10 American Utopian Communities that Rose to Perfection Only to Dramatically Collapse

10 American Utopian Communities that Rose to Perfection Only to Dramatically Collapse

Larry Holzwarth - December 15, 2017

A utopian community is often considered to be a simply perfect place to live, free of danger, a modern equivalent to the Eden described in the book of Genesis. This perception is wrong. The word utopia was used in the title to a book written by Sir Thomas More which described an island nation and satirized the Catholic Church, Protestant theology, and lawyers (The full title of the book translated from Latin is A Truly Golden Little Book, No Less Beneficial Than Entertaining, of a Republic’s Best State, and of the New Island Utopia). The word was formed from Greek and literally translated means no place. In modern usage the word utopia is generally considered to be a place which is better than any found in contemporary society and which is thus non-existent.

Many efforts have been made in the past to create utopian communities, isolated from the contemporary society they were created to escape. Some have been created for the purpose of unfettered worship, others for the purpose of living in complete harmony with nature, still others to experience a completely egalitarian society. Many so-called hippie communes attempted to achieve a utopian society in the 1960s, nearly all of them were short lived. Besides the works of Plato and Sir Thomas More there is a long list of utopian society in literature, including Swift’s Gulliver’s Travels, Men Like Gods by H. G. Wells, and Andromeda, by Ivan Yefremov.

10 American Utopian Communities that Rose to Perfection Only to Dramatically Collapse
The oldest known manuscript page of Plato’s Republic, where the first description of a perfect society is recorded. Wikipedia

Here are the brief histories of ten utopian communities in the United States.

10 American Utopian Communities that Rose to Perfection Only to Dramatically Collapse
Brook Farm, now a park, in Massachusetts. Wikimedia

Brook Farm, Massachusetts

The philosophy of transcendentalism began to develop in New England in the late 1820s, as an argument against the rise of both spiritualism and intellectualism. Its supporters believed that human beings are inherently good, and the trappings of society corrupted them. Transcendentalists believed that humans find their true selves through intuitive means, and reach their best when they are completely self-reliant.

George Ripley, a Unitarian minister, and his wife Sophia embraced the philosophy and in 1841 established Brook Farm as a joint stock company about ten miles outside Boston in West Roxbury. In essence, the joint stock arrangement meant that participants in the community would share in the work as well as the profits generated by the farm. Each member would choose whatever work they wished, including women, and each member would be paid equally. Visitors to the farm paid a fee, which was added to the community funds from which everyone was paid.

A school system established on the farm created income through outsiders’ attendance, but the farm itself was not profitable. By 1844 the members were operating under the socialism promoted by Charles Fourier and published a newspaper called The Harbinger promoting what they Fourierism. The members began the construction of an enormous community building called the Phalanstery, which would house all indoor activities for the community. It was destroyed by fire.

Following the expense of building the Phalanstery and its destruction (it was uninsured) the community collapsed financially. It gradually shut down and was completely closed by 1847. One of the community’s founders was novelist Nathaniel Hawthorne, who invested in the community despite not being a strict follower of their beliefs. Hawthorne used the experience as the basis for the novel The Blithedale Romance.

The remaining buildings and property were taken over by the Lutheran Church, which used the property as an orphanage and school for well over a century. Many of the original buildings were eventually destroyed by fire. The farm is today operated as a historic site by Massachusetts.

10 American Utopian Communities that Rose to Perfection Only to Dramatically Collapse
The Main building of the North American Phalanx, used as a dwelling and community hall, photographed in 1972 before it burned down in November of that year. National Park Service

North American Phalanx, New Jersey

One of the leading proponents of the socialist utopia beliefs of Charles Fourier was newspaper publisher Horace Greeley. In 1843, with the cooperation of author Charles Brisbane, Greeley led the formation of the Albany Branch of the North American Phalanx and a dozen families adopted its constitution in August. Shares of stock in the Phalanx were offered for sale and although some capital was raised the hoped for formation of other branches did not take place. Most of the stock which did sell came from outside investors who bought shares but were not interested in living in the proposed community.

Still with insufficient capital the Albany Branch purchased a plot of 673 acres in New Jersey, mortgaging over $9,000 of the purchase price, leaving the Branch with just $2,000 for the construction of buildings, livestock, farm equipment, and other items necessary to produce income. The Albany Branch planned a single large building – called a phalanstery – for dwelling in and for community use for education, recreation and some industry.

By the end of 1844 over 100 people in 20 families occupied the community. Labor was divided into categories such as agriculture and manufacturing, and those were further divided by type of work. Jobs considered to be mere drudgery were paid more than those considered to be light work, with pay based on a system of rewards based on capital invested and a daily wage. Domestic work was the purview of the women in the community. Payment was in scrip, which bore the image of Charles Fourier.

A sizable number of the Branch members were vegetarians, which created difficulties in the fair distribution of food. Several different religions were represented among the members, including Unitarians, Episcopalians, Shakers, and Jews. Newspapers were provided by Greeley and other sources. The community prospered for its first few years, but gradually began to decline in the early 1850s. The promise of shared abundance did not emerge from the shared living conditions within the community.

In 1853 several members left the community to form a new one forming as the Raritan Bay Union, taking with them their stock ownership, on which they continued to be paid for their capital investment, removing much of the money from the community. After a disastrous fire destroyed the Branch’s mill the community voted to dissolve. Remaining community property was sold and the proceeds divided among the shareholders, who ultimately received a little less than sixty cents per dollar invested.

10 American Utopian Communities that Rose to Perfection Only to Dramatically Collapse
The coal and ice office for the Hopedale Community in the 1840s. Wikimedia

Hopedale Community, Massachusetts

The Hopedale Community was intended to combine the precepts of a utopian community with a modern factory town, a concept which its founder called Practical Christianity. Unlike most utopian communities it was conceived as being connected to rather than being isolated away from the outside world. Hopedale was a community which supported women’s equality, temperance, and abolitionism. Members ceded their property to the community when they joined. If they left they got most of it back.

Hopedale was founded by Adin Ballou, a then Universalist and later Unitarian minister who was also a pacifist. He established community rules based upon his own Christian beliefs and required compliance with his Principles of Theological Faith; Principles of Personal Righteousness; and his Principles of Social Order, all of which were part of the community’s bylaws. Equality, the sharing of Christian love, and the sharing of worldly goods were all part his rules.

Ballou believed that men and women were equal, but that they had been assigned societal roles by virtue of their gender. Women were therefore assigned domestic roles and the community was led and administered by men, although women were allowed to vote on community issues. They were not allowed to debate them or initiate them. Some exceptions were made for certain women, allowing them to act to insure that women were paid fairly and equally.

The land upon which Hopedale was built was purchased in 1842. By 1856 the utopian community was bankrupt. Two supporters, Ebenezer Draper and George Draper, withdrew their shares of the community stock, which came to nearly 75% of the total, and created the Hopedale Manufacturing Company, which eventually became the Draper Corporation, a manufacturer of looms for the textile industry.

The remnants of the Hopedale Community operated as a religious group through the Civil War and was absorbed into the Unitarian Church as Hopedale Parish in 1867. Ballou remained as the Parish Pastor until he retired in 1880.

10 American Utopian Communities that Rose to Perfection Only to Dramatically Collapse
Fruitlands, shown here in 1915, was for a short time the home of a young Louisa May Alcott. Wikimedia

Fruitlands, Massachusetts

Fruitlands was established in 1843 by Charles Lane and Amos Alcott. Fruitlands was Alcott’s idea, and the land upon which it operated was purchased with Lane’s money, as Alcott was without funds after the failure of a Temple School in Boston, where his teaching methods had aroused the ire of Bostonians. Alcott had denounced corporal punishment of children among other things, instead requiring the offending child to strike Alcott, thereby taking on the shame of violent behavior.

Lane’s money obtained about 90 acres in the town of Harvard, Massachusetts. Neither Lane nor Alcott referred to the property as being purchased or owned, instead the land for which they had exchanged Lane’s $1,800 was redeemed from the “…debasing state of proprium, or property, to divine uses…” The tract contained fewer than a dozen apple trees but the new owners – or redeemers – optimistically named their community Fruitlands.

About 14 residents including both Lane’s and Alcott’s families moved to Fruitlands in June. Both Lane and Alcott were transcendentalists, with Alcott espousing the belief that the world and its goods should be fully renounced to allow focus on the spirit. At Fruitlands, it was a general belief that denial of the body led to fullness of spirit. The utopians planted several acres in grain and vegetables.

To deny the body, the residents of Fruitlands were vegan, although that word was unknown to them. Unnatural light from candles or oil lamps was forbidden, as to place artificial light against natural darkness was a denial of God’s will. The only beverage allowed to the residents was water. Water used for the purpose of bathing was unheated. All work on the farm was by manpower alone, including plowing the fields to plant grain.

Not surprisingly, Fruitlands did not survive its first winter. The severity of the New England weather was one factor, food shortages another. Alcott removed to the home of a neighbor, he was later to have a home purchased for him by Ralph Waldo Emerson in Concord. Alcott’s daughter, Louisa May Alcott, had lived with her family at Fruitlands and later gave the world the novel Little Women, which was set in the house in Concord. Her short story Transcendental Wild Oats describes her stay in the utopian community at Fruitlands.

10 American Utopian Communities that Rose to Perfection Only to Dramatically Collapse
Utopia Ohio as it appeared in the winter of 1940. There was more than one type of utopian community attempted there. Wikimedia

Utopia, Ohio

Utopia was founded by followers of Charles Fourier in 1844 on the north bank of the Ohio River in what is now Clermont County, after the failure of a preceding utopian community on the site which had been called the Clermont Phalanx. The followers were of the belief that living communally in a utopian society would usher in a period of peace which would last for thousands of years. Lack of funds led to the community disbanding in three.

The residents of Utopia paid a fee of $25 to join the community, in exchange for a small house and garden, from which they would produce communal vegetables. When the community disbanded the land was sold to a group of Spiritualists, a religious sect which believed that the living and the dead coexist spiritually. Intended to build their own form of utopian community, the Spiritualists moved the only brick structure in the community, which served as the communal dining room and town hall, closer to the river bank. The job was completed in December 1847.

On December 13 1847 the Ohio River flooded and washed away many of the wooden homes of the community, with their residents seeking shelter in the town hall. When the flood swept away the south wall many were killed.

After the flood the town was organized as an individualist anarchist community, with individual ownership of property. In order to reside in the community an applicant needed an invitation from someone already a member. The basis of exchange within the community was labor rather than money. Goods could be acquired for the exchange of labor notes, to be converted into actual labor as required.

By the 1850s Utopia reached its peak of around 40 structures. It began to decline during the Civil War and by 1875, although several founders remained in the community, it was no longer attracting new residents and the project disappeared. Utopia remains today as an unincorporated community in Ohio of but a few residents.

10 American Utopian Communities that Rose to Perfection Only to Dramatically Collapse
The home of Wilhelm Keil as it appeared in the 1950s. It has since been restored. Salem Public Library

Aurora Mills Colony, Oregon

In 1853 Wilhelm Keil sent representatives of his moderately successful utopian community in Missouri to the Washington Territory to look for a spot which Keil described as a “…second Eden.” Keil intended to create a self-sustaining agrarian utopian community and in 1855 left the area of Bethel, Missouri with about 250 of his followers, and the body of his recently deceased son, preserved in whiskey. The party wintered over in the area which is now Washington and in 1856 settled near Oregon City.

The property Keil purchased south of Oregon City had an operating mill on it, and Keil named the new colony Aurora Mills in honor of his daughter. Keil was a tailor by trade before becoming a preacher, and he exercised sole authority of the new colony, running it as he had once run his own shop. All communal property in his utopia was held in his name, rather than in a corporation. All adult members of the colony were required to contribute in the form of labor, but he was not.

The Aurora colony built schools for its children and businesses which were soon profitable. Fruit orchards and additional mills contributed to its success and when the railroad passed through Aurora Mills a hotel was added.

Keil stressed that the colony’s rules were to be found in the Bible and denied the use of titles among the residents, other than to address one another by Christian. He made the going to confession mandatory for residents, with public confessions which helped maintain what he deemed to be a necessary level of humility among the residents. He was not required to practice confession himself. He also would address what he termed deviant behavior publicly, in order to shame those in error.

When Keil found himself without heirs after the death of his sole remaining child, he decided to begin the process of dividing his sole ownership of the property among the members. He died before he could accomplish this and the community members formally dissolved the community in 1883. Today the area where the colony stood is in the city of Aurora. Several properties which were part of the colony remain standing in Aurora today.

10 American Utopian Communities that Rose to Perfection Only to Dramatically Collapse
The Reunion Tower, a Dallas Landmark, is on land which was once part of the La Reunion Colony. Wikimedia

La Reunion, Texas

The socialist writings of Charles Fournier were the impetus for Frenchman Victor Prosper Considerant to create what he envisioned as a socialist utopian enclave in Texas after he was exiled from France. After selecting the area near the Trinity River in present day Dallas, Considerant went back to Europe to recruit potential colonists from French, German, and Swiss followers of Fournier there. The area already contained several hundred setters when Considerant directed an agent to purchase the site of the colony for him.

Considerant recruited around two hundred colonists and arrived near Houston in 1855, journeying to the site of the new colony overland on foot and by oxcart. The chosen site was ill-suited for farming, and most of the new arrivals were not farmers, but watchmakers, manufacturers, brewers, and weavers, unable to create produce to sustain themselves. At the same time they increased the local population by more than half, increasing the pressure on the local environment to sustain them all.

Eventually more than 350 Europeans arrived at La Reunion, which was beginning to fail even as its population grew. The crops which were planted suffered from insufficient husbandry and the vagaries of the weather. Drought and grasshopper infestations destroyed the rest. With not enough food to sustain the population, people left at a faster rate than they arrived.

The colonists had invested in the development of the colony with an expectation of receiving a return as the experiment prospered. Instead many were faced with a total loss of their investment and insufficient food. As more of the colonists left the cost of recruiting new members increased and the downward spiral accelerated.

La Reunion was formally dissolved as a socialist utopian community in January 1857. In 1860 what remained of the settlement was absorbed into Dallas. The utopian community existed for less than two years. It was later discovered that the community had been built atop a large deposit of limestone, which was quarried as Texas grew. The colony cemetery remains, but none of the buildings erected by the colonists survive.

10 American Utopian Communities that Rose to Perfection Only to Dramatically Collapse
A view of the Oneida Colony taken around 1870. The large building at left center was used to manufacture Oneida cutlery until the late 20th century. Wikimedia

Oneida Community, New York

The Oneida Community was founded by John Noyes, a Perfectionist Christian. Perfectionism in this sense refers to the perfection of the soul, free of all sin, which occurred at the second coming of Jesus Christ, believed by Noyes and other followers of the sect to have happened in 70 AD. Perfectionists at Oneida believed all property to be communal and practiced complex marriage, in which multiple partners are all married to each other and live together.

The Oneida Community practiced free love, to the point that exclusive relationships were disapproved of, and the children which were produced by such a system were to be raised communally. Mutual criticism was another common practice, in which a member was subjected to a critique of their perceived faults by other members of the community publicly.

In the late 1860s the community introduced an experiment in selective breeding, requiring those who wished to procreate to be matched to a suitable mate by a committee. Fifty-eight children were born through this process, Noyes was the father of nine of them. Children in the Oneida Community were weaned from their mother around the age of one and placed into the Children’s wing, where they were raised communally, with visitation by their biological parents closely monitored.

The community eventually numbered more than 300 members. Oneida maintained an agricultural operation, both for sustenance and for profit, and secondary manufacturing of items such as leather goods, traps, lightweight furniture, and eventually silverware and flatware. The businesses were successful to the point that by 1870 Oneida was employing more than 200 outside workers, and was the largest employer in the region.

Internal pressures occurred when Noyes was unable to transfer control to his agnostic son, and external pressures from other religious groups forced Oneida to make several changes, including the abandonment of complex marriage. Noyes fled the country when threatened with statutory rape charges. When the community broke apart some of its members formed a joint-stock company called Oneida Community Limited to continue manufacturing operations. Today it is known as Oneida Limited, still a major cutlery producer, although manufacturing is now done overseas.

10 American Utopian Communities that Rose to Perfection Only to Dramatically Collapse
Etienne Cabet’s grand expectations for his Icarian Colonies in America were never met. Wikimedia

Icarians, California, Iowa, Texas, Missouri, Louisiana, and Illinois

Etienne Cabet was a French author and politician who developed a theory of organizing society into communal living, with no private ownership of property, while living as an exile in England. He published these ideas in a novel which he called Voyage to Icaria, a fictional land made into a communist society (at the time the word communism referred to communal living) by its national hero, Icar. The book was popular in Europe and Cabet boosted its sales by publishing journals and magazines which promoted Icarianism.

In 1847 Cabet published in one of his magazines a proposal to create Icarian colonies in America on an agrarian and light manufacturing basis, selecting the new State of Texas as the site for his first colony. Texas speculators agreed to sell him the land. Although Cabet deluded himself into believing that tens of thousands of his supporters would flock to the new colony, less than one hundred arrived in Texas, where they found themselves the victims of a bad real estate deal and generally dismal conditions.

Eventually the Icarians established small communities in several states, although their numbers never came near what was envisioned by Cabet. The Icarians developed agriculture in accordance with the location of the community. Generally the members donated their property to the colony and it had to have a minimum value of $60 for membership. They lived in large communal buildings in separate rooms for families, using shared dining and living rooms. Everyone had the same type and amount of furniture. The Icarians sold produce from their farms and products from their shops to create profits, which were divided among the community after expenses.

The Icarians’ religious beliefs were required to comply with ten points provided by Cabet, and instruction on major religions was provided to all at the age of eighteen. Friction among the different Icarian communities and within some of the larger gradually wore down the society, and in 1898 the last remaining Icarian community, near Corning, Iowa, voluntarily disbanded. The Icarians were the longest lasting American communal living experiment not based on religion.

10 American Utopian Communities that Rose to Perfection Only to Dramatically Collapse
The welcome sign to the unincorporated town of Home, a small community where the anarchist utopia once stood. Wikipedia

Home, Washington

Home was founded as a utopian colony for anarchists when three veterans of a similar failed colony called Glennis purchase 26 acres of land and moved their families to the site on the Key Peninsula near Puget Sound. Two years later, in 1898, they established a Mutual Home Association for the purpose of buying additional land for new members. Title for the land would remain with the Association, although later in 1909 that would change.

Home rapidly became a community of anarchists (supporters of self-governed societies) and they were soon joined by others attracted by the voluntary nature of compliance with social mores. Nudists were common in the community, as were freethinkers and communists. When President William McKinley was assassinated the killer was a confessed anarchist and the uproar over the third President being murdered in office in less than forty years drew increased attention to Home.

In 1902 an anarchist newspaper published a story about free-love in Home which prompted the United States Post Office to close the Home Post Office. Public outcry in neighboring communities again placed the community under scrutiny, and its reputation for being seedy and undesirable grew. Under increased pressure from outsiders members of the Association broke into disagreeing factions over Home’s management.

Nude swimming was illegal in Pierce County, where Home was located, but there was no restriction on it within the community itself. When a member of the community reported other members swimming nude to the county authorities, other members defended them as being within their rights. A nude vs. anti-nude debate broke out in home, gleefully reported in newspapers outside of the community. Meanwhile nationwide anti-anarchist factions were gaining steam in the aftermath of events such as the Hay Market Riot in Chicago.

As the community debate increased it became clear both inside and outside that the colony was far from being a united utopia. Both sides of the debate over nude swimming, and public nudity in general, claimed to be anarchists, but it was clear that their support of the anarchist movement applied differently on certain moral issues. That and the outside pressures condemning all members of the community for living in an immoral manner brought it to a close. The Association dissolved itself in 1919. Today Home is a census designated place of mostly beach houses.