While the maxim expect the unexpected is likely the mantra of many travelers, its corollary should be just as popular; that is, take notice of the unexpected. It’s easy to not notice, to be so focused on the planned itinerary that we become oblivious to the immediate surroundings. For the past three years, it’s been a major learning in our life–on-the-road: Stop, Notice, Explore!
Case in point…
While on our westerly route through the Midwest, we found ourselves having to extend what otherwise was planned as an overnight stay at a local KOA campground, right by Interstate 64 in Southwestern Indiana—pretty much the middle of nowhere. In these situations, we look for the usual ‘attractions’ of small town America… a farmer’s market, a local museum or two, a church, a local winery or brewery if we’re lucky… All good and predictable. However, this time, we had stumbled on no less than a world famous place in New Harmony, Indiana!
But why has this small town attracted such wide attention?
Because New Harmony, a quiet, rural town on the Wabash River has an extraordinary utopian history, playing host to two different communal societies with two very different visions within the first few decades of the 19th Century.
First came the religious Harmonists and, later, the secular Owenites. Both tales are symbolic of the quintessential American story of dreamers and doers, or people who had a big vision for their future.. Though seemingly dissonant in their background and beliefs—one, a strict religious sect, the other, a humanist non-religious group, both left a common heritage of public interest and broad impact.
Nearly 1,000 German-American members of Prophet George Rapp’s Harmony Society came from Harmony, Pennsylvania to build “New Harmony”, from 1814 to 1824. The Harmonists chose to forego their families, property and wordly ties in order to become “pure” for the Second Coming of Christ. Their core beliefs of celibacy, communal living and millennialism are described here.
Though Harmonists believed they were God’s chosen people whose perfected Harmony Society would lead the world toward Christ’s imminent return, they were also smart farmers and merchants… though adamant teetotalers, they brewed and sold excellent beer to the ‘non-converted’ !
In 1825, Harmonists’ leader, George Rapp, decided quite inexplicably, to move his flock back to Pennsylvania. He sold the lands of New Harmony to Robert Owen, a wealthy cotton mill owner and social reformer from Scotland. Owen then invited anyone who shared his dream of creating a “New Moral World” to join his model community. His goal was a lofty one: to achieve peace by perfecting human character through education and communal living and by supplying everyone’s physical needs from the bounty produced by science and technology. While the Owenite social experiment lasted only two years, Robert Owen and business partner William Maclure attracted prominent scientists and teachers to their “Community of Equality.” Town residents followed through by establishing the first public library, a civic drama club, and a public school system that were open to ALL…men and women of all ages, status and race… in the 1830’s!!
The Harmonist and Owenite heritage encompassed many unique features of social interest. These intriguing ideas and concrete accomplishments of both groups have inspired important social, economic, scientific and cultural initiatives over the last two centuries.
Over the years, there have been several art commissions benefiting New Harmony. Two contemporary architectural additions to the town worth mentioning.
The Roofless Church is an open air interdenominational church designed by American architect Philip Johnson and dedicated in 1960. The church was commissioned by Jane Owen, the wife of a descendant of Robert Owen. It is an open park surrounded by a wall. There is one roof/walls-like structure inside the compound, which serves as a cover for the statue The descent of the Holy Spirit by French cubist sculptor Jacques Lipchitz.
The Atheneum is the visitor center for New Harmony. It is named for the Greek Athenaion, which was a temple dedicated to Athena in ancient Greece. it was opened on October 10, 1979.
The architect was Richard Meier, whose other works include the Getty Center in Los Angeles. Ever since its opening in 1979 it had collected numerous prestigious architectural design awards including, in 2008, the AIA’s Twenty-Fifth Year Award which is given to no more than one building per year.
Quite apart from its rich and unique history, New Harmony is a very pretty Americana town with country inns, restaurants and cafes. Not surprisingly, it has become a bit of a go-to location for weddings! The people of New Harmony—many of whom are happy retirees!—are proud to celebrate their town founders’ impact on the world.
Do take advantage of the unexpected, even if, at first, it might not seem like it’s worth a look-see!