By Renee Bruck
There’s a quiet town on the banks of the Wabash that’s home to only about 800 residents but contains 204 years of Indiana history through the stories of its buildings and grounds just waiting for you to explore.
New Harmony State Historic Site served as home in the 1800s to two groups of people seeking heaven on Earth and trying to establish a model community where education, hard work and social equality would be part of daily life.
George Rapp and the Harmony Society first founded the town in 1814. The Harmonists first came to the United States from Germany in search of a place of perfection and like no other – a utopian society. The Harmonists traveled to the undeveloped Indiana territory after living in Pennsylvania, eventually settling on 20,000 acres on the eastern edge of the Wabash River.
The Harmonists believed Jesus Christ was coming back to Earth and prepared for this by creating a perfect metropolis in the middle of the wilderness, where they built 180 buildings in 10 years. New Harmony was completely self-sufficient and made goods that were traded to the East Coast and overseas.
“They were very practical people,” said Amanda Bryden, who serves as the state historic sites collections manager and New Harmony State Historic Site manager. “They planned everything to a T.”
Several of the buildings constructed in the early 1800s can be toured by visitors today during a visit.
“We have 200-year-old buildings still scattered throughout town,” Amanda said.
Eight properties in town are owned by the Indiana State Museum and Historic Sites, but other buildings also are open for visitors to explore through a partnership with the University of Southern Indiana. Other structures built by the Harmonists are now private homes, but the architecture can still be admired from the outside.
By 1824, Rapp and the rest of the Harmonists returned to Pennsylvania. But the Harmonists left a few things behind other than their 20,000 acres, which were sold to Robert Owen in partnership with William Maclure in 1825.
Visitors to New Harmony can actually see the original sundial from the Harmonist period, as well as a replica still in use. There’s a note left by a member of the Harmonist Society under the stairs of a third-floor staircase in Community House 2 that visitors can read for themselves.
Robert Owen, an industrialist, hoped to continue the utopian idea of the Harmonists, but Owen didn’t follow the Harmonists’ ideology on religion. Owen and Maclure, a geologist, wanted to create a utopian society through social reform and education. They brought followers to New Harmony who sought to better the world through science discoveries and the arts. A scholar himself, Maclure also attracted naturalists, geologists, educators and feminists to the area.
Owen and his followers – called Owenites – attempted to achieve a “Community of Equality” through what others at the time would have considered radical ideas. They didn’t believe in slavery and supported equal rights for women, even allowing them to wear pants and own land.
But, Owen and Maclure’s community dissolved within just a few years of its founding.
Still, those early utopian communities brought contributions to education and the arts which continue to affect Indiana today.
Earlier this year, Indiana legislators named the state’s official insect as Say’s Firefly. Thomas Say – a naturalist who wrote extensively on entomology, conchology and paleontology – was living in New Harmony when he first described the Say’s Firefly in 1826.
That legacy of the arts continues in New Harmony today, with several working spaces for creatives and visiting scholars. Special events and musical performances happen throughout the year at Thrall’s Opera House. One of the last dormitories built by the Harmonists before they left the area, it was converted into a theater in 1859 and served as home to the world-famous acting company, the Golden Troupe.
Don’t take our word for it, though. Experience New Harmony for yourself to fully appreciate the legacy of two early American utopian communities truly ahead of their time.
Tours begin at the Atheneum at 401 N. Arthur St. daily at 1 p.m. CST and last about two hours. Visitors also are welcome to walk throughout the town to explore gardens, labyrinths and other open-air locations throughout their visit.
Follow the Indiana State Museum and Historic Sites on Facebook, Twitter and Instagram during the month of July as we share more stories and fun facts about New Harmony State Historic Site – and be sure to schedule a visit soon!