American Sabbatical 106: 5/5/97

St. Louis

5/5.. St. Louis

After visiting the smoke-filled room, we whooshed across the hydraulic threshold and out into a light Spring rain. Time to make tracks for St. Louis, Louis. Peggy chose the river road along the north bank, and it was a goodun. Limestone bluffs outcropping behind the flowering hardwoods and pastel greens. We’ve seen so many 19th century sketches of Missouri bluffs that driving beside the real thing is playfully anachronistic. And all the Missouri license plates puts me in fugue. Everywhere we’ve gone in America we’ve seen MO plates. They say “SHOW ME” , but they might say “I’LL GO SEE MYSELF.” I’d expected Californians to be ubiquitous, but Missourians are the great travelers. Another case of ontogeny recapitulating phylogeny. Live at the historic gateway, you gotta go. Now seeing show me plates on every car is like being everywhere at once. Am I still making sense?

We’re back in Huck and Tom landscapes. Maybe that’s why it seems so familiar. Land of our native myth. Occasionally the road dips into dank lowland, beside serpentine creeks with the trees waist-deep along the edges. Then zigzags up to a vantage over the wide Missouri. The abandoned railroad line along this shore has been transformed into and bike and hiking path, the Katy Trail, and taverns and craft shops and B&Bs have sprung up to serve the new travelers. A fine way to cross Missouri. There’s hardly any traffic, and we amble along at absorption speed, soaking up these rich intervales. Corn sprouting on the alluvial flats, houses perched on the natural levees just below the bluffs, raptors gyring in the lip updrafts.

St. Charles, MO
We make an upland detour at Defiance to inspect the last of the Boonies. Daniel Boone’s final homestead. After his real estate speculation had once again bankrupted him in Kentucky, and his political name was mud, he moved off beyond the sound of his neighbors’ axes, crossed the great water and set up housekeeping here, in the 1790s. Took a Spanish land grant and began again with a grandchild or two. Early 19th century traveling journalists would make the sidetrip at Defiance to do homage to the old veteran. Could we do less?

We did as little as possible. Peggy began to moan softly as we pulled into the parkinglot at the Boone site. It was full of school buses, and you could see yet another reconstructed frontier village being assembled in the background. “Do I have to?” was her plaint. “Naw. I just wanted to see the shape of the hills,” I said as we wheeled out. It’s still idyllic country for a small farmer. Just beyond the reach of outer St. Louis.

St. Chas

Peggy's take
We were in for it, however. Ridge riding and plunging over the last convolutions above the American Bottom, then down into thundering malldom. The Owl navigator kept us along the riverbank as the Missouri makes its last wide S-curve northward to the confluence. We were hunting for the old town of St. Charles, where we might find traces of Creole heritage, and a good meal. Both, in fact.. in a scrubbed brick oldtown full of antique shoppes and tourist gawkoriums. The sun came out just in time for us to enjoy spinach quiche and iced tea under blossoming trees, among all the brick and wrought iron. The proportions of early 19th century buildings out here in the howling wilderness have the same human graces as their colonial counterparts in New England. Isn’t it curious how builders have tried to mimic the look ever since, and failed so miserably in finding the just proportion?

I perused the waterfront while Peggy cruised the stores. All these floodwater towns now give the river plenty of berth, and the ultimate edge is usually a morass of mudcoated wrack. Time and again I’ve approached the banks of these heartland rivers only to find the last 10-20 yards too soupy for indulgence. There’s no big levee to block the view here in St. Charles, which must make it deep in floodtime, but there’s no pierhead either, and I watch the brown turbulence through the usual thicket. Headed back to the old streets I encounter a couple of old cranks building a replica riverboat. A 30-foot bateau, to be sheathed in glass. One of them spent a decade constructing a keelboat like the one Lewis and Clark set out from here in. One year he and a party took it on a repeat voyage, following the explorers’ journals, going day by day upriver. The other builder had canoed down the Big Muddy all the way from the falls to here. Now they were reconstructing the smallest boat that Lewis and Clark used, for some further adventure. We talked hulls until the whistle blew. This baby was a flat-bottomed, round-bilged double-ender. Kind of how I feel after 26 thousand miles.

While she shops..

Then it was time to find Schandorff. Peter and I went to high school together and had been together in the two most memorable classes I’d ever had. US History with Fritz Allis, and English with Dudley Fitts. I remembered him as witty and articulate and another misfit in that classy environment. He’d gone to college with Peggy, but they’d never crossed paths there. Unlike all the rest of my classmates, whom she dated.. usually in preference to me.

Peter’s directions took us into a posh suburb where a goodly portion of St. Louis’ cashflow piles up, to judge by the manses. He’s an instructor (US History, of course.. also Oriental Studies and Debate) at a private school in this enclave, and as much an institution here as Fritz and Fitts were at PA. And still a live wire. He took us on a tour of the school, nosing into weightrooms and clay studios, telling us how the library had been endowed by default, when a communard heir refused a grotesque inheritance.

Peter, it turns out, has been an Equity actor for decades and a tour with him is full of dramatic turns. Rotund and bespeckled, he could play a fussy Dickensian academic, and probably does at need, or be a rowdy Falstaff among friends. A wonderful companion. Having decided we weren’t hopelessly dull, Peter invited us to spend the night at his house, and led us on a merry chase across the city in his black Camaro.


Schandorff Museum

Peter lives in an 1890’s brick townhouse in a shabby gentile St. Louis neighborhood, directly across the street from St. Margaret of Scotland. Totally integrated, utterly unpretentious, completely comfortable. As always, we worried about the Owl on city streets, and Peter assured us there would be nobody ruffling the bird’s feathers. The church runs things here, he assured us. “Nobody crosses the nuns.” Before they “cleaned up” city hall, your surest recourse for a traffic summons was to drop it and a five dollar bill into the collection plate. Peter didn’t even roll up the window of his Camaro for the night. A civil city? Unbelievable.

Excellent Thai food down the street, and a tour of the Schandorff Museum highlighted our stay. Peter is a world-traveler and a compulsive hoarder who has indexed archives of his life experiences. It’s a fabulous trip to follow him through Tibet and up the Yangtze while admiring his collections of Orientalia. The guest bathroom, for example, is a shrine to Chairman Mao, while the spare kitchen is a gallery of swimsuit calendars, all exposing Miss May this month. He showed us a Chinese Penthouse Magazine emblazoned in characters and the English boldface: HOT STUFF. He challenged us to discriminate between an authentic Chinese antiquity and a pot from Pier One. We guessed wrong.

We could tell Peter delights in wry. He offered us frozen gin.. and Diet Pepsi. The weary Owlers must have seemed tongue-tied and stupid to him, and he kindly put us to bed before the witching hour. We are getting punchy, folks. This last week may be a long one. But if it has energizing encounters like this one we should get home before we collapse.

5/6.. New Harmony.

Birdsong and the neighbors going to mass met us in the AM in St. Louis. I sat on the sunny steps of St. Margaret’s and sketched, sipping Chinese tea. The parishioners smiled and wished me good day. This is the way city life might be. Civil, cordial, and safe. Hats off to St. Louis.

Each place we visit is colored by the people we see there, of course. St. Louis seems very cosmopolitan and welcoming, in large measure thanks to Peter. But Missouri had already turned my head, and I’d wondered why St. Louis had been a blank spot in my geography. Dark, if not dangerous. Missouri has a bloody history, to be sure. The contentious territory of the slave debate and the scene of so much border bloodletting. Quantrill and Jesse James are folk heroes here. Somehow I think of knives when I think Missouri. Or I did.

The Arch
Now I feel this is the heart of the continent. Where the waters come together, and all the streams of the culture merge. East and West. North and South. Black and White. The darkest, souldead places we’ve seen on this trek have been on the alluvial flats of the Mississippi confluences. But the most enticing historic mysteries have been there, too. The Mississippian mounds. Memphis scared us. But New Orleans, and now St. Louis, have filled my head with an emotional longing.. Jazz and drawling voices, like Kate Chopin and Tennessee Williams. Maybe this is the sacred heart of America, with a slight French accent.

We cruised the sidestreets through unpretentious neighborhoods that looked alive and well, until we struck on downtown, dominated by that incredible arch. Even the new skyscraper abuilding in its frame can’t mar the sculptural effect. The business district seems unhurried and uncrowded, but not moribund. The steamboat casinos at the levee were already.. or still.. open for indulgence.

At the foot of the arch is an earlier gateway to the West. The Eads Bridge. The first crossing of the Mother River in full flood. Petroski starts his history of the great bridge builders with Eads, and this is still one of our great engineering feats. A triple-arched span of steel trusswork on stone piers with the roadway on top, you can feel the rushing waters humming through this instrument. The big story of this bridge is all under water, where Eads utilized his waterman’s expertise to root this thing so deep even the Mississippi couldn’t rip it up. It’s building is a great yarn, and it’s a charge to stand with the glittering arch above you and that 19 century ironwork spanning the river before you.

Eads Bridge

We crossed on the mundane interstate bridge and made haste across Illinois. The last time through we spent more than a week here, and we’re determined not to get waylaid this time. It’s a straight shot from St. Louis to the southern tip of Indiana, and we make it in 3 hours, even taking secondaries most of the way. It’s not so devastatingly flat down here as in Central Illinois, more tree lines. Even the intensity of factory farming seems less oppressive here, especially as you go east, but we didn’t dawdle to absorb the ambiance. I was dozing on the sunny side of Owl when Peggy said, “Bryce. It’s the Wabash,” and we were among Hoosiers.

We were vectored for New Harmony, one of the intentional communities Peggy has on her list of memorable sites, and the way is by back alley from our river crossing. These alleys are some twitchy, too. The narrow twolane makes ninety degree turns every quarter mile or so, and the feeling is very British. My English uncle used to explain the tortuous meanderings of English lanes by saying they’d been traced by sturdy yeomen staggering home from the pub. In Indiana the twitches are probably the perimeters of quarter sections, the gridding of America. The topology is more rumpled here than across the Wabash, and the settlement pattern decidedly different. The houses sit on hillocks, with rolling farmland between. I remember that much of Southern Illinois, Indiana, and Ohio, were drowned forests when the first settlers came here. A scattering of upland prairie, but mostly a dank and gloomy swamp. When George Rogers Clark marched through here during the French and Indian Wars the accounts recorded endless slogging through forested mire. The trees held the moisture. Once cleared and ditched, the land drained and proved to be fabulously rich. The hilltop housing is a reminder that the essence of this land is reclaimed swamp. The curves hold our speed down. Local traffic is sparse. And the Spring effusions are charming all the way to New Harmony.

(Memo #104)

May 6 New Harmony communes

Who? followers of George Rapp and Robert Owen, educators, scientists

What? religious commune, then utopian community

When? 1814 to Civil War

Where? southwest Indiana on Wabash River

How? practical religious sect, impractical social reformers

Topics: communes, utopias

Questions: Why were a religious commune and a utopian community organized at New Harmony? Why didn’t they survive? What were their successes and failures?

Cabin At New Harmony

Paul Tillich, George Rapp, Robert Owen, Prince Maximiliam, Karl Bodmer and Frances Wright (a theologian, a charismatic sect leader, a visionary social reformer, an explorer, an artist, a feminist-abolitionist) are all part of the odd history of New Harmony, Indiana. New Harmony is in the southwest corner of Indiana, a rolling green country. It sits on the Wabash River which is a wide placid waterway at this point, ideal for boat travel. From 1826 to the Civil War New Harmony was a scientific and cultural Mecca attracting scores of distinguished American and European visitors with its lectures, laboratories, and schools.


New Harmony by Bodmer

Today New Harmony is a small quiet village quite off the beaten track. The village center shows recent renovation with a few galleries and restaurants and antique shops. The historic buildings lie along quiet tree shaded streets scattered among modern houses. There is a quite amazing center for tourists called the Athenaeum, a huge stark white building designed by Richard Meier. It contains a gift shop, an exhibit on the two intentional communities that existed at New Harmony, and a theater where I watched the film on New Harmony. The building overshadows the artifacts. In fact the whole tourist enterprise is oddly disjointed. It is almost as though there are so many stories to tell (you have six tour options with at least three buildings in each !!) that they can’t decide on a focus and so everything is fuzzy! There are frontier cabins, Rappite and Harmonist houses, Victorian houses, town structures, empty sites (“This is where the rope walk was”), a labyrinth (which symbolized the difficult path to perfection for the Rappites). Some buildings have been moved, some renovated, some totally reconstructed. Some important commune sites are now in private hands to be glimpsed through garden gates. Memorials and an open air church have been constructed. The village is a melange of historical sites and quite weird.

Settler's Homestead by Bodmer
A few farmers were cultivating the rich Indiana loam when George Rapp reconnoitered the area and bought 30,000 acres as a commune site. He was a Lutheran sect leader who had brought 700 followers to this country in 1804. His first commune was in Pennsylvania. The Rappites believed that the Second Coming was imminent. They owned property in common and were virtually self-sufficient. They also started a number of small businesses to support themselves. They were quite successful especially in the production of textiles.

Rapp established his new center at “Harmonie” in 1814, a planned town for a religious commune. The group quickly built cabins and then more substantial houses for sect members. All followed the same floor plan which enabled them to prefab the houses with wood from their own mill and bricks from their own kiln. Once you’ve seen the Rappite style houses, they are easy to spot: two rooms and an entry downstairs, two rooms up, a steep roof pitch. They had their own form of insulation. I toured the Lenz house which has been furnished with furniture “of the period”. The Fauntleroy house is an example of a Rappite house that went through several expansions and was inhabited into the twentieth century. It has furnishings from several periods.

Log House

The Rappites built 150 structures in the town including community houses (or dormitories) where young males moved at fourteen. Rappites lived in family groups, but there was voluntary celibacy. A huge brick church was constructed. By 1824 they were marketing twenty products to stores from Pittsburgh to New Orleans and abroad.
Rapp decided to move his group back to the first site in Pennsylvania (nearer markets?) and he sold the town and its small businesses to industrialist Robert Owen.


Economy - Rapp's Commune on the Ohio


Owen was a Welshman who became the owner of an early textile mill at New Lanark, Scotland, where he instituted a number of social reforms intended to improve life for the workers - day care, schools, lectures, improved housing, free medical care. Owen believed that environment formed character. Science and education could create social equality and he believed in the equality of women. He saw the United States as offering the most supportive site for his social experiments. He teamed financially with the famous American geologist William McClure to create a utopian community.

They bought Rapp’s commune / town and renamed it New Harmony. Then Owen set out to attract followers. Owen’s own children immigrated. He toured and lectured inviting people to come and take part in his social experiment. And they did. Reformers, scientists, educators, feminists, abolitionists flocked to New Harmony, the first group coming up the Wabash in a “boatload of knowledge”. The luminaries included McClure, Charles Lesueur, Thomas Say, Marie Duclos Fretageot, Frances Wright. New Harmony sprouted schools and laboratories and lecture halls, a theater group (which has continued into the present), an opera, a newspaper, Indiana’s first public library. An idealistic Constitution was written, but the commune members soon requested that an Owens lead them. The Rapp church was used as a town hall for dances and lectures. Pestalozzi principles of education were used which involved the students in research, hands-on experiments, and vocational activities. Owen also stressed art and music.


The New Harmony community only lasted two years. Few of the new arrivals wanted to run the many small businesses Rapp had left. Science flourished, not business. There were conflicting philosophies, for education in particular. Factions sprang up. New Harmony was largely supported from 1824-26 by Owen’s personal fortune. He bailed out in 1826. A number of communes sprang up in the US from New Harmony's seeds, but none is mentioned as successful.

New Harmony by Bodmer

Some people - including Owen’s children - stayed on in the community and it remained an educational and scientific center until the Civil War, a community not a commune. Those who stayed supported themselves as best they could.

Rappite House
I toured the Athenaeum, a cabin “like the first ones the Rappites built”, a later Rappite house, a house with many additions, the site of the Rapp rope walk, the open air chapel (dedicated in about 1960), a garden memorial to a descendant of Robert Owen. And walked around the sleepy Indiana town. It felt like a jumble of historic facts and sites. Too much to really take in or to organize well in a memo, I’m afraid.

For two minutes after I entered the Athenaeum I thought I would have the ultimate treat ! A sign announced that New Harmony has a “definitive collection of Bodmers”. It turns out that Bodmer and Prince Maximilian had stayed in the community for most of the winter on their way west! We had just gone to see the Bodmers in Omaha and loved them! What an opportunity I thought. But.....the works at New Harmony were being restored and couldn’t be viewed! “Can you come back in a few months?” I was asked. AAARRRRRH

Brick House

5/6.. cont.

View of Wabash by Bodmer

New Harmony is right on the banks of the Wabash, here a yellow-brown gentle-flowing river of respectable width. A high truss and girder toll bridge reaches back over to Illinois. While our historiographer took the tour, I went and sat in the roofless church by Philip Johnson. A walled enclosure with a 40 foot high shingled, morel-shaped, canopy over the high altar. A most peculiar space. More so because grounds crews were mowing the floor, and around the walls. Eventually I went back to Owl’s lot and fell asleep under a shade tree.


Philip Johnson Church

Peggy came back groggy with compounded data from the interleaved history of this place, and from tourissima terminatus. “Take me to Vincennes,” she begged, and we zigzagged up the Wabash to another outpost of the East Indian Motel Culture.. with a heated indoor pool! Aaah.

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