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The Lost Utopian Communes of the Midwest

MY AC WENT OUT in the middle of July in Loveland, Ohio. Luckily, the local Meineke was having a slow day.

I initially assumed my accumulator was leaking—a quick fix—but the mechanic unraveled a string of successive problems, each concealing the next. Behind a scrapped compressor was a broken high-pressure cut-off switch, and then a faulty pigtail. Each part took hours to arrive and only delivered knowledge of what we needed to wait for next.

Outside the Meinecke lobby window, four lanes of highway bisected a familiar sprawl: Menards, Office Depot, Dunkin’ Donuts, O’Reilly Auto Parts, Chase Bank. Suburban Cincinnati’s commercial jungle would never let on that the land beneath it had once supported an anarchist commune.

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.

Read entire article at The Baffler