Perhaps if the inhabitants of Robert Owens’ New Harmony had spent a little more time in the Yellow Tavern, their utopian dreams might not have been such a bust.
The Yellow Tavern has been around as long as New Harmony, Ind., roughly since 1815, though it is only recently that fried brains have been added to the menu and Brooks and Dunn to the jukebox.
The saloon’s first incarnation was on Tavern Street, but that venerable establishment went up in flames in the mid-19th century. A new tavern was hurriedly built at the present location on Church Street, the town’s main drag. In the winter, when we like to visit, the tavern is crowded with mild mannered locals who push two or three tables together and commence to toss back Bud Selects and nosh on the tavern’s justly famous thin crust pizza, or, that southern Indiana favorite, lightly fried beef brains on a bun. During festival weather, New Harmony loses its tranquil atmosphere, which defeats the whole purpose of your visit, but in winter the town is the most peaceful, meditative of places, and you can see why the original settlers picked this location nearly two hundred years ago.
New Harmony was first settled by an odd German religious sect under the leadership of the prophet Johann Georg Rapp. The Harmonists were millennialists who sought an out-of-the-way place to await the End Times. They practiced celibacy and shunned tobacco, but they weren’t expected to be completely miserable. After building shelter and a meeting house, the industrious and ingenious Harmonists set about constructing a brewery, two distilleries, and the Yellow Tavern. According to historian William E. Wilson, “the Harmonist brewery produced five hundred gallons a day,” much of which was barreled and loaded onto flatboats and steamers and sold at ports up and down the river.
When a decade passed and the End Times hadn’t arrived as expected, the Harmonists dispiritedly returned to Pennsylvania, put their Indiana town up for sale, and rethought their belief system, particularly the prohibition on tobacco and sex.
New Harmony was immediately purchased, lock, stock and barrel, by Robert Owen. Owen was a Welsh industrialist and social reformer who’d made a small fortune in the cotton business by adopting the novel idea that mill workers deserved humane treatment. His fortune secure, Owen began dabbling in the dark sciences of socialism. He laid out his principles in his tract New View of Society, ideas which included a “rational deistic religion, modified free love, and abolition of private property.” Dismissed by his critics, Owen set out to put his theories into practice by creating the “world in reverse.” In order to do so he needed to find a place unsullied by the industrial revolution. Such a place was New Harmony. Arriving here in 1825, Owen proclaimed a new dawn in his “Declaration of Mental Independence”:
I now declare to you and to the world, that Man, up to this hour, has been in all parts of the earth, a slave to a Trinity of the most monstrous evils that could be combined to inflict mental and physical evil upon his whole race. I refer to Private or Individual Property, Absurd and Irrational systems of Religion, and Marriage.
Like many social reformers, Owen was a charismatic, eloquent, and driven fellow, but completely lacking in common sense. He convinced some of the finest philosophers, scientists, and intellectuals of the day to join his utopian adventure. But while these men knew their way around libraries and laboratories, they were at a loss when it came time to planting, tilling the soil, harvesting, or any of the other necessary chores of a wilderness community. Almost no one had used a plow before. Roger Sandall notes that by one estimate nine-tenths of the membership was useless. Later, one of the New Harmony participants, Josiah Warren, would blame the failure of the community on the lack of individual sovereignty and private property.
Owen then made yet another boneheaded mistake. He placed restrictions on the brewing and drinking of ale. The one group of Owenites who actually knew how to work a plow — a group of English farmers — immediately broke off relations with the Owenites and formed their own wet community across town.
By 1827, New Harmony’s economy was in ruins, weeds covered the fields, the buildings were in disrepair, and Owen was selling off lots to private individuals and allowing free market reforms. Later that year, he left New Harmony for good.
Today, the good folks of New Harmony are a hardy, pragmatic bunch, farmers and small business owners mostly, and because of that their town has never been more prosperous. It may not be utopia, but as long as there is a Yellow Tavern, it is well worth a visit.