Best Driving Vacations: The Road to Utopia

With its unique past and an idealistic spirit, New Harmony is a creative, meditative oasis in southwestern Indiana.

Kevin J. Elliott
Harmonist Labyrinth

New Harmony, IN | 341 miles away | 5-hour drive

After a difficult, homebound year, the idea of jumping in the car and taking a journey to the unknown, some unexplored destination, is more appealing than ever. And though traveling through the empty, flat wilds of southern Indiana may not sound like much of a getaway, once you pull into the tiny village of New Harmony, you’ll be drawn to the town’s minimalist charms, modest but pretty houses and utopian past.

The road to the far corner of southwest Indiana, near the Illinois border, is long and seemingly uneventful, but it offers off-the-beaten-path curiosities should you know where to look. While New Harmony itself is not known as a foodie destination (unless of course you’d like to try a pig brain sandwich, which is served with a tasty Harmonie Dark Lager at the Yellow Tavern), you should route yourself to one of the many meccas of the state’s culinary secret dish, namely Southeast Indiana’s home-fried chicken. Cooked in a skillet of lard and flavored heavily with black pepper and salt, the region’s fried chicken can be found in several locations, each with its own homespun character and passed-down family recipes. Popular opinion appears to favor St. Leon Tavern in West Harrison, just past Cincinnati, as king of the coop. Also worth your time: a stop in Brookville to visit the Dairy Cottage, or Oldenburg to bear witness to Wagner’s Village Inn, or Enochsburg to try the Fireside Inn.

From there, head southwest. Sports fans might want to make a detour to French Lick, home of basketball legend Larry Bird, perhaps the most renowned Hoosier. There you can sip on Pluto Water, the mineral-rich natural laxative popular in the early 20th century, at one of the world-famous resorts. Or just grab lunch at 33 Brick Street, where the staff will let you try on Bird’s 1992 Olympic Dream Team jacket and lift one of his NBA MVP trophies in triumph.

Farther west, history buffs can visit the boyhood home of Abraham Lincoln in Lincoln City and pay respects to his mother, Nancy Hanks, who is buried there. Not far from I-65 is the oddly named Santa Claus, Indiana, a town that revels in Christmas year-round, with statues of its namesake, Christmas outlets and the Holiday World theme park. That seasonal attraction also has sections dedicated to Halloween, Thanksgiving and the Fourth of July. Ride the indoor, black-lit Gobbler Getaway roller coaster if you dare.

Five hours after you set out from Columbus, or much longer depending on your meanderings, you’ll arrive in New Harmony, nestled into the banks of the Wabash River. The town offers an abundance of unique and unexpected sites: Make it a priority to see the modernist architecture of the town’s towering Athenaeum and the Roofless Church, a landmark that could double as an abandoned UFO in an empty field. It stands across the street from the Harmonist Granary, a structure that served as the economic catalyst of the settlement a century ago. The flux between old and new is seamless, and in many ways provides equilibrium.

“I felt like my blood pressure had gone down and my pulse had slowed when I first arrived,” says Mary Beth Guard, New Harmony’s official tourism ambassador. “I had never been anywhere that had this kind of tranquility oozing out of it. Everywhere you look is something interesting or beautiful. There’s a different pace of life here. The streets are perfect—there’s not even a pothole in New Harmony. Life is easy.”

Roofless Church

The search for utopia was an endless pursuit for many in 19th-century America. The rise in egalitarianism and religious fanaticism converged with western expansion, and soon any dreamer with a communal spirit and a spot on the map could build utopia from the ground up.

German immigrant George Rapp and his flock of Lutheran separatists—the Harmonists—first arrived in New Harmony in 1814 to build a society fit for when Christ returned to Earth. In the Harmonists’ decade there, they constructed over 180 buildings that reflected their highly industrial vision. They had a brewery, a distillery, textile manufacturing, a school, a store—all in the name of communal grace. When the savior didn’t return by the prophesied date in 1824, and idle hands became their downfall, Rapp sold the town and the Harmonists moved back to Pennsylvania.

Their utopia failed, but they wouldn’t be the only ones to try.

Robert Owen, a wealthy Scottish social reformer with grand visions of a “new moral world,” purchased the readymade town from Rapp with the hope of constructing a massive settlement where a socialist community would thrive. Since he figured he had everything he needed in New Harmony to launch his utopia, he quickly recruited followers to make the arduous pilgrimage from the East Coast. The “Boatload of Knowledge,” as his vessel was called, carried artists, educators, naturalists and philosophers eager to begin the noble experiment, including the father of American entomology, Thomas Say, and noted publisher and abolitionist Frances Wright. The enlightened ideals of his utopia were set in motion, but by the time Owen returned from a trip back to Europe in 1826, the dream had ended before it even started.

“There was a real struggle,” says Linda Warrum. “These people who came with Owen with the knowledge were sitting around wondering who would plow the fields. There wasn’t enough of a diversified group. To have a utopian society, you have to have all of your bases covered, and there were just not enough people doing the actual work you need to function.”

When you visit New Harmony, you’d be remiss to pass up chatting with Warrum, who is regarded as the town’s preeminent historical interpreter. For 20 years now, she’s been taking tourists through town on a golf cart junket every day at noon. Her outing is indispensable. Not only does it highlight many of the 25 remaining structures built by the original Harmonists, she goes into great detail about the Owenites, who, despite their failure, actually made New Harmony the “Athens of the Frontier.” Stopping during her tour at the Oculus, a giant camera obscura built by Indiana University students inside a threadbare Harmonist cabin, one can easily grasp why this is a perfect example of utopian threads woven through generations.

But the first thing you’ll want to see upon arrival on a spring or summer day is the immaculate Harmonist Labyrinth, a mammoth hedge maze designed and planted by the town’s founders in 1814 as a place for inward contemplation. If those early citizens had a problem, it’s there they would reflect on solutions. Take an hour or so to put away your screens and walk its winding path to center yourself at the start of your visit.

Harmonist cabins

“Life is so busy these days that people don’t take time to do that,” says Guard. Her many tips for visiting the town often come back to just changing your pace when you explore. The good news: New Harmony is entirely walkable. You may even get to use a local’s golf cart should you pick the right Airbnb.

At the Workingman’s Institute, a massive brick building at the center of town where Warrum works on Tuesdays, you’ll find collections of insects, shells and rocks, evidence that William McClure, Owen’s benefactor, intended for New Harmony to rise as some kind of scientific Eden. It was there that he introduced laborers to the muses, education and technical training, but also encouraged outside thinkers to come and use the village as a natural laboratory. Warrum insists there is no other Workingman’s Institute in the country. In many ways, it became a practical manifestation of the high-minded, elusive paradise and has helped keep the town alive.

When you come to New Harmony in 2021, you’ll find not much has changed since the days of Owen. Sure, you can now get coffee in the Twin Peaks-inspired Black Lodge or take a cooking class at the newly minted Capers Emporium co-op, but you can still roam the streets undisturbed and literally stop and smell the flowers. You should smell the peonies in particular because they have continued New Harmony’s unique development and freewheeling spirit.

Jane Owen arrived after marrying into the remaining Owen family in 1941. After learning of the town’s history, she started Fragrant Farms, a successful peony field to the south, and as a preservationist and philanthropist she became the champion for New Harmony’s rebirth. She’s responsible for the aforementioned Athenaeum and the Roofless Church, institutions that have attracted utopian-minded artists and thinkers ever since. Both stand as striking modernist structures in contrast to the simple homes and cabins of the town’s pioneer past. Designed and built in 1979 by famed architect Robert Meier, the Athenaeum serves as the tourist hub, with a small history museum and a path that leads to an observation deck overlooking the river and town. The Roofless Church, completed in 1960 by Phillip Johnson, welcomes the faithful from all denominations.

Jane Owen also helped create the Cathedral Labyrinth, an inlaid stone maze that mirrors the original Harmonists’ zeal for meditation. In fact, you’ll notice the labyrinth design in just about every corner of town, as it’s become the ubiquitous symbol of New Harmony.

Cathedral Labyrinth

It seems all but inevitable that there will soon be a statue of the late Owen overlooking the antique shops and tiny art galleries of downtown. She has, after all, helped to maintain the utopian spirit. While the bulk of the town’s early idealism was discarded when those visions proved to be folly, New Harmony has survived by knowing its past and projecting that into its future. On the lawn of the Athenaeum there’s a grafted Tree of 40 Fruits, one of several such creations nationwide, designed by a Syracuse University professor. They’re equal parts art and agriculture, emblematic of where the prospect of enlightened thinking can take us.

On the way home, it’s easy to head northeast and take I-70 back to Columbus. If you’re feeling adventurous you can visit the sites of Bloomington, a slightly larger bohemian enclave of Indiana, with breweries, excellent eateries and the Slocum Mechanical Puzzle Collection at Indiana University. You could also shoot hoops at the gym where the movie “Hoosiers” was filmed in Knightstown, and for that matter, you may as well visit the Indiana Basketball Hall of Fame in New Castle.

Gennett Records Walk of Fame

But the best stop is the Gennett Records Walk of Fame in Richmond. Once a hub of piano manufacturing, the site was eventually an epicenter of analog recording in the early part of the 20th century, making records for Louis Armstrong, Duke Ellington and Jelly Roll Morton. The piano factory and studio are gone, but the walk along the Whitewater River is embedded with tributes to many artists who got their start there. It’s also a good place to contemplate the journey throughout Indiana and the exploration of New Harmony. Though we may never find utopia, it’s satisfying to know you can jump in your car and get close.

Where to Stay

You won’t find any hotel chains within several miles of New Harmony—the closest metro area is Evansville, about 30 minutes east of the village. Though the New Harmony Inn and Conference Center, adjacent to the quaint Red Geranium Restaurant, is your safest bet, there are several bed-and-breakfasts and guest houses that truly make you feel like a local.

A.C. Thomas House B&B

Cook’s on Brewery B&B

Granary Street Guest House

Leather Leaf Inn B&B

Ludwig Epple Guest House

The Old Rooming House

Magic in the Woods

The entirety of New Harmony’s attractions can be done in a day, but that ignores the natural wonder surrounding the town that drew the original settlers. Mary Beth Guard enthusiastically suggests the “magical experience” that is the Firefly Theater in the spring and summer. Tucked away in the nearby woods, it becomes a glowing field once the titular insects illuminate the expanse all the way up to the 50-foot trees. The locals swear they react best to the sound of Pink Floyd’s “Breathe.”

You can camp in the village’s Murphy Park, but nearby Harmonie State Park is one of the finest sites in all of Indiana and allows easy access to canoeing and kayaking on the Wabash. New Harmony is also close to Bull Island, the weird wasteland on an Illinois peninsula that was home to the disastrous Erie Canal Pop Festival in 1972, infamous as the Fyre Festival of its day.

Kevin J. Elliott is a high school English teacher and travel writer. When he’s not exploring odd locations, graveyards and historical sites, he enjoys hiking, subversive books and pinball.