they called Ebenezer near Buffalo, New York. A decade later, seeking more land to work, the Inspirationists shifted operations to eastern Iowa. Seven villages, including East Amana, West Amana, High Amana, and Homestead, were established to supply the colonists’ farms.

Clockmaking and the production of wool and calico augmented the agriculture, and income was shared communally. According to the colony’s Web site, “Amana churches, located in the center of each village, built of brick or stone, have no stained glass windows, no steeple or spire, and reflect the ethos of simplicity and humility. Inspirationists attended worship services 11 times a week; their quiet worship punctuating the days.” More than 50 kitchens, plus a dairy, smokehouse, ice house, gardens, and orchards kept the colonists amply nourished.

The Amana Colonies lasted a long time by utopian society standards. It was only in 1932, during the Great Depression, that the colonists abandoned communal living in favor of the private enterprise that rewards individual achievement, as practiced in the country at large. But the Amana Church survives to this day in the little Amana villages. So do the village store, blacksmith shop, an original 1858 barn, and those tables piled high with hearty food.

This is an early advertisement of the Oneida Community’s Flower de Luce artist-designed silverplate from Good Housekeeping magazine

Oneida Community. This group was founded by an American, John Humphrey Noyes, the son of a U.S. congressman from Vermont. In 1826, the younger Noyes attended a Christian revival meeting that changed him from a religious cynic to a fanatical believer. He developed a theory of salvation called “Perfectionism,” under which people might live free from sin in a perfect world. This wild-eyed notion got him kicked out of Yale Divinity School, in which he had enrolled in hopes of a career in the ministry. He hit the road in search of converts but found few. So Noyes began writing in a publication called the Battle-Axe. It brought him notoriety and generous financial contributions from a young woman whom he would soon marry. They and other followers began a commune in Putney, Vermont. Their lifestyle, including some unorthodox sexual practices, outraged the surrounding community, so the group moved to what they called “The Promised Land” in Oneida, New York, near the Canadian border. There, the community grew, even as it practiced “complex marriage,” in which every man was married to every woman. As Randall Hillebrand writes on the New York History Net, “no two people could have exclusive attachment with each other because it would be selfish and idolatrous.” While engaging in practices such as “ascending fellowship,” in which virgins were introduced to this “complex marriage,” the group farmed, cut wood into lumber, and made silk thread, animal traps, and silverware.

The Oneida Community was governed by various committees and by the righteous hand of Noyes himself. At its peak in 1878, it counted about 300 members. By this time, John Noyes had moved to an offshoot commune in Brooklyn, leaving the Oneida leadership in the hands of his son, Theodore. But the younger Noyes was anything but a true believer. He was an agnostic, and a poor administrator to boot. Even though John Noyes hurried back from Brooklyn, the community tore asunder, with many members marrying and leaving the fold. John Noyes fled town after the sheriff knocked with an arrest warrant charging statutory rape. Remnants of the community hung on, making what became world-renowned silver cutlery. The last original Oneida Community member died in 1950, and manufacturing of Oneida silverware ceased in 2004, ending a 124-year tradition.

This Shaker woman was photographed at the Hancock, Massachusetts, Shaker Village in 1935

The Shakers. About two centuries ago, followers of “Mother” Ann Lee, founder of the United Society of Believers in Christ’s Second Coming, or “Shakers” as they were better known, in England established communal settlements from Maine in the U.S. Northeast to Kentucky in the mid-South. One colony, in Ohio, lent its name to what is now the Cleveland suburb of Shaker Heights. Onlookers gave the sect its name as they watched its believers twitch and clap loudly – shaking off the sins of the world as they sang and danced. Since the sect, like the Harmonists, was celibate, Shaker missionaries walked the countryside seeking converts to keep their ranks full.

Less than a handful of Shakers remain in the world, at least as of 2006, at this site in Maine

After the U.S. Civil War of the 1860s, tens of thousands of Americans headed westward in search of fortunes and a new life, and lots of Shakers left the fold to join them. It was the beginning of the steady demise of their sect. Some Shaker settlements became museums that still draw visitors, curious to find out what all that moving and shaking were about. In 2006, the Boston Globe newspaper found what it described as the last Shakers – two women, ages 67 and 79, and two men in their 40s, who were still meeting and praying though not dancing and twitching while the Globe reporter was present – in Sabbathday Lake Shaker Village in southern Maine.

Thus it was a thin place, too, in quite a different sense.


(These are a few of the words from this posting that you may not know. Each time, I’ll tell you a little about them and also place them into a cumulative archive of “Ted’s Wild Words” in the right-hand column of the home page. Just click on it there, and if there’s another word in today’s blog that you’d like me to explain, just ask!)

Accouterments. From the French, as you might have guessed, this word describes the trappings or accessories that go with uniforms or dress.

Colloquy. A conversation, especially a learned or formal one.

Gabbing. Chatting, sometimes incessantly. People who talk a lot – and have something worthwhile to say – are said to have the “gift of gab.”

Rack and Ruin. A state of total decay or destruction.

Spunky. Lively, spirited, plucky. The word is said to have devolved from an English and Scottish term for “spark.”

Wistful. Yearning, wishful, usually in a dreamy sort of way.

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One response to “The Thin Place”

  1. longlong says:

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Ted Landphair


This is a far-ranging exploration of American life by a veteran Voice of America “Americana” reporter and essayist.

Ted writes about the thousands of places he has visited and written about as a broadcaster and book author. Ted Landphair’s America often showcases the work of his wife and traveling companion, renowned American photographer Carol M. Highsmith.

Ted welcomes feedback, questions, and ideas. View Ted’s profile. Watch a video about Ted and Carol by VOA’s Nico Colombant.

Photos by Carol M. Highsmith


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