My friend moved from Terre Haute to New Harmony. “Good move,” I thought partly because I have always loved New Harmony, the site of an early experiment in communal living in the United States and partly because she found a good deal on an old drive-in restaurant which she converted into an art studio and living space. I decided to spend a couple of days visiting her and other friends in the toe of the state. It was only a four-hour drive from Indianapolis but seemed like a trip back through several decades of time.
We had dinner at the New Harmony Inn, beer from a local brewery, cheeseburgers and fries and checked out the Hoosier Salon artists in a main-street gallery. If the inn and its menu seemed time capsuled, we stepped back a few more years when we headed for the big event in town that night, a Hank Williams concert. In reality, it was a concert by the group HankeringforHank, a Hank impersonator who asked if anyone had heard Tony Bennett sing, “Your Cheating Heart” on the radio lately. A couple of jokes about the red G-string on the bass and going to the topless church down the street, seemed right on key, and everyone joined in for some heartfelt gospel singing at the end. We left longing for the “good ole days” before television and rap… but the Rappites might have disagreed. Like, “we dig socialism, but don’t you know man, we can’t agree on nothin’ so let’s just jam.”
New Harmony was founded in 1814 by the German religious group known as the Harmonists or the Rappites. When the Harmonists decided to move back to Pennsylvania, it was sold to Robert Owen, the Welsh utopian thinker and social reformer and William McClure. Owen recruited members to the community, but a number of factors led to an early breakup of the commutarian experience. It is easy to understand both his idealistic approach and the reason for its demise. As he himself admitted, “… It appeared that it was nature’s own inherent law of diversity that had conquered us… our ‘united interests’ were directly at war with the individualities of persons and circumstances and the instinct of self-preservation… and it was evident that just in proportion to the contact of persons or interests, so are concessions and compromises indispensable.” (Periodical Letter II 1856)
The community then became a scientific (entomology and geology) and religious center which it has remained to this day. It has a little over nine hundred residents and many of the old Harmonist buildings still stand and have been restored. Paul Tillich, the renowned theologian and religious theorist, is buried across from the roofless church, open to God and the universe. His words, “Man and nature belong together in their created glory – in their tragedy and in their salvation” still ring true today. The maze remains to encourage contemplation, and gardens, and art galleries enhance the town’s beauty. The search for knowledge is well served by The Working Men’s Institute, established in 1838, by William Maclure. It is the oldest continuously operating library in the state of Indiana and also houses a small museum.
I wanted to experience time travel on this trip and also try to “Keep on the Sunny Side”. Hank may have enjoyed this song sung by his contemporary musicians, the Carter Family. I must admit that even this experience had a downside as my friend had a raging tooth ache, and it was about 98 degrees on the “sunny side” of the street. We enjoyed our visit anyway, and after admiring all of her beautiful paintings, I set out enthusiastically the next morning to see the rest of the toe.
As I headed out of town I was soon humming Joni Mitchell’s Chelsea Morning as the sun was coming down like butterscotch in southern Indiana in summer, and the humidity added to the sticky metaphor. As I sped through the green countryside, a beautiful yellow swallowtail butterfly flew in front of my car. Unfortunately it hit my windshield and lay flapping in the road behind me. Everything else seemed cheery. My friend seemed centered and settled in her new studio, and I was headed toward Santa Claus, Indiana to celebrate Christmas in July. I planned to visit my daughter’s mother-in-law. This lady had been a successful business woman who decided to buy several acres of wooded land outside Santa Claus and live there with her three sons and their families.
She was no doubt familiar with New Harmony, but maybe not its demise. The sons did not agree with their mother or the wives with their husbands and moved away. After all, if the Rappites and the Owens couldn’t do it, how could they. I headed down highway 165 not knowing for sure where her farm was located and reluctant to ask my daughter who preferred separation of her relatives and wisely so. Blue cornflowers, purple cow weed, and white Queen Ann’s lace adorned the sides of the highways. Violet thistle and yellow goldenrod fringed the edges of the green quilted fields. I was mesmerized by the passing landscape and unable to slow my momentum through the honeyed morning even to stop for blackberries, corn, squash and melons advertised on a handmade sign.
My mood was broken by a more ominous sign that read, “Prepare to Stop.” A few miles down the road I saw the reason for the sign, a monstrous structure towering above the park, it’s top lost in the stratosphere. I was approaching Holiday World, and this was the world’s longest water coaster. I knew because my seven-year-old grandson had recently informed me with the greatest authority that he had been on it. I was horrified and asked how this could have occurred. Apparently, the last time he had been to the doctor to be measured he was forty-eight inches tall. Upon hearing this much-anticipated fact, he whipped out an advertising brochure and informed the doctor that he was now tall enough to ride the water slide at Holiday World.
I stopped at a filling station for a soft drink or a pop as they are called here. It is not my drink of choice, but somehow looked irresistible when imbibed by a jolly rosy-cheeked Santa Claus. I tried to figure out how to get to my daughter’s mother-in-law’s farm using the map. I didn’t really believe that I could find it, and eventually had to give up and call my daughter. After several tries on my cell phone which was rapidly losing power, I heard her voice demanding, “Do you have an emergency or something?” Well it seemed so to me as I was starving, my phone was dying and I was driving around in 98 degree heat in another era, so I screamed, “Yes!”. She told me she couldn’t remember how to get to the property, but she did remember a county road and some Wapati elk and buffalo across the street. This seemed like valuable information to me in my pathetic state and recalling another 60’s classic by Janis Joplin, I decided to “try just a little bit harder.”
Her directions proved helpful, and I was soon seated in an air-conditioned house with a glass of lemonade, hearing a tearful Donna describe how her beloved dog had died of the heat on the way to the vet the day before. I was deciding if the lemonade and air-conditioning balanced out this new tragedy when I was hit with another one. My grandson had fallen in the pond while fishing from the dock during his last visit and had been covered with pond slime. The next topic of conversation was about the coyotes on her property who frequently send the female coyote out to attract the cute little male house dogs, and then the male coyotes pounce on the dogs. Wiley Coyote is alive and well in Santa Clause land. As I headed out of town a giant Santa Claus beamed at me from one side of the highway while a small madonna smiled benevolently from the other.
My next stop was Adyeville, once a thriving town which used its nearby creek to ship cattle out of the countryside and down to the Ohio River. It now consists of two houses and an old store which another friend of mine calls home. He was retired from teaching sociology, and we enjoy discussing politics and philosophy. He wasn’t home so I discussed politics and water quality in the area with his donkey, Third and patted his dog, Second. Third was concerned about the state of the environment but Second was only concerned about enjoying long walks in the countryside. I think my friend was First but I am not sure as Second or Third might have been first. Third often came into the store/house uninvited. Abbot and Costello of “who’s on first fame” were also contemporaries of Hank.
Then I travelled up the highway to French Lick, Indiana’s Historic Playground. On the way I say a sign that said, “Eat here! Get gas and worms too. Beer(deer) hunters welcome.” Wow, what a place! I was becoming elated again until I saw a dead deer on the roadside which brought me back to roadkill reality. A sign for tomatoes and one for web design juxtaposed the old German agri-culture and the modern American cyber-culture on the side of the country road. But entrepreneurship was alive and well! And corn was everywhere, in small gardens, in yards, in giant fields by the roadside and next to the roofless church in New Harmony where it was framed by the stone church windows like a goddess in a shrine. Iowa may produce the most corn in the country but Indiana has Orville Reddenbacher of popcorn fame and the motto, “There’s more than corn in Indiana.”
Patoka Lake, in the state park of the same name, where I had spent many happy hours camping with my family, came into view. I’m sure the original native American inhabitants of the land enjoyed this area as well. Its Indian name means “log on bottom.” Its surface area is 8,000 acres, it has many campgrounds and hosts many sports related activities. It is also home to many varieties of birds, fish, animals, and insects. I had once camped there during a year of the cicadas or seven-year locusts. The roar from the woods sounded like a massive factory working the night shift, but was just a huge choir of cicadas that had been waiting for seven years to sing
When I arrived in French Lick, the first thing I saw was the French Lick Hotel and new casino surrounded by a moat of water. This is the only way it could have existed in this mostly landlocked state, with only a small shoreline at the point of Lake Michigan at the north and the Ohio River at the south. The state has a split personality when it comes to casinos which, by law, must be on a river or lake if they really have to be here at all. They are the work of the devil, but so is Pluto water which has been in French Lick from the beginning. So here it was with its moat, surrounded by little white frame churches with disapproving faces. They would rather have used the water for holier purposes.
The Pluto Water factory sold the mineral water in bottles with a picture of the devil on it that supposedly cured all ills, except maybe gambling. Al Capone traveled here by train from Chicago in the 30’s and wealthy families came from Europe to take the water. The West Baden hotel right next door had the largest free spanning dome in the world for many years and was billed as the Carlsbad of America. Visitors from around the world still come to French Lick now that the West Baden Hotel has been restored and is part of the French Lick Resort Casino Complex, a giant undertaking, but worth it to keep this unusual town on the map. The gilded hotel roof gleamed in the afternoon sun like a veritable Pleasure Dome whose outside is the opposite of topless, but inside, who knows.