New Harmony, Indiana: Like a River, Not a Lake: A Memoir

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For nearly seven decades, Jane Blaffer Owen was the driving force behind the restoration and revitalization of the town of New Harmony, Indiana. In this delightful memoir, Blaffer Owen describes the transformational effect the town had on her life. An oil heiress from Houston, she met and married Kenneth Dale Owen, great-great-grandson of Robert Owen, founder of a communal society in New Harmony. When she visited the then dilapidated town with her husband in 1941, it was love at first sight, and the story of her life and the life of the town became intertwined. Her engaging account of her journey to renew the town provides glimpses into New Harmony's past and all of its citizens-scientists, educators, and naturalists-whose influence spread far beyond the town limits. And there are fascinating stories of the artists, architects, and theologians who became part of Blaffer Owen's life at New Harmony, where, she says, "My roots could sink deeply and spread."

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Historical Note

ePub

Connie A. Weinzapfel

JANE BLAFFER OWEN’s memoir begins with her 1941 entry into New Harmony, Indiana, a town with a substantial and significant history. A brief overview of its history and development will provide a helpful orientation to her many references to its past.

New Harmony is the site of two of America’s important early communal experiments. The first utopians—the Harmonie Society of Iptingen, Germany, from within the area of Württemberg—were led by Georg Johann Rapp (1757–1847) from their first settlement to the Northwest Territory in 1814. (Members of the Harmonie Society have been referred to as Rappites or Harmonists.) “Father Rapp,” the title given him by his Pietist flock, and his adopted son Frederick hired engineers from Vincennes, Indiana, to design their new town, Harmonie. Streets were laid out in a perfect grid and were named for their utilitarian purposes—Church, Granary, Steammill, and Brewery, as well as East, West, North, and South streets (see the town map). The Harmonists efficiently constructed their single-family houses in a process we would today call prefabrication, as pieces were cut and numbered off-site at their mill and assembled on each town lot. Gardens for vegetables, herbs, and flowers were incorporated into the plan, and two thousand acres immediately surrounding the town were used for the Harmonists’ agricultural endeavors and formed the basis for their substantial commercial success. In keeping with their providential path as God’s chosen people, the Harmonie Society placed New Harmony for sale in 1824 in order to relocate to western Pennsylvania. Considering New Harmony’s remote location on the frontier, the Harmonists’ dwellings and public buildings were quite remarkable. The American Planning Association recognized their exemplary community design in 1998 when it designated New Harmony as a National Planning Landmark.

 

1 Twin Vows

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My life is for myself and not for spectacle. I much prefer that it be of a lower strain, so it be genuine and equal, than that it should be glittering and unsteady. . . . To be yourself in a world that is constantly trying to make you something else is the greatest accomplishment.

—Ralph Waldo Emerson, “Self-Reliance”

 

I grew up in a small, exclusive neighborhood of impressive homes with magnolia-, jasmine-, and rose-filled gardens. The several families who had built these fine homes and gardens owned stock in the same companies, belonged to the same clubs, sent their children to the same schools, and attended the same church (institutions that were segregated in those days). The presumption that long and enduring friendships would blossom among the beneficiaries of this elite segment of society was in my case never justified.

In the decades between two world wars, children—especially young women—seldom disappointed parental expectations, however often they might have wished to bolt imposed boundaries. My long-suppressed rebellious spirit came close to volcanic eruption in Houston during 1936, my first year after college. Well-intentioned and loyal friends of my parents gave endless lunches, dinners, and dances, for I was considered a proper debutante in my Parisian haute couture wardrobe. Not so. I had done nothing to merit the attention of kind hosts. I saw myself as a wild, alien creature who had been forcefully herded down from her native habitat into a glittering show ring and ordered to go through prescribed paces. I searched in vain for some loose planks in my imaginary enclosure but found none.

 

2 Indian Mound

ePub

Humility, that low, sweet root,
From which all heavenly virtues shoot . . .

—Thomas Moore, The Loves of the Angels

 

My fears about a racing-stable absentee husband began to dissipate. In the first year of our marriage, Kenneth began necessary improvements to the Laboratory residence and purchased a large portion of Robert Owen’s original holdings, rolling farmlands that culminated in the highest point on the Wabash River for many miles, a rise known as Indian Mound (see area map). Archaeologists called it a midden, a deposit containing refuse indicative of an early human settlement; this one was created with mussel shells discarded by prehistoric Native Americans. But generations of townspeople had other names and softer feelings for this ageless place. Indian Mound became for Kenneth and me (and later our three daughters) a refuge from the rattle of trucks along Church Street, heat, and concerns. The greatest reward for climbing that far, however, was the expansive view of Cut-Off Island, belonging half to Indiana and half to the nearby fertile, flat plains of Illinois, still innocent of factories and housing developments on the other bank of the Wabash (see area map).1

 

3 The Sixth Generation

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But since everything living strives for wholeness, the inevitable one-sidedness of our conscious life is continually being corrected and compensated by the universal human being in us, whose goal is the ultimate integration of conscious and unconscious, or better, the assimilation of the ego to a wider personality.

—Carl Jung, The Structure and Dynamics of the Psyche

 

Our first daughter, Jane Dale, arrived prematurely on September 30, 1942, at Toronto General Hospital. Had she come on schedule, in late October, my delighted father would have not been able to hold her in his arms or bring a crib to my hospital room filled with convalescent port for me and champagne for his granddaughter’s christening. Daddy had brought his gifts to my hospital room himself. The exertion had taken its toll, for he had not fully recovered from a prostate operation earlier that summer.

After resting awhile in the armchair near my bed, he rose and declared with his old exuberance, “Jane, you’re not returning to Houston in an ordinary way. I am going to the train station to exchange our return tickets for a private Pullman car to take us all home.”

 

4 Harmonist House

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We are creatures identified by what we do with our hands.

—Frank R. Wilson, The Hand: How Its Use Shapes the Brain, Language, and Human Culture

 

A Standard Oil of Indiana filling station stood across Church Street from the Lab and the Rapp-Maclure-Owen House, darkly foreshadowing the challenges of the journey on which I was embarking to reinvigorate New Harmony (11 on town map). Trucks roared noisily along Church Street, Highway 66, on their way to or from Illinois (see area map). This shining white station with its red, blue, and white torch, an ersatz imitation of the torch that ancient Greek athletes carried before their Olympic Games, bluntly proclaimed: “I am the only real thing in this town; I give gas and cold drinks to truckers all day and night, and they adore my Muzak.” There was no possibility of a full night’s sleep in the Lab.

Fantasy kept pace with my indignation: “Even with your imitation torch, you’re not the truth and reality of New Harmony but rather a servant that pretends to be more important than the geologists who once lived across the street. Were it not for their intellect and devotion to geology, you might not even be on this corner.” My anger was not directed at the attendants. The filling station itself represented, for me, Prospero’s servant Caliban, of Shakespeare’s Tempest, who stoked the fire and brought the water. All went well on the island until Prospero imprisoned Ariel (a spirit of imagination and of art), an act that elevated Caliban’s ambitions. Matters could not be righted until Caliban resumed his rightful place and Ariel could be set free and given liberty to create. I never doubted that the filling station would someday, somehow, disappear or that the aspirations of earlier generations would find contemporary expression.

 

5 Harmonist Church and School

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For a path to become a road, it is not enough that one person travels it, opens it. The traces of those steps would be erased immediately if other persons did not gather the signs, did not step into the same footprints, did not make the path just traced more passable by their traveling it.

—The dedication from the booklet honoring Maria De Mattias on the fiftieth anniversary of her beatification, October 1, 20001

 

Kenneth and I were not alone in our respect for the achievements of New Harmony’s founding fathers and mothers and in our love of the land. Thomas Mumford and John Elliott, whose New Harmony roots reached back as far as my husband’s, also returned to land their ancestors had farmed. Consciously or not, these descendants of British citizens who had arrived in New Harmony in the 1820s were reenacting the early American tradition of sons who worked their ancestors’ land. This custom decreased during the transition from an agrarian economy to an industrial one. Sons left family farms for cities, and small towns withered. The story of human erosion is well known. We are less aware of exceptions to this pattern.

 

6 Acquiring the Granary and Mansion

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The moral outlook of a community can be shown to be closely connected to its history, geographical environment, economic structure.

—C. S. Lewis, Miracles: A Preliminary Study

 

Beginning in the 1940s, Kenneth and I had agreed that his efforts would stretch southward to reclaim ancestral farmland, while mine would extend northward to restore historic Harmonist homes. We would meet in the middle of New Harmony and branch out from the David Dale Owen Laboratory. Kenneth’s first priority was overseeing the restoration of his childhood home, accomplished through the skills of Fred E. Cook. Auntie Aline’s memorabilia were reduced and organized, which allowed for the addition of lovely furnishings. Most important, the fossil fish, which became for me a symbol of hope and renewal, was restored. The Lab had awakened from its slumber.

The publication of Marguerite Young’s book Angel in the Forest in 1945 piqued the interest of staff at Life magazine, who visited New Harmony to prepare an article. The caption of the feature photograph describes the Lab as a “fairy-tale castle.” In another photograph inside the Lab, Auntie Aline sat reading beside the open shutters of a bay window shedding light on a bust of Robert Owen.1 We were no longer concerned about the home leaving family hands, as the wartime years slowed outside interests in acquiring our historic properties.

 

7 May Day Fête

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What is decisive for me, in all the arts, is not their outward appearance, not what is called “beautiful”; but rather their deepest, most inner origin, the buried reality that calls forth this appearance.

—From R. M. Rilke’s letter to Princess Marie von Thurn und Taxis-Hohenlohe, November 17, 1912

 

After Kenneth’s purchase of the Corbin estate, I learned that we could expect a third child in mid-May of 1950. My husband hoped for a boy, but gender did not matter to me. The arrival of a third daughter would not have dampened my jubilation. Whether male or female, the waxing fetus within me accompanied us on our walks over the farm, which were our unborn child’s first stage of “Owenization.” The poet-patriot of Englishness Rudyard Kipling would have called us advocates of “inherited continuity.”1

One November afternoon in 1949, shortly before our return to Houston, I climbed the crest of Indian Mound. Alone on the windswept hill shorn of October’s festive foliage, I remembered my covenant with Abraham, the patriarch of Jews, Muslims, and Christians. Whether my experience the year after my marriage was real or imagined, the indisputable reality of a bleak, turbulent world beyond the safe borders of rural Indiana stared at me accusingly that solitary afternoon. If I had been commanded to find common values between three Abrahamic religions and among compassionate people regardless of their beliefs, then I needed to act as though I had been commanded. But how, I kept asking, would I find an altar or build a place of welcome for all faiths without denying or slighting my well-rooted Episcopal tradition and Jesus, the anointed Christ? The question, overlarge for me, I laid upon my Lord’s ample lap, and I took comfort from knowing that it was seedtime for winter rye in Kenneth’s pastures and seedtime in me.

 

8 Lipchitz

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Here, then, “in the heart of the United States,” Owen proclaimed, “the Power which governs and directs the Universe and every action of man . . . permits me to announce a new empire of peace and goodwill to men.”

—From Robert Owen’s 1825 address to the U.S. Congress, in Frank Podemore’s Robert Owen: A Biography

 

When I at last knocked on his studio door at Twenty-third Street in September 1950, Lipchitz opened it himself, a courtly gentleman despite his working clothes. I felt like a small child in The Nutcracker ballet entering the magical world of the Snow Queen, for he was leading me into the wonderland of an artist’s powerful creation, filmy from the fairy dust of white plaster and dried clay; I have never shaken off that which fell on me.

I proceeded straight to my reason for coming, and we soon reached an agreement about Our Lady, Notre Dame de Liesse.1 He asked me to approve the casting of three identical figures: one for New Harmony and one for himself in addition to the commission for Église Notre-Dame de Toute Grâce du Plateau d’Assy, a Catholic church in the small town of Haute-Savoie, France, known at that time principally for its tuberculosis sanatoriums. Former patients who had been cured wished to help build a church where they could bring their gratitude and prayers that others might be healed, and current patients wanted a place for worship. I mention this because the subsequent and justly deserved fame of the church has sometimes obscured the reason for its existence. We also tend to forget that the star-studded cast of artists—Matisse, Léger, Lurçat, Richier, Vuillard, Rouault, Chagall, and Lipchitz—had not yet been represented in a church. When two remarkably enlightened Dominicans Marie-Alain Couturier and Jean Devémy asked Lipchitz through an emissary in 1946 (during Lipchitz’s return to France) if he would create a Virgin for their baptismal font, he reminded them he was a practicing Jew. According to Lipchitz’s account, they replied with a tolerance not always exhibited by church fathers: “You are the best sculptor for this. If it doesn’t disturb you, it doesn’t bother us.” I had heard of Père Couturier’s ecumenical zeal that included those of the Jewish faith through our mutual friends Jean “John” and Dominique de Menil.

 

9 Enter Paul Tillich

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I must confess that I have not learned from any theological book as much as I learned from these pictures of the great modern artists who broke through into the realm out of which symbols are born. And you cannot understand theology without understanding symbols.

—Paul Tillich, “Existentialist Aspects of Modern Art”

 

Meanwhile, work on the sculptural front progressed: Lipchitz began the enlargement of the small plaster model.1 He permitted me to watch his progress, and I loved observing the sculptor cut away at malleable clay with sure, unhesitating strokes of his scalpel. I also relished the intervals of rest, when he would speak of the artists whom he had known when he lived as a young man in the Montparnasse section of Paris.

Lipchitz brought to life for me the period of artistic creativity between the two world wars. He might just have had an absinthe with Picasso or recently have received visits from Soutine and Modigliani, two of his closest friends, both less worldly than the more successful Spaniard. Lipchitz rarely laughed, but he chuckled when he remembered Soutine’s behavior after making his first sale to the eccentric but highly perceptive art collector Dr. Albert C. Barnes of Philadelphia.

 

10 Polio Epidemic

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The greatest miracle of Lourdes is the look of resignation
on the faces of those who are not healed.

—Fulton Oursler, The Happy Grotto

 

A severe polio epidemic tore into Houston early summer of 1952, and, like a merciless hurricane, it crippled and killed.1 Each of our daughters succumbed, but our eldest daughter Janie, aged nine, was most seriously affected.2 Customarily, once school was out, we left for “up there,” as Janie and Carol, their forefingers pointing north, called New Harmony. This was the year, however, of their first private swimming pool and of relocating from our home on Shadow Lawn Street to a house that Kenneth had purchased in a then-wilderness area of Houston along Buffalo Bayou.3 Our daughters were loath to leave this unexplored wonderland and its nearness to adored cousins Joe and Lee Hudson, whose parents’ house was not far from the oyster-shell road that connected our Pinewold Lane with South Post Oak Lane.

 

11 Sir George MacLeod

ePub

If you think there’s such a beast
as a war horse, walk up to my
Belgian and look straight in
his eyes.

—Susan Wunder, “If You Think”1

 

Since there was no land as yet available for Our Lady and her “Descending Dove of Peace” in New Harmony in 1953, I decided to search elsewhere, as far as our nation’s capital. In Houston I had recently met the Reverend Francis Sayre Jr., dean of Washington National Cathedral. Impressed with his warmth and intelligence, I felt he would understand my views on war and peace. Since he was the grandson of Woodrow Wilson, who had fought for his belief that there would never be another war after establishing the League of Nations, surely Dean Sayre would be my ally in bringing the “Dove of Peace” to Washington. I had even ventured to express to him my conviction that it is powerful men in the capitals of nations who start wars, not men in small country towns. Perhaps Lipchitz’s sculptural ambassadress for peace was needed more in Washington, D.C., than in New Harmony, Indiana.

 

12 Iona

ePub

It is only after a pious journey to a distant region, in a strange land, a new country, that the meaning of the inner voice guiding our search can be revealed to us.

—Heinrich Zimmer, Myths and Symbols in Indian Art and Civilization

 

In midsummer 1955, we sailed out of New York Harbor, landed in England, and from London took a train to Oban, the Scottish port of departure for the Outer Hebrides. Our adventures now began in earnest.

At Oban, we boarded a small but stout boat commonly at the service of travelers bound for the inner and outer Hebridean Islands. They were known as Puffers because of the billowing smoke clouds that issued from their steam-powered engines. The Puffer pushed fearlessly through the rough waters of the Hebridean Sea to the slim island of Mull. Here we transferred to an antiquated bus for the last land leg of our journey on a narrow, uneven road leading to Fionnphort, Mull’s embarkation port for Iona. The faded, frayed velvet seats of our conveyance and the weathered mail pouch our driver tossed out to waiting villagers along the way remain solely in my memory, for like the audacious Puffers, this vintage bus no longer serves passengers.1

 

13 Assy

ePub

Compared with the Sky
I am a little rock
A scrub oak
On the mountain side.

—Chuang Tzu

 

From Scotland we flew to France to visit my sister Titi on the Mediterranean Coast. I had promised my daughters their hearts’ fill of scuba diving and French pastries with cousins Joe and Lee Hudson before making another pilgrimage, this time to Église Notre-Dame de Toute Grâce du Plateau d’Assy in Haute-Savoie.

Angelo del Giudice, our Italian chauffeur and baggage master, prepared to begin our journey north much too soon for Joe Hudson. I can still hear him pleading with his mother before our leave-taking: “Please don’t let them go, Mother; do something!” Angelo was eager to take on our route and equal to the hairpin curves with infrequent guardrails through the mountains. His mutterings brought little comfort. As though to explain the treacherous drive, he declared, “The French don’t value human life.”

Angelo’s jaundiced view of the entire race was evident the night of our first alfresco dinner in a restaurant at the base of Sacré Coeur, the hilltop church with a dome that shone above us like a huge pearl. He had retired, we thought, to a nearby Italian bistro. However, as we were finishing our meal, we noticed a man’s figure behind a well-clipped hedge: “Presente, signora. Do you think I would abandon you to the mercy of French men?” He had never left us.

 

14 Kilbinger House

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For it is a heart silence to which we must attain. . . . But, like those places fathoms deep in the sea which no storms reach, no turmoil disturbs, so the inner chamber of one’s being may be still whatever the outward conditions.

—Lida A. Churchill, The Magic Seven: 7 Steps to Perfect Spiritual Power

 

The first reborn of my adopted family of Harmonist houses was No. V on Steammill Street. Kilbinger House, on the southeast corner of Main and Granary, became my second child and, like its sister, a hungry orphan (25 on town map). An arm could reach through a wide crack in the brick of its west wall. If these bricks could be carefully reknit, the state might be shamed into doing necessary repairs to its building next door, Harmonist Community House No. 2, an approach I called “whitemail,” as it encourages positive action by example rather than coercing by extortion. Missing roof shingles from the Kilbinger house invited rainwater. The house, built in the 1820s, tottered on the brink of the same steep cliff that New Harmony has hovered upon since its inception and from which it has been, so far, consistently and mercifully rescued.

 

15 Poet’s House and Beyond

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That which is most perfect and most individual in each man’s life is precisely the element in it which cannot be reduced to a common formula. It is the element which is nobody else’s but ours and God’s. It is our own, true, uncommunicable life, the life that has been planned for us and realized for us in the bosom of God.

—Thomas Merton, The Sign of Jonas

 

In the summer of 1958 the first Magi to arrive bearing gifts for the Poet’s House, the third of my rescued Harmonist dwellings, were my Irish friend Professor Walter F. Starkie and his lively Italian wife, Ita, who came for a month’s residence (29 on town map). Walter had grown up largely near Dublin because his father had served there as the last resident commissioner of national education for Ireland under British rule at the turn of the century. Walter often stole time from his studies to explore less frequented paths and the brightly colored wagons where Tinkers lived. (Tinker was the Irish name for Gypsy.) He was more attracted to their music, however, than to the pots and pans the Tinkers made and sold for a living. From them he learned how a fiddle could cast a glamour, or spell, upon whatever needed recovery or repair, be it a lost sheep or a broken heart. Romanichals also taught an eager Walter the folk songs of middle Europe while he remained in Italy following World War I. He once made a bet with a former Trinity College classmate that he would be awarded free meals and lodging from Gypsies outside Budapest or Prague once he had played for them the old songs and tunes that he still remembered. Starkie won his wager.

 

16 Violets Down the Lane

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Laetare! Rejoice!

—The incipit of the introit for the Fourth Sunday of Lent, “Mothering Sunday”

 

My month with Janie almost over in March 1957, I booked a return flight to Houston. Taking leave of my daughters, particularly of Janie in New York, always tugged at my heart. The French proverb Partir c’est mourir un peu (to leave is to die a bit) spoke to my condition but did little to improve it. Solace, once again, came from Reverend Mother Ruth. Knowing that I faced another separation, she had asked Sister Élise, a teacher at St. Hilda’s and a tutor “on loan” for Janie, to give me a verse from an old English book of carols to read on the plane. It began: “She who goes amothering shall find violets down the lane.” I hummed this comforting line in the taxi to LaGuardia.

My spirits were lifted again on the plane when I recognized a friend seated across the aisle from me: Jean “John” de Menil, an enormously charming and cultivated Franco-American. He and his brilliant, trailblazing wife, Dominique, were both aware that the casting of the Lipchitz statue intended for New Harmony was still landless and homeless. Disregarding the Madonna’s present poverty, Jean foresaw a turn of her fortunes and suggested that Lipchitz’s Lady would one day require an architect and a dwelling worthy of her status.

 

17 Enter Philip Johnson

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Three slender things that best support the world: the slender stream of milk from the cow’s dug into the pail; the slender blade of green corn upon the ground; the slender thread over the hand of a skilled woman.

The Triads of Ireland

 

In November 1956, the de Menils had asked me to accompany them to the University of St. Thomas for the presentation of Philip Johnson’s plans for additions to Houston’s fledgling Catholic university.1 I had eagerly accepted their invitation in order to make my own assessment of the renowned architect they both admired so fervently. I wondered if out of airy nothingness Philip Johnson could extract a habitation for my homeless advocate for religious tolerance, Descent of the Holy Spirit. My heart was beating fast as I took my front-row seat between Jean and Dominique.

Pencil thin, wearing a close-fitting dark suit, Johnson had approached the lectern with rapid strides and just as quickly drew back from it to address his audience informally. I could now observe the essential lines of his expressive face; they were as if incised on metal rather than as drawn on paper or canvas. Energy sprang from him, as when a tightly coiled wire is suddenly released. The dos and don’ts of his architectural credo followed in rapid succession with precision and wit.

 

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