Utopia, Limited


Maclure sent a press from New Orleans in 1827 for the use of students in his School of Industry, and on it was printed the first issue of his Disseminator of Useful Knowledge , a bimonthly that, for the better part of a decade, was the official organ of the town. It had two mottoes: “Ignorance is the fruitful cause of human misery,” and later, “He who does his best, however little, is always to be distinguished from him who does nothing.” In time, the Disseminator ’s press produced a number of books in New Harmony, among them Maclure’s Opinions on Various Subjects , in three volumes; schoolbooks for use in Mexico; Michaux’s North American Sylva ; and Thomas Say’s American Conchology . Mrs. Say and Charles Alexandre Lesueur drew the sixty-eight illustrations for this beautiful book. The coloring was done by pupils in the New Harmony schools.

The inspiration of William Maclure and Gerard Troost, the Dutch geologist, and the presence in New Harmony of Maclure’s large geological collection are indirectly responsible for the town’s being the headquarters of the United States Geological Survey from 1839 until 1856. When young David Dale Owen joined his father in the community, he had already abandoned the career of an artist and was contemplating the practice of medicine, but the sight of physical suffering was so painful to him that he abandoned it and turned to a study of Maclure’s collections. Ultimately he was appointed United States geologist. The “laboratory” he built on Church Street in 1858 remains today one of the most distinguished and interesting houses in New Harmony and is the home of Kenneth Dale Owen, great-great-grandson of the reformer. David Dale in turn inspired his younger brother, Richard, to become a geologist, and he was for a while his brother’s assistant. After distinguishing himself in the Civil War, Richard became a professor of natural history at Indiana University and later was chosen as the first president of Purdue, but he always maintained his residence in New Harmony and spent the last eleven years of his life there in retirement, dying in 1890. These two men were, in large part, responsible for the visits of many famous scientists to New Harmony, including John James Audubon, Sir Charles Lyell, and Prince Maximilian of Wied-Neuwied, who brought with him the young Swiss painter Carl Bodmer (see “Carl Bodmer’s Unspoiled West,” in the April, 1963, A MERICAN H ERITAGE ).

The oldest Owen son, Robert Dale Owen, was in and out of New Harmony all his life, sometimes maintaining a home there, sometimes paying his sister and brothers long visits. In the 1840*5 he served two terms in Congress as a representative from southern Indiana and, while in Washington, wrote and introduced the bill that created the Smithsonian Institution. From New Harmony, he wrote the letter to President Lincoln that is said to have persuaded him to issue the Emancipation Proclamation. Owen died at Lake George, New York, in 1877, but sixty years later his remains were brought back to New Harmony.

Robert Owen’s niece, Constance Fauntleroy, organized the Minerva Society, a women’s literary club, in New Harmony. Cousin Robert Dale wrote its constitution. Before that, in 1825, Frances Wright had gathered a Female Social Society about herself in New Harmony; so whichever of these is “the first women’s club in America,” New Harmony can claim it.

The tradition of the theatre was perhaps the longest lasting in New Harmony’s story and was started by another Owen son, William, who founded the Thespian Society in 1828. The Thespians used the Hall of New Harmony as their first theatre and, after that, the upstairs ballroom of Community House No. i. On one occasion Charles Alexandre Lesueur designed magpies that soared down out of the flies and stole objects from the stage in such realistic fashion that backwoodsmen in the audience informed the actors of the birds’ mischief. Lesueur’s beautiful backdrops would have been ornaments to New York productions, for he was a first-rate artist as well as naturalist. The scenery he made for William Tell was used over and over for fifty years.

The local theatre was a permanent attraction that brought people to New Harmony from miles around and drew outstanding actors, including the Joe Jeffersons and the Goldens, who made New Harmony their home and the headquarters for their travelling troupe. Showboats, in their heyday, tied up at the New Harmony wharf and the Thespians themselves at one point briefly tried the river life. Union Hall, the theatre they built for themselves by remodelling Community House No. 4, still stands on Church Street, owing half its fame to the fact that it was built almost 150 years ago by George Rapp’s Harmonists. The words “Opera House” are inscribed over its door, and the outlines of the old stage are still visible inside.