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Exploring the Midwest’s Forgotten Utopian Communes

The American Midwest was once a site of radical experimentation for various communitarian groups. What has become of their legacy?

Orson S. Murray founded Fruit Hills in 1845, near present-day Loveland, inspired by his personally-held principles of atheism, socialist feminism, and economic cooperation. Murray hailed from the radical abolitionist movement, writing in The Struggle of the Hour that slavery “makes men into brutes, driving and being driven, crushing and being crushed.” He railed against church, state, and property as “a trio of monsters” in his newspaper, The Regenerator, and cofounded a group called the Society for Universal Inquiry and Reform. Fruit Hills was one of several efforts by Universal Reformers to translate theory into a practical utopia on the rural American frontier.

Murray once wrote that “Bibles and Constitutions are only the necessities of ignorance—things to be changed—to be outgrown and displaced by better things.” Change seems to have gotten the best of Fruit Hills, however; the commune collapsed within seven years. “All the necessaries of life could be raised in abundance,” wrote one contemporary observer, “but the laborers were mostly unused to agriculture and in many instances lacked industry.” From the vantage of the Meinecke lobby, no definition of success seemed generous enough to encompass the project’s fate.

This story is fairly typical. Inland America is pocked with the unmarked graves of communitarian utopias—primitive socialist and communist experiments—that tried to rebuild the world on what was assumed to be virgin soil. Ephrata, Pennsylvania; Germantown, Tennessee; Utopia, Ohio; Brentwood, New York; Iowa’s Amana Colonies: these and many other towns were originally settled by communalists with lofty visions of abolishing private property, quashing material inequity, and transcending divisive individualism.

It makes sense that those seeking the fringe of a New World might be driven by powerful ideological convictions. But while European settlers dreamed of abolishing old hierarchies in the map’s blank spots, these blanks were always a fantasy. The allure of self-directed freedom in unsullied lands largely folded back into a vanguard of dispossession and genocide, with naïve radicals paving the way for the extension of the very structures they had hoped to escape. Their intentions complicate the mythic image of a land settled by rugged individualists, but their ultimate fates suggest bleak prospects for liberation conceived as escape, rather than transformational conflict.

With my AC in working order, I pressed on from Loveland to survey what remained of the utopians’ dreams.