Friday, October 01, 2010

Voyage to Icaria

The refectory, located on the Icarian Village site northeast of Corning, served as a farmhouse for nearly a century before it was moved here and extensively restored.

Drive west toward Corning on U.S. Highway 34 in southwest Iowa and glance to the north and west about three miles east of town. A long two-story frame building rises alone in the distance a mile and a half or so from the highway, prairie sloop anchored in a sea of corn and soybeans.

This is a remnant of the final colony of Etienne Cabet’s Icaria, a French Utopian dream actualized in Adams County during the latter half of the 19th century.

Iowa’s fertile soil welcomed other utopians, most notably the German Pietist Community of True Inspiration brought to the Iowa River valley by Christian Metz in 1855. The communial way of life endured in the Amana colonies until the 1930s --- and continues non-communially as a popular tourist attraction and in the Amana Church.

There also was Abner Keeland’s short-lived free-thinking but non-communal Salubria near Van Buren County’s Farmington, which I’ve written about previously.

Although purely communal, Icaria differed from both because it was neither specifically religious nor anti-religious. The man who dreamed Icaria brought us the word “communism” in its original benign sense. It was the same philosophy expressed religiously in the Amanas.

Like the other utopian dreams, Icaria has vanished as a way of life, doomed before the turn of the 20th century by financial difficulties, internal discord and changing times.


Keep driving west toward Corning. An historical marker containing information about Icaria is located at the highway’s intersection with a gravel road. Turn north on gravel at the marker then right (east) at the first crossroads (a small “Icaria” pointer sign is nailed to a fence post here), then north again on a narrow drive through the fields to the Icaria site, 33 acres of original Icarian land that includes the community’s cemetery, two surviving Icarian buildings moved to the site and a grand view of prairie, sky and the long descent down a swale to the Nodaway River valley.

The 1860 Icaria school is the only other building currently at the the village site northeast of Corning.

We approached from the other direction late Tuesday afternoon, driving home from Walnut, and had the place to ourselves --- well maintained but somewhat overgrown as Iowa tends to be in the fall. Tomatoes and other vegetables ripened in two small garden plots; plantings of lilac and iris (introduced to southwest Iowa by the Icarians) were nearing the end of this season’s growth. Silence all around.


Born during 1788 in Dijon, Etienne Cabet became a bitter critic of the French government and in 1834, accused of treason, fled to England.

While there he wrote a novel, published in 1840, entitled “Voyage et adventures de lord William Carisdell en Icare,” envisioning an ideal life in an imaginary country called Icaria in which an elected government controlled all economic activity and supervised social affairs. Only the family remained as an independent unit.

Returning to France in 1839, Cabet became the principal advocate of a communitarian social movement he called communisme, inspiring both Marx and Engels as well as other socialist thinkers, many of whom eliminiated the Christian influence in Cabet’s philosophy. His novel proved widely popular in France and followers in both the middle and pleasant classes were drawn to him.

When it became evident that he could not reform French society, Cabet led his followers to the United States, beginning in 1848, to establish Icaria here.

Self-governed democratically, the Icarian colonies that followed owned all property other than personal items collectively with necessities distributed as needed. There was considerable emphasis on education and culture --- arts and music. But communal life was the centerpiece.

Initial attempts to found colonies in Texas and Louisiana failed, but in the late 1840s, Cabet heard of the Illinois city of Nauvoo, along the Mississippi, from which the Mormons had been driven a few years earlier. After acquiring much of the site, Nauvoo became the location of the first permanent Icarian colony.

In 1852, the Icarians began to acquire thousands of acres of land northeast of what now is Corning and established a satellite colony there.

The utopian dream foundered on dissent in Nauvoo during the mid-1850s. In 1856, Cabet and allied followers removed to St. Louis, where he died a few days after arrival during November. He was buried first in a pioneer cemetery there demolished at the turn of the 20th century. His remains were reburied during November of 1906 in St. Marcus Cemetery.

The Nauvoo colony collapsed in bankruptcy in 1860 and many of the colonists then moved west to join their friends in Adams County.

Throughout the Civil war and for several years after, the Iowa colony flourished, replacing log buildings with frame.

But history repeated itself in the late 1870s and the Adams County colony divided. The 30-by-50-foot refectory now at the Icarian site was built in 1879 to serve the final incarnation of Icaria. Houses and other buildings were relocated nearby following division of the old colony’s property. The refectory contained a dining hall and kitchen on the first floor and a 1,000-volume library and print shop on the second, all above a full basement for the storage of food and wine.

In 1898, the course having been run, this new Icarian colony disbanded voluntarily, assets were divided and remaining colonists dispersed. As the years passed, so too did the collective Icarian memory. The fine library, once southwest Iowa’s largest, went first to nearby Tabor College and then, when Tabor closed, in large part to the University of Nebraska at Omaha where several hundred volumes remain.

Only three stones remain in the Icarian cemetery, but the names of all known to be buried there are inscribed on a bronze plaque mounted on a boulder in the cemetery.

The Icarian Village site near Corning is owned and has been developed by the French Icarian Village Foundation, built on the dream of recreating the village and operating it as an interpretive cultural and historical center. Amazing things have been accomplished. A site surrounding the colony cemetery was purchased and the cemetery restored. The refectory, which had served for a century as a farm house, was acquired, moved to the site and also restored. The 1860 Icarian school building has been relocated to the site as well.

Because of the impromptu late-afternoon nature of our visit, we were unable to find anyone directly involved to visit with Tuesday, so it isn’t clear to me exactly where that dream stands right now, but the Foundation’s Web site is here. Whatever the case, it is a wonderful dream, right up there on a smaller and more localized scale with that of the original dreamer, Etienne Cabet.

1 comment:

Bill said...

This is fascinating stuff. I live in St. Louis, so I'm busy looking up the experiences for the Icarian colony here in place called Cheltenham.

Bill Thomas