Today, New Harmony is a handmade soap and dulcimer kind of place. Ruth & I fondly remembered it but hadn’t been back in many years. We wanted to see how it was holding up. Just barely.
New Harmony is one of the oldest towns in the American Midwest because of the Harmonists. Celibate and communal like the Shakers, they originated in Germany and came to the banks of the Wabash River from Pennsylvania in 1814. There was only one other town in the area, Vincennes. The 850 Harmonists were disciplined and hard-working. In 10 years they built 180 buildings while gathering for prayer 3 times a day. Waiting for the 2nd coming of Christ, they planted vineyards, owned 20,000 acres and cultivated 2,000 of them, and loved mazes. They created one as a place to contemplate the difficulty of attaining true harmony. When Christ didn’t appear, they put the town up for sale.
A Welshman and a Scot, Robert Owen and William Maclure, bought it and tried to establish a 2nd utopian community here. Promoting enlightenment through education, believing in racial and gender equality, and dedicating their experiment to pure socialism, their utopia in the wilderness lasted for only 2 years.
The Athenaeum remains the most interesting building in New Harmony.
Now containing a visitor center, gift shop and a short, introductory film for which there is a charge, this Richard Maier structure opened in 1979. Other Meier buildings include LA’s Getty Center and Atlanta’s High Museum. In the Athenaeum we were told that the best way to really experience this town’s history is to take an $18 per person tram tour. There was no other way to really see the Working Men’s Institute, The 1822 David Lenz house, and other important landmarks. About 30 buildings from the Harmonist Era remain. Since it was a Monday, many attractions like the Gallery of Contemporary Art was closed. As near as we could tell, New Harmony survives by offering genuinely small town pleasures like a plein air art festival, workshops, a fall Kunstfest, and teaching children about beekeeping. Ruth sampled a couple of shops selling antiques and soap and judged them understocked.
This town has 2 mazes. I saw one of them and judged it not-much-of-an-attraction. Restoring it in 2008 seems to be this town’s last major community project. If the name Paul Tillich means something to you, New Harmony might be a major treat. However, the old bridge crossing the Wabash here is closed and this place needs tourists and attention.