PHOTOS & STORY BY JD DOTSON
Late last fall, my husband and I hopped into the car and headed west. Destination: The southwest corner of Indiana and the former utopian society of New Harmony.
Settled in the early 1800s by the Harmony Society – a communal religious group – under the leadership of George Rapp, the wilderness on the edge of the Wabash River was a perfectly isolated spot to await the second coming. Less than a decade after building the town, the Rappites returned to Pennsylvania and sold the town to industrialist and social reformer Robert Owen, who envisioned a new moral world of “happiness, enlightenment and prosperity through education, science, technology and communal living.”
Renamed New Harmony, the experiment quickly failed for a variety of reasons but has become a center of national significance due to the early introduction of a group of artists, educators and scientists that arrived on a flatboat named the “Philanthropist” or the “Boatload of Knowledge.” New Harmony’s unique beginnings and rich history are well documented at the Atheneum, the starting place for our adventure and the official visitor center of New Harmony.
Driving into the town, one of the first things we noticed was the presence of golf carts zipping through the streets. We asked one of the drivers and were directed a few blocks down “to a building that looks like it doesn’t belong.” The stark white and super modern Atheneum sits just on the edge of the quaint town near the Wabash River. Designed by Richard Meier, the model and drawings of the building now reside in the New York Museum of Modern Art and have won numerous design awards. The Atheneum is where you can watch a film about the history of the town, schedule tours, pop into the gift shop for a postcard (which they will mail for you!) and rent golf carts, too. For such a small town, big adventures await you. There are so many things to see and do. Here are a few of the ones we enjoyed:
We met a couple of friends in town at Sara’s Harmony Way for a quick cup of coffee to take on our cart excursion. Set right on the corner, Sara’s is much more than a coffee shop. The space is a full-service restaurant-coffee shop on one side and a wine ’n‘ craft beer bar on the other. The coffee was a perfect start to the day and kept our hands warm scooting around town on the golf cart.
New Harmony’s downtown boasts numerous antique stores, gift shops and art galleries. The New Harmony Gallery of Contemporary Art was split into two sides. The first was a showcase of contemporary and craft artisans from Midwestern artists. The space is full of art, sculpture, prints, blown glass, jewelry and craft. It was the perfect spot to affordably buy a thoughtful handmade gift or make a purchase for your personal art collection. We walked to the other side of the gallery and into a unique, beautiful installation in the large open space. The installation was called Nature Morte and housed a massive collection of nature specimens and archival photographs that tell the story of the town through the carefully-catalogued creatures that inhabited it.
Next door, the Mason-Nordgauer Fine Arts Gallery had such a unique and impressive collection of post war/contemporary art from all over the world. The gallery showcases collector pieces from huge names like Roy Lichtenstein, Marc Chagall and Diana Kahlo to cutting-edge contemporary artists from New Harmony to Louisville and beyond. The gallery has put huge QR codes on the walls next to the works of art allowing patrons to scan with the camera on their phones and automatically link to information about the artist. It made the exhibit interactive and an amazing way to connect with the art.
We couldn’t resist a stop in the New Harmony Soap Company, the smells spilling out onto the sidewalk drew us in. The soap makers create natural plant and herb-based soaps, lotions, men’s grooming gear, pet shampoo and all kind of balms and ointments. The store is packed with smells and accessories. Our olfactory senses were in overdrive. We sniffed our way around the entire store and brought home a favorite scented patchouli bar.
New Harmony’s beginnings as a spiritual sanctuary are evident in the labyrinths and sacred gardens of the town. The Cathedral Labyrinth sits near the Atheneum and is a beautiful, peaceful garden with benches and a water fountain surrounding the stone labyrinth. The pattern replicates the original Chartres Cathedral Labyrinth near Paris and was completed in 1997.
There is no right or wrong way to walk a labyrinth, you are the navigator, you choose your own path, but some suggestions are to use quiet voices in the space. The labyrinth is a place to reflect, find serenity, count your blessings and find peace in yourself.
Lauren Artress, Episcopal priest and author, describes labyrinths as:
Paths of prayer
A walking meditation
A crucible of change
A watering hole for the spirit
And a mirror for the soul
Jon and I walked the labyrinth in silence, grateful for all the opportunities and love we have in our lives.
We quietly made our way back to our golf cart and headed to the Harmonist Labyrinth on the south side of town. Constructed in 1939 and restored in 2008, the labyrinth is made up of nearly 5-feet tall hedges winding to the stone grotto in the center. Its massive size would ideally make for a long meditative journey. Unfortunately, there were kids doing what any kid would do when set to run free in a “maze,” and we found ourselves in the midst of a giant game of tag. Mom and dad missed a teachable moment and maybe some peace and quiet as both took the opportunity to make phone calls and, presumably, update their Facebook statuses while walking in opposite directions as their kids. It was unfortunate for all of us, and we couldn’t figure out how they missed the giant park and playground across the street. Luckily, the labyrinth was outfitted with gates making access to the exit closer than winding our way back out.
We returned our golf cart and with some time to kill before dinner, we made our way to Harmonie State Park just outside of town. We enjoyed a colorful drive through the park to the edge of the Wabash River. The leaves were at the height of their splendor, and the secluded woods and rushing water gave us the meditative peace we missed on our last stop. The signs at the campgrounds claimed they were full, yet we saw not a soul and fully enjoyed the beauty of our surroundings. We hiked along the banks of the river until the sound of the trees rustling and water rushing were drowned out by our bellies grumbling and made our way back to the car to set out in search of dinner.
We stopped at MaryScott’s Kitchen for dinner. The restaurant provided not only sustenance for our bodies but an overall experience. Everything on MaryScott’s menu is made to order, fresh and locally sourced when possible. There is no freezer or microwave, and the food is prepared by scratch, which diners can watch as they sit. The restaurant was warm and inviting, romantic and colorful. Each table was hand painted, ours with a fleur de lis, and the walls were adorned with vibrant paintings by regional artist Homer Duke. Jonny had perfectly seasoned and cooked salmon; I had the Bolognese. As usual, we retained our status as masters in the clean plate club and finished off every delicious bite.
We made our way out of New Harmony just as the sun was setting and marveled at how much we still wanted to see. Jane Blaffer Owen, wife of a descendent of Robert Owen and philanthropist responsible for much of its preservation, said this of the town, “My greatest hope for New Harmony is that this be a place of healing and reconciliation. … This is not to say there won’t be conflict, because there will always be conflict and difference of opinion, but we must use tools to resolve conflicts, so that there is no violence.” New Harmony offers that and much more.
IF YOU GO
Heading to historic New Harmony? Be sure to put these stops on your itinerary.
401 N. Arthur St.
SARA’S HARMONY WAY
500 Church St.
NEW HARMONY GALLERY OF CONTEMPORARY ART
506 Main St.
MASON-NORDGAUER FINE ARTS GALLERY
510 Main St.
NEW HARMONY SOAP COMPANY
512 Main St.
301 North Street
1239 Main St.
HARMONIE STATE PARK
3451 Harmonie State Park Road
MARY SCOTT’S KITCHEN
518 Main St.