Utopia, Limited


Everything the W’fcrttembergers built at New Harmony was substantial and strong: four dormitories of brick, each large enough to house about sixty people, each with kitchens and community rooms; a fine house for Father Rapp and his family; two granaries of brick and stone; a water mill and dam; a textile mill; a dyehouse; two sawmills; a hemp and oil mill; two large distilleries; a brewery, in which the pump was operated by a large dog walking on a treadmill; and forty two-story brick and frame dwellings and eighty-six log dwellings, all with fences, stables, and gardens.

The buildings were a triumph of construction. The brick-and-stone granary, the dam, the dyehouse, part of Father Rapp’s house, a score of the other houses, and two of the dormitories are still standing after a century and a half. They were so firmly mortised and tenoned by square pegs driven into round holes that they could not sag or lean. The timbers were cut in standard sizes at a central sawmill and numbered with an adz, so that they were interchangeable, and by this convenient uniformity of materials the Harmonists pointed the way toward modern prefabrication.

By 1822, the Harmonists had all but created a paradise on the banks of the Wabash in advance of the millennium. A hundred and thirty new members had come from Württemberg in 1817 and joined the original group, signing away not only their property but also the right to claim any wages or compensation should they choose to quit the society. Delegates had gone back to Germany and returned with 20,000 gulden in inheritances due the emigrants. Flatboats were leaving regularly for New Orleans loaded to capacity with agricultural products and whiskey, which the Harmonists never drank, limiting themselves to the small rations of beer and wine that Father Rapp doled out to them; and the factories of the town were turning out about $100,000 worth of goods a year—woolens, silks, wagons, hats, rope, and leatherwork. The homes the workers lived in were a striking contrast to the Hoosier backwoodsmen’s pitiful, dark “logholes,” as one early traveller called the pioneers’ cabins; their streets were broad and clean, shaded by poplars and mulberries; the surrounding hillsides were covered with vineyards and orchards; and great flocks of Merino sheep grazed in their pastures.

They led a quiet, well-ordered life. Each morning they were wakened to the day’s labor by the mellow tones of French horns. After the community milk wagon had made its rounds, and the chickens—the only domestic creatures that refused to adapt to community ownership—had been fed, the workers marched singing to their allotted tasks in the fields and shops. At nine o’clock they paused for lunch, at noon for dinner, at four for Vesperbrot , and at sunset they came home for supper. Sometimes the band played while they worked in the fields, and in the shops fresh flowers decorated the workbenches. At night, the shepherds slept under the stars in a house on wheels known as Noah’s Ark, while in the village the slumbering Harmonists were secure in the knowledge that the watchman was crying the hours.

Perhaps it was the increase of the Harmonists’ leisure that brought an angel to Father Rapp in a dream in 1822. This angel gave him the specifications for a new church that would require great labor in the building. Rapp told his people about the dream, and the construction of the church began under his supervision. The material was brick, the plan cruciform. Transept and nave were each 120 feet long; twenty-eight columns of cherry, walnut, and sassafras supported the roof, each column hand-turned and polished from a single tree butt. Atop the church was a dome encircled by a railed balcony where the community band could play on summer evenings. Father Rapp’s adopted son Frederick, who was something of an artist as well as a shrewd businessman, carved and gilded a rose on the stone lintel of the main door. Today, this door and lintel, which are all that remain of the church, form the west entrance to New Harmony’s schoolhouse, built on the church site in 1913. The church, after being partially dismantled, was torn down about a hundred years ago and the bricks were used to build a wall around the Harmonists’ cemetery.

But the church was finished sooner than the angel and Father Rapp had planned, and Harmonist hands were once more idle. They continued to build dormitories and acquire land, but even so there was not enough work to keep them busy all the time. George Rapp and his associates decided to sell their little Zion on the Wabash, at a sacrifice if necessary, and begin another community elsewhere. They had other reasons for moving, too: New Harmony was a profitable agricultural colony, but they had visions of an industrial enterprise that would be more profitable in the East. The West was not altogether what they had expected. In 1825 they returned to Pennsylvania, where they continued to await the Second Coming until 1905. By that time there were only two of them left, and one of these, announcing that the vigil was over, became the executor of the vast fortune the Rappites had accumulated in their century of existence.